Point and Shoot — an interview with legendary photographer Ricky Powell

From candid snapshots of pop-art luminaries Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, to the key innovators of the hip hop and graffiti scenes of mid-80’s New York, Ricky Powell’s photography has documented some of the most important countercultural developments in recent history.

Subconsciously gravitating towards the nucleus of these embryonic scenes, Powell’s candid photography, taken from 1985 onwards, immortalised some of the most integral, inspiring, revered and respected protagonists of these subversive movements.

Nicknamed the ‘Fourth Beastie Boy’ and described by Fab 5 Freddy as the ‘Weegee of hip hop’, Powell’s photography provides the archetypal narrative with which to understand this unprecedented era of explosive creative, artistic, and musical innovation. As synonymous with the Golden Era of hip hop as the key individuals who defined it, Powell’s evocative and intimate shots of Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eric B., Rakim, and of course The Beastie Boys, have long since become iconic reference points in mapping the evolution of the genre’s rise from its subcultural roots to the social mainstream.

A thoroughbred New York native, Powell spent his teenage years partying in the disco halls and clubs of downtown Manhattan. It wasn’t until his early twenties however that he began to wield the beat-up Minolta or cheap Pentax camera with which he would become synonymous. It was a delay he still ponders today with a hint of regret. “I started going to disco’s in ’78 when I was 17 and if I was taking pictures then, into the early 80’s, oh my God,” he pauses, no doubt recalling the scenes in his own mind, “yeah, I missed the boat on that one.” Such an admission resounds greatly from someone so famed for his unfailing serendipity. “I wish at least the early 80’s, that was really a crazy time, especially in the East Village. The scene was popping with the art galleries, with the hip hop, chicks with the Blade Runner-type hairdo’s and make-up and eye shadow. But you know, at least I caught the mid-80’s into the late 80's.”

That he certainly did. Starting out on the streets and in the clubs of New York in early ’85, taking his point-and-shoot camera with him to capture the colourful scenes he was witnessing at every turn and on every corner, day and night. The decision to do so wasn’t initially born from a compulsion to document this exciting social time as such…well, not exactly. As is so often the case, love/lust was the catalyst. “In ’85 I had a girlfriend that went to NYU, a weird kook, an art kook I met in this club, Dance Interior. We’d go to clubs and we’d each take a camera. I would take her spare — a little point-and-shoot, easy to carry, on this little strap. It just went from there: taking pictures on the run, on the hang-out tip.”

It was the end to that relationship that lit the touch paper for Powell though: “We broke up in ’85 — she started seeing a weirdo with tie-dye yoga pants — and I took the camera she’d left in my house and said “She’s gonna be sorry she played me like a soggy cannoli.” I liked photography, but it was partly spite that propelled me,” he adds, typically deadpan.

In a neighbourhood bestowed with some of the most influential artists, musicians, and actors of a generation, Powell soon discovered many subjects of interest for his newfound passion. “I wasn’t an artist, I was just a kid from the Village. I was a playground rat, but I was interested in the big art openings particularly. I used to go to the openings just to check out the crowd, it was always an event. Keith Haring used to have some great openings. It just cascaded from there.”

It was just prior to one such art event that Powell shot one of his most well known photographs, that of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat en route to the opening of their famous joint-exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in spring of ’85. “I was hanging out across the street with two dudes who were very important to me at the time, graffiti writers Zephyr and Revolt: prolific graffiti writers-slash-celebrated outlaws. I was hanging with them watching the scene, psyched just to hang out with them and take a few pictures, when I saw Warhol and Basquiat coming down the street towards the opening. I cut diagonally across the street in front of them with the whole scene behind me…the gallery was already packed out into the street. So I was the first one they encountered and I asked if I could get a quickie and they stopped and paused for me, and I got the shot. Shooting two dynamic duo’s within the same couple of minutes at the beginning of my so-called career…it was a picker-upper. I decided that this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life ’cause I figured you can always take pictures, all you gotta do is step out the door.”

Such as fate would have it, a year later, the ever-inquisitive Powell ventured to the Tampa Dome to see the Beastie Boys perform on the Raising Hell tour with Run DMC…and soon found himself with a bunk on their tour bus for the remainder. An acquaintance of Beastie’s Adam Horovitz, having both grown up together in the East Village, a back-stage invite instigated a ten-year stretch as their “official unofficial photographer”, his images from this time constituting the definitive record for charting the band’s evolution from New York teens to global superstars. What followed was a period of unparalleled exclusive access to the most important proponents of hip hop ever, on some of the most legendary tours in hip hop history. Powell was immediately