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Prince in 1981 as seen by legendary Milwaukee photographer

Photojournalist Pat A. Robinson shares his images from the Prince concert he was able to attend in 1981, and what the experience was like to take pictures of the revolutionary singer, songwriter and music genius.

He went by several different names during his illustrious career, one that even had no pronunciation. But he will always be remembered as Prince. These photographs are my tribute to the multi-talented artist and what he represented, who passed away on April 21, 2016.

In 1981, I was a U.S. Navy photographer onboard the USS Nimitz, the first nuclear-powered supercarrier in the American fleet. The ship was docked in Norfolk, Virginia at the time. I heard over a local radio station that Prince was coming to a nearby city to perform.

The Prince concert was going to be at the club Rogues in Virginia Beach on Sunday March 15, 1981. General admission was $9.50, a hefty sum for that day.

His album “Controversy” was currently out at that time. I was really excited about the possibility of attending his show. It was highly anticipated, so I expected there to be a big crowd at the venue.

I got my ticket, and decided I must get some pictures. I borrowed a second camera from a shipmate for the night. So I had two Leica M4-MOT, with 21mm and a 105mm lenses.

I remember pacing around, trying to figure out how I was going to get these cameras inside the club.

At the time, I did not have enough skill to get press credentials, so I considered resorting to extreme measures. I was determined to get photos of this new and rising music star.

I decided to hide the camera bodies in my large coat pockets. I left the Navy base going to the concert venue by a city bus. It was about a half hour commute. When I arrive at the club, I saw long lines of all these people. Every nationality and race, all coming together because, like me, they were all inspired by the talent and music of Prince.

The club was packed shoulder to shoulder with people. Since it was general admission, I worked my way through the crowd until I put myself close to the stage. But not too close. When the show started and the lights got low, I would need to take out my two cameras, attached the lenses, and shoot both wide angle and telephoto shots quickly. All while being jostled by the audience and in the silent hope to avoid being noticed taking pictures.

For obvious reasons, I could not use a flash. This was still in the old days of photography, well before digital. A roll of 35mm film had 36 exposures. I was able to shoot 3 rolls.

Most of the photos turned out poorly. Lots of back of heads and blurred obstructions. But I did manage to get 8 to 12 really strong photos for my efforts.

That amazing night remains in my personal memory. And these photographs preserve that experience of being within reach of a master musician. Each is a captured moment in time from 35 years ago.

I also still have my ticket stub.

The pictures of Prince published here are the exclusive property of Pat A. Robinson. Copyright © 1981 Pat A. Robinson Photography. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

About The Author

Pat A. Robinson

His passion for photography started with a plastic Kodak film camera in junior high school, and has spanned a career of over three decades. From his early days as a US Navy photographer to work for the iconic Life magazine, the photos of Pat A. Robinson have captured a generation of people and events around Milwaukee.

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