I can’t remember where or when I met Ricky Powell. I know it was in the last 5 years, but I can’t recall - to me, there’s just knowing Ricky - or you don’t - and I’m lucky to be one of the ones that knows him. The legendary street photographer took a relationship gone sour to fuel a visual documentation of New York’s underbelly - capturing changes in subculture that eventually rippled out into popular culture as we knew it. From capturing the artists, be it in music, acting, culture, etc., Ricky Powell documented these personalities as they passed through the melting pot that was the West and East Village in the late ’80s and early ’90s, or how he likes to call it, “Professional photography on the hangout tip!” Here’s his story.
“I BECAME FAMOUS FOR TAKING PICTURES OF FAMOUS PEOPLE. IT’S A WEIRD DYNAMIC.”
HOW RICKY POWELL GOT INTO PHOTOGRAPHY
PETE PABON: We all know the story on how you got into photography - out of spite. Can you summarize for those may have not heard it?
RICKY POWELL: Um, alright, in a nutshell… [this chick] played me like a soggy cannoli for some corny ass dude in tie-dye yoga pants, so I found the shit. After two years - it was tumultuous in my early 20s - we both were free spirits, so you know, it was tumultuous, doinking and shit behind each other’s back. Creepy dude - she would doink New York City graffiti writers or any graffiti writer that was big just to get notoriety. That used to make me like, “God damn!” I don’t know, it didn’t sit well with me, that pussy was bombed, it had mad tags up in it. She dissed me for the last time, so then I was like, “Damn,” I felt dissed, real dissed, “You dissed me for that dude?” I was like humiliated, furious, incensed. Anyway, I found - in my despair - I found this bag of shit that she had left that had some clothes in it and a little Minolta Auto Focus jammy. I kinda used it a few times with her, we’d go to Roxie’s or Danceteria and she’d let me practice and let me go around taking pictures of people and couples in the booths like, “Aye, you look like a nice couple, can I take your picture?” I don’t know, it just had a natural joy to go and have an encounter with some cool people and take their picture, the flash go off. So, people dug me and were like, “Yeah, sure, take my picture!”
So she played me the wrong way like a wet tuna sandwich. I’m gonna fucking take this [Minolta] and make something big and something out of myself. Because I was regular Joe, you know, living at home, going to school, working bullshit jobs like a playground rat. So then, I put the camera around my shoulder and went to this Basquiat / Warhol opening, met up with [graffiti artists] Zephyr and Revolt, and took pictures of them like, “Damn, wow!” Because they were like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid to me, a real cool dynamic duo at the time with Wild Style and Style Wars, it was cool, I was psyched. We saw Warhol and Basquiat coming, so I said, “Hold up,” and walked over and said, “Jean, Jean, dance machine! Can I get a shot of you and Warhol?!” He used to look at me crazy because I use to call him “Jean”[pronounced “Gene”] instead of Jean-Michel. Anyway, so those shots got me like, instant - I went from being Joe Smuck to The Rickster, downtown photographer [snaps fingers]. Paper Magazine ask me to get down with them and shoot the club section, boop, boop, boop! ‘Cause people knew me from the club scene in the village, you know, “I’m from here, bitch, so don’t even look at me the wrong way!” Nah, just kidding. Everybody knew me from the scene.
Not that I was trying to be Big Willy.
ON THE ICONIC MIKE TYSON / AD ROCK SHOT
Yeah, like my Ad Rock / Tyson shot, you know that one? Mike Tyson and Ad Rock? Get out of here, bitch! Let me see, I got many famous, organic photos, hold up, don’t look at me like I’m crazy. [Pulls up photo on his tablet] Mike Tyson and Ad Rock, that’s from 1986. It was something at Roxie’s with Big Audio Dynamite, Junkyard Band, and the Bad Brains maybe. So anyway, up in the VIP lounge, walking around, having my little drinky wink, kicking it to the new wave girls with the angular hairdos and the crazy eye makeup, which I dug. Like buffalo-gal style, ah man, those chicks were hot. I see these dudes in between all the people, I’m like, Oh shit, that’s a interesting duo right there!
I looked and thought, two 20-year olds, one black, one white, both kicking it extremely on a higher, crazier level than anyone else. Mike Tyson had just become the lightweight heavyweight champion - the youngest one - a few months right before this and Ad Rock, ’86. They were working on License To Ill, they had Cookie Puss out, they were on the come up. Anyhow! That’s a beautiful two right there, I say, “You mind if I get a quick one?” Yeah, that one I unearthed a few years ago.
I am one man’s time capsule, whoever is interested in my little encounters and Frozade [a frozen lemonade stand Ricky ran] moments, this is something I recorded if you’re interested. From the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Warhol, to the Wu-Tang, to this, that, up to this point.
I became famous for taking pictures of famous people. It’s a weird dynamic in photography.
ON TURNING ANGST INTO POSITIVITY
The fucking angst I had in me at the time… thank god, because jail ain’t for me, dude. I’m gonna take all this angst in me and channel it into being a photographer. I’m gonna take pictures, I’m gonna go out and apply myself. And the first place I went to take pictures, I made a proclamation, “I’m gonna take pictures! I’m gonna be a photographer.”
“I’M GONNA TAKE ALL THIS ANGST IN ME AND CHANNEL IT INTO BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER.”
FLASHBACK TO WHAT THE ’80S WERE LIKE FOR RICKY POWELL IN NEW YORK
’86 was a very bohemian year. Finally left the nest at home, lived with this discreet old lady in the summer, and then found a two bedroom apartment in Stuy Town on 14th. Me and some older black lady, she had one bedroom, I had one bedroom, we just shared and subletted from this dude. It was $600 so we paid $300, big living room, good place, Stuy Town. That’s where I lived from ’86 to ’89 and just hustled. I was shooting photos in the golden era of hip-hop as it turns out - and the club scene.
Those three years, I was on tour also. The License to Ill tour, Raising Hell for a little bit, but that’s when I broke into the big time. I quit my job and flew down to St. Petersburg and hitchhiked to Tampa with some hillbillies. I was knocking on the back of the Tampa Dome and the security guy came out and going said, “Yeah? Who’re you?” “Tell them the Rickster is out here.” He goes, “Who?” So I told him again - five minutes later he comes out like, “Oh, shit, what’re you doing here?” “I was in the neighborhood,” and he pulled me in laughing.
We went through the back of the arena and we get into the main arena where the gig is and I’m like, holy shit. Jam Master Jay was up suspended in the air with his turntables doing a whole cutting solo in the middle of “Peter Piper” and the crowd is bogging and screaming and the beats are loud and I was like, “Wow, this is the big time.” They gave me a bunk on the tour bus.
Then, I was in New Orleans with them, a little Southeast, and then I came home. They flew me home and I was like a big shot Frozade vender. I took that picture of Basquiat on West Broadway, reaching into his pocket, looking into the air. ’86 was a big year for me creatively, productively. It’s a great body of work of mine as I look back objectively.
…The way shit clicked for me, phew, I have to look back and say, wow. I can’t believe that was me and actually happening to me, it was big.
Basquiat and Warhol on Mercer St., 1985.
Pete Pabon: Took some amazing photos too. There’s that famous one in Paris.
To me, it was just something to do while we were there. I was like, “Yo, stand over there for a minute.” [Makes shutter sounds] Laughing and saying, “Yo, you’re going to thank me one day.”
Run DMC in Paris, 1986.
ON THE EAST VILLAGE
Well, when I lived there from ’86 to ’89, that was the best. I thrived. You know my Laurence Fishburne picture? That’s like ’89, it’s right there on First Avenue and Saint Marks. It seemed like it was a lot of people coming through, coming and going through there.
It was more bohemian-ish - I don’t know. If you ask me, I’m going to romanticize it a little bit. It was bohemian-ish, the East Village. It’s not like so many new jacks and coming in - corny ones - coming in and stanking up the environment with their wackness. Don’t ask me, I’m not looking for it - it killed it, the cornballs.
ON BILL CUNNINGHAM’S INFLUENCE
Oh, that fucking kook? That fucking old school kook! You ever talk with him? He’s a nervous Nelly. Yo, I’m not trying to diss but - you know what? He had some dope shit. He had an influence on me once, summer ’86, I was like, “Yo, I’m going to try it once like that weirdo dude right there. I’m going to stand on 57th and 5th and see what happens. See who comes through.” Because 57th street used to be dope, really fun, really cool, interesting, even though it was upper level. It had a lot of interesting characters. Now, it’s a fucking skeleton of what it once was. 57th used to be cool as shit for Midtown.
So I stood there on 57th and that’s where I got my great shot of the actor - he just died - singer, dancer, Geoffrey Holder… I got his picture, he posed for me, I was like, “Hey, what’s up? I don’t want to bother you.” He was known for not letting people take his picture, but he stopped and I actually made him laugh or some shit. Then I went over a few more blocks and I got Sylvia Miles from Midnight Cowboy. She posed for me in front of Coliseum Books and her hair’s blowing in the wind. It’s a good shot, that was in my book, The Rickford Files, also.
Shuffling with the Beastie Boys, 1986.
ON HIS NOTORIOUS HASHTAGS
I’m a ugly motherfucker too - I’m disgusting, I don’t know how people like me, that’s how come I have my hashtags #unclesloppy, #uncledoinky, #thelazyhustler, #thecoolsubstituteteacher.
ON THE CURRENT PHOTOGRAPHY SCENE
Oh, well, listen, not to be an old foggy, but when I started, they were just using a string and a box. Dude, you know what, it’s great, I love photography, but professionally, you gotta go with the times… some people like my way, because it’s rustic and it’s still effective and they’re not snotty or caught with, you know. It depends, the whole working dynamic, it’s just crazy, politics, lucky, timing, perseverance - it’s like a soap opera. If you want be in that industry, you’re gonna have to play the game. But I’m not into that, I don’t do it like that, I’d rather pick and choose, I’m a free agent. I like it that way, I can call the shots as far as who I care to do business with on any kind of level. So, I feel good I right where I want to be right now, dukes, right now, I don’t need to be.
I’m not trying to ascend to be the king or be the dopest dude out there in taking pictures because I feel honored already as well as blown away to be considered this and that in photography. It feels good that I’ve done something that’s notable, that’s interesting, I can actually be proud of that. It’s cool, you concern the time the history… As I said in this thing the other night to the audience: I got a lot of respect for the photographers that came before me. So, you know. Listen man, if I can keep doing my thing and maintaining, expressing myself…
ON FINDING INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE
Without inspiration, life is boring, I’ll tell you that! If I get my pants on and get out the house, there’s a good chance I might run into something nice. You can’t get it all, but it’s lovely when it pops up - people - you feel good, laugh, inspire... I embrace those moments, those are important. I had a lot of those lately, I’m riding a good wave. It comes in waves dude, I had a great two weeks, then a day of days, five days that were like, nightmarish, and then it jumped back good to euphoric and triumphant to today. It’s percolating, you know. It’s like waves, dude, as far as the way I see it these days... Be like water!