In the mid-1980s, not long after Prince conquered the rock world with Purple Rain, a middle-aged Bob Dylan admiringly called him “the boy wonder.” Though stylistically different, Prince has turned out to be remarkably Dylanesque: eloquent yet mysterious; prolific but eccentric; given to peaks and valleys and twists and turns; sparked by a prodigious, almost flammable, talent yet built to last. Now 50, Prince long ago left Dylan — and such forebears as James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, as well as peers like Madonna and Michael Jackson — somewhere in the purple pixie dust of his own crazy trail.

“He’s an inspiration because he loves music so much and he believes that if you just keep going, you’ll be able to reach people,” says Los Angeles – based photographer Randee St. Nicholas, who has photographed Prince on and off for nearly two decades. “Even if the record industry and radio are changing, he’s always tried to invent new ways to connect. One of the ways that’s very powerful, of course, is live music — and in that he has always excelled. When Prince plays, he sells out.”

Though shy and unpredictable offstage, Prince has remained a hot performer and a shrewd businessman with methods behind his madness; even his adoption of an unpronounceable glyph as a stage name for much of the 1990s turned out to be a creative power play with his label, Warner Bros. He emerged from that battle in 2000 with the bulk of his own publishing rights and his formerly-known-as name intact. Prince’s 2007 halftime show at Super Bowl XLI — complete with a rainstorm during “Purple Rain” and a titillating silhouetted guitar solo in which he out-Jimied Hendrix himself — left no doubt to more than 140 million viewers that his stage skills were undimmed.

Prince followed that triumph with an unprecedented 21-night stint at London’s O2 Centre in the summer of 2007. He invited his friend Randee St. Nicholas to document the engagement, onstage and off, giving her rare access to his private world. “I thought, this is a very exciting time for him, and he’s going to be in one city for all that time,” St. Nicholas recalls. “And he’s not going to be able to leave — so he’ll actually show up for me to photograph him!” she adds with a laugh.

The result is a lavish new photography book, 21 Nights: Photography/Poetry/Music/Lyrics (Atria Books, $50), which sold out its first 400,000 pressing through advance orders online. A chunk of the modest price is justified by the book’s enclosed CD, Indigo Nights/Live Sessions, with 15 songs performed by Prince at after-show gigs in London — an amalgam of R&B, funk, blues, jazz, Zeppelinesque riffs, and crooner ballads that shows off the singer and his band in rare form.

But equally unusual is the interplay between Prince’s poetry and St. Nicholas’s photos, which paint the star as glamorous yet quietly mysterious and (despite an entourage of collaborators and beautiful companions) a solitary artist. “Now I can’t even go outside no more,” Price quips during a humorous monologue called “Just Like U” on the CD, “or some crazy fool will come up to me with a camera.” Yet he willingly welcomes St. Nicholas’s lenses. “Prince is funny and charming and entertaining and talkative — when he feels like talking,” she says. “And he stirs things up in a way that inspires you.” Here St. Nicholas shares more insights and anecdotes from this unique collaboration.

Jack Crager: How did this project come about? Was it your idea or Prince’s?

Randee St. Nicholas: Well he called me one day and said, “I want us to do a book together. So come up with an idea, and let me know what you want to do.” I had just photographed him in Los Vegas, and I knew he was going to go do this “21 Nights” thing in London, and I thought, “Instead of doing a typical book….” You know, every amazing musician, from Bruce Springsteen to John Lennon, there have been books on them that are retrospective volumes with a similar format: songwriting, and little notes, and candid photographs. I wanted to do something different.

So I put together a little online presentation of visually what I’d want it to be. Not just photos of him, but also other things I’d shot, fashion stuff. He’d already gone to England, and I was still in L.A. on another job. I sent it to him, and he called me and said, “When can you come?” [laughs]. “Let’s do it.” I told him I had all these jobs to do, but I told him the day I was free. Then at 7 in the morning the day I was free, someone called from a travel agent and said, “We’ve got tickets for you on a 4 o’clock flight to London, today — how many people are you bringing?” So I got my people together and we went and took the flight.

JC: No messing around, huh?

RSN: Nope. He’s a very spontaneous guy, and very intuitive. It was an amazing experience, because it was exactly what was going on in Prince’s life at that point. And as glamorous as the photographs are — because I wanted it to have a fashion twist — it was a very reclusive, I would say introspective, time in his life. Because although he didn’t party he would go out to clubs, and he’d play maybe four or five nights a week, and other than that there was a lot of solitude.

JC: When did you typically shoot?

RSN: The way we worked was, I would go to the O2, where they would have sound check at around 2 in the afternoon. I would shoot different things there, and then he and the band would do a show, and often they would do an aftershow. On the nights he did an aftershow, I’d shoot that and then we’d shoot like between 5 and 8 in the morning. Because we filmed so much at that time, when there was no other energy, I think it’s a very introspective look into the 24-hour life of Prince. Because he’s awake almost all night every night. He sleeps very little. And his whole life is really about music.

