In his fifty-seven years, Prince mastered the art of control—not
merely the show of self-possession but the daily practice of it. The
gravitational pull of racial, sexual, spiritual systems did not appear
to act on him. In 1981, the questions he posed in “Controversy”—was he
black or white, gay or straight, religious or godlike?—were answered in
his right to ask them in the first place, his right to be everything. He
was a producer, writer, vocalist, bassist, water drummer, cymbalist,
hand-clapper, finger-snapper, rustler of wind chimes. It was by
something like magic that he was able to stamp “Slave” on his cheek, to
change his mononym to a then-unprintable glyph (both acts in protest of
Warner Brothers’ legal exertions), and still to broadcast, for the
ages, a spectacle of freedom. Not even the presence of his orthopedic
cane, in his last two decades, could persuade us that the congenital
heel-wearer, who, onstage, had divided his small body into splits with
such animal grace, was aging painfully. We knew only what Prince wanted
us to know. In the year and a half since he collapsed in an elevator at
Paisley Park, his Minnesota compound, his well-guarded myth has become
vulnerable to the influence of others. A will has yet to be recovered;
Warner Brothers and other entities threaten to organize the contents of
his vault into albums; his estate follows through with distribution
deals that run counter to his artistic wishes; and his Minnesota refuge
has been opened to the public, like some latter-day Graceland.

All this means that one is predisposed to side-eye any production
released since his death. But the photographer Afshin Shahidi’s new
book, “Prince: A Private
conveys both doting reverence and, in its glossiness and sheer heft
(more than two hundred and fifty photographs, about half of them
previously unpublished), definitive authority. Its short foreword is
written by Beyoncé, who learned from Prince the knack of both
withholding and dramatizing the facts of one’s private life. (It was
Prince, she writes, who made her “curious about the world behind the
stage, the business of show.”) In amiable, earnest captions and
anecdotes, Shahidi conveys the confidence that Prince had in his
vision—or, more precisely, the way in which Prince sought to use the
photographer as an instrument to produce a fantastical, private theatre
of himself. This kind of private view does not involve an off-duty
Prince, lounging in impossibly light silk pajamas, as one might imagine.
Instead, whether after a show, on a plane, in a rehearsal, or in the
early hours, Prince is always performing, always on. On the book’s
cover, he appears to emerge out of some long, gray void, smiling
slightly, his white hat dramatically tilted. It turns out that the
backdrop was just the empty sound-equipment trailer from the
Musicology tour. Prince had the power to do that, to make the ordinary
aesthetically lush.

Shahidi casts himself as more the medium than the artist. “Prince’s
voice was in my head,” he writes of selecting the images that would make
up the collection. The photographer, who was born in Iran and immigrated
to Minnesota when he was eight, began working with Prince’s camp in 1993, at
twenty-three. In his introduction, he tells us of the moment when he
first met the musician, at Paisley Park, where he was brought on to load
film. (“He looked at me with a smirk and asked, ‘What’s your name?’ ”)
Gradually, Shahidi picked up more consequential work. One day, Prince
demanded that he see the crew member’s portfolio. Shahidi stayed up all
night, cobbling together a package made mostly of portraits of his wife.
Prince “thumbed through it quickly, made a few faces, handed it back,
and walked away.” By 2002, the year of the One Nite Alone tour, Shahidi
had officially become Prince’s personal photographer, shadowing him on
tours and at Paisley Park; he was the only person allowed to document
Prince’s legendary parties at 3121, his winter Los Angeles mansion.

“A Private View” follows a critical period in Prince’s style agenda. By
the early two-thousands, Prince’s skin-bearing early dress had changed
to a more intellectual kind of drag. He exaggerated male uniforms so
that they seemed delicate: suits with flared pants, jewels as buttons,
baroque jackets that flaunted his chest like décolletage. In one
image—taken, we learn, on his way to a rehearsal for the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame induction ceremony, in New York City, in 2004—Prince
ambulates like a supermodel, his hips jutting out of his tight,
pale-yellow bottoms. Like Prince’s clothes, the photographs evoke a
timeless and sexy parallel world of his own invention and inner desires.
According to Shahidi, the call to shoot could come from a producer, or
from Prince himself, at any time of day or night. Shahidi would then
travel to wherever Prince was. One photo, taken at four in the morning
at the Palace Hotel in New York City, in 2006, features Prince closeup, his
kohl-lined eyes gazing at Shahidi’s lens, his face sharply manicured,
transmitting miraculously little emotional information. Looking at it,
one is reminded of the strange gifts of the frequently photographed,
their ability to exact control of every muscle. This is how Prince
wanted to look, just before sunrise.

Shahidi, who is also a cinematographer, and Prince, whose eighties film
trilogy can be understood as an extravagant, fictive autobiography,
shared a playful cinephilia. Many of Shahidi’s wider shots look like
movie stills; in one, taken in 2009, Prince stands in a cavernous hall
in Paisley Park, his tunic matching the earthen color of the walls. A
gorgeous guitar leans against him, half his height. In another, Prince,
sitting in a limousine, answers a call, his eyes turned upward, his
red-suited wrist flopping expectantly. Without Shahidi’s captions
informing us that the call was invented, one would assume that the photo
was an elegant candid.

Speculating about the nature of this subtle role-play is part of the
book’s fun. If Shahidi asked Prince to lounge on a gray couch,
pretending that he was waiting for a call from a lover, he would plunge
in the role, caress the phone, and stare out the window. Just as easily,
Prince might play the clown, sucking in his cheeks while he fondled a
glittering sculpture of a fish. When Shahidi asked Prince to cover his
mouth with his leopard-print bandana because “it made him look like a
gangster of love”—Prince would laugh, secure the cloth, and then give it
to him. Once, Shahidi caught Prince walking around Maui after a show.
Shahidi took a picture of him in profile as he looked at items in a
store. “He seemed intrigued by the fact that he could have control over
these voyeuristic shots of him,” Shahidi writes. When Prince asked
Shahidi to take his passport photos, Shahidi had to explain patiently
that the format came with certain requirements. (The outtakes Shahidi
printed show Prince doing his look.)

Our personal Instagrams are reminders that, left to our own devices, we
tend to record our lives with an eye to fantasy, rather than straight
documentary. Prince was better at presenting his ideal image than most.
Tellingly, the portraits over which Prince exerted the least
control—those in which he is busy performing—are the least compelling
and mysterious of the book. In an image taken in Marrakesh in 2005, Shahidi,
for a while the only photographer allowed onstage with Prince, catches
the musician as he extracts some heavenly note from his guitar, his
entire body bent in ecstasy. (The same formation appears in at least
twenty images from photo shoots.) During the Musicology tour, Shahidi
used remote cameras to “try to catch Prince flying.” The shots show
Prince sweating, his lips slackened by his body’s velocity, his eyes
soulfully closed. Until the end, Prince could lose himself in his work.
But those moments when he was acting also contain their truths.