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January 30, 2024

The Story Behind Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” Album Cover, 1987

Sign o’ the Times is the ninth studio album by Prince. It was first released on March 30, 1987, as a double album by Paisley Park Records and Warner Bros. Records. The cover of the album was shot by photographer Jeff Katz, who also served as Prince’s photographer during the mid-80s, and had shot the covers of Prince’s The Family album in 1985, and Parade in 1986. The shoot was held at a warehouse in Eden Prairie, Minnesota close to where Paisley Park Studios was set up later. The cover featured a drum set, bouquets, a plasma globe and a guitar, with Prince’s face in the foreground in a blur. The props were taken from Prince’s home and studio, and the backdrop borrowed from a stage production of the musical Guys and Dolls.

The album cover for Prince’s studio album Sign o’ the Times.

Jeff Katz told Pitchfork the story behind the photoshoot:
“He called me up to come take his picture. I didn’t ask what it was for or what the look was. It was the first time I had ever been to Minneapolis. [Prince’s production compound] Paisley Park was in its final stages of completion, so he was in this warehouse rehearsal space nearby. When I walked in, there was only the drum kit on top of the car. Prince said, ‘We’re going to have to fill this space,’ and then he walked away. He didn’t usually like to explain things. I often had to be a mind reader. He wanted you to understand, and then he wanted you to go with it.

“Slowly but surely, his team pilfered items and props that had been inspiring him from the recording studio and his house. It was almost like a canvas being painted in real time. The final touch was the backdrop. [Prince’s executive assistant] Karen Krattinger went down to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre where they were doing a performance of Guys and Dolls and got that backdrop. When Prince came back, he just nodded and smiled.

After two nonstop days of shooting, he sat down on the apple box that was in front of my camera, put his face up against the lens, and said, ‘Take this picture.’ I told him that there was no light on him and he was out of focus and would have to sit very still for the exposure and he said, ‘OK.’ After I took two photos, he said, ‘Great, that’s the cover.’ Warner Bros. laughed when I brought it to them. He was so meticulous and careful in his thought process, music, and visuals, but he was also willing to go to this very loose, surreal, conceptual place.”

The cover of the reissue is another photo from that shoot. How did that double-exposure come to be?
“I took that photo before the shoot even started. I was setting up everything, and Prince walked in. I wasn’t ready yet, but you don’t ever say that! When Prince wants to shoot, you just start shooting. There was only ambient light, and I asked him to stand still. I think that was a 16-second exposure, and after eight seconds, he walked away. We were shooting on film, so I didn’t see how the photo turned out until it was processed. Talk about a lucky accident, or maybe it was predestined. I went nuts when I saw it, and I lobbied for that one as the cover. Prince said, ‘Well, I really love it, but keep it for something else.’”

Katz was only a few years out of college when he first worked with Prince in 1985, and feels that his youth served him well because he was willing to go along with anything Prince suggested. That approach, he said, has guided him throughout his career.

“He taught me so much about how to think on my feet and create at a moment’s notice, how to make things happen organically,” Katz said. “I’ve carried those lessons to each photo shoot that I’ve done since. It was a baptism by fire; people always ask if I was nervous [working with him], but you didn’t have time to be nervous. We fully embraced it and just dove right in. I remember every shoot we did and place we traveled like it was yesterday.”


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