JC: At least while he’s on tour. He must be like an athlete.

RSN: He is. I’ve been shooting him for about 18 years, and it’s like he hasn’t aged a day. He’s in excellent shape. He hasn’t gained an ounce. Not a line on his face, as you can see when you look at the book — there’s very little retouching on those pictures. It’s all shot on film, except for the live shots, which I had to shoot digitally because the light was so low. But all the rest is shot on film and not color-enhanced at all.

JC: Was this in medium format?

RSN: Yes — I shot with Hasselblads and Mamiyas. I usually shoot a Fujica 6×8, but I didn’t want to drag a bunch of gear to London, and they didn’t have a 6×8 there, so I used the smaller format. there’s a lot of production going on in those pictures to make it look like we’re just behind the scenes.

JC: In your foreword you write such lines as, “Those who have spent the most time with him are both frustrated and inspired … it is not a manipulation for control’s sake as it is often judged … it is a way of being … a conduit to achieve creative exhaustion.” You express some frustration, like he’s not easily pinned down.

RSN: That’s an understatement [laughs] — not easily pinned down. I wrote that right before I went to sleep one morning. I was so frustrated that he didn’t show up for a shoot. I sat down and wrote it, stream of consciousness, didn’t look at it again, went to sleep. And then when we were putting together the book, I thought, “I need something written.” And the second I read it, I thought, “That is so honest!” So I sent it to a woman who works with him and she said, “It’s perfect.” She sent it to Prince and he said, “Go with it.” And then when people in the band read that — because it was part of a mock-up of the book — they said, “That pretty much sums it up” [laughs].

I’ve worked with a lot of different people, and there’s a way he kind of riles you up. I once said to him, “When your ballet teacher praises your performance, all is right in the world.” To be a primo ballerina, the way you got there was by being tortured by your teacher. And when you get it right and they praise you, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you done good. That’s kind of how it was with him. Not that he’s so critical, but he inspires you to go outside of what you do and do more.

JC: A lot of the shots are live — was that new for you?

RSN: I don’t usually shoot live, and I wasn’t planning on it, but he wanted me to shoot live. I didn’t know what would happen. I’m the girl who would love to run up to him when he’s singing and go, “Can you hold still and bring your chin down? Thank you — got it! [laughs]. Okay you can go back and perform.” And he’d look at me on stage and laugh sometimes. Later he said, “I’d look over at you and you’d be dancing, all in sync, and then, click!” I was just experiencing the music and waiting for the moment. The live pictures in the book are a great representation of how I saw it. And I’m glad they’re different.

JC: You tried to capture all these different sides through a 21-day prism. He usually doesn’t give this kind of access. For him, was it an exercise in self-expression?

RSN: I think for him, to let us in — you, me, anyone who sees the book — was a huge evolution. This is a private man who speaks through his music. It’s the way he knows how to express himself. With him, it’s all about, “How do I get my music heard? How do I take people out of their lives and give them a gift, give them a little journey?”

Every photographer would love to do something like this, where you’re spending so much time with someone, and you’re able to capture it with the artistry of how you like to do your work. It would make me crazy if I couldn’t mix lighting and ambient light and time exposures and all the things I got to do in this book. This is how I love to shoot. It was like an amazing high, to create every day and capture somebody like him. And when he would show up we’d be ready. It didn’t matter if I got four frames. He’d show up and I’d get four frames and he’d say, “Oh I know you got it.” And he’d get in a car and go somewhere else [laughs]. And he’d come back and say, “You got something else you want to do?” We had a great time.

JC: Whose idea was it to mix in the lyrics and poetry?

RSN: When he first came to me to do a book together, he said, “Your photographs and my poetry.” And I loved that idea. I knew it would be exciting. And I knew it would be dark — I’m pretty dark and he is too. So I put together the images and he put the poetry and the lyrics where he wanted them.

JC: Did he control the editing or the pacing of the book?

RSN: Here’s how it went: I shot a bunch of pictures, color negs, and I gave him proof sheets — I marked the ones I liked. He looked at everything but didn’t say much about it, so I came back and put together a presentation for him. And he said, “I love it,” but one of his comments was, “Does it have to be that long?” And I said, “It doesn’t have to be anything.” So we shortened it a little, and when he saw the final, he had a few comments about moving things around, and he picked the end shot. And then he chose where to put his words. So there was a real collaboration, and we put both of our names on it.

JC: How about the price? Fifty dollars is not that much for a coffee-table book with an exclusive CD in it.

RSN: Prince wanted it to be affordable to everyone. It’s like Martha Stewart — another person I’ve worked with a lot and I admire — who said, “What’s wrong with loving the finer things in life and making them affordable for people who usually can’t afford the finer things?” Quality isn’t necessarily synonymous with expensive. How do you reach out to a world of people who haven’t had the same opportunity you’ve had? Prince’s idea was to put music in this book — recordings of aftershows, of music you can’t hear anywhere else. If you put that CD on, and look through the book, he’s hoping you can have an experience that is almost like being there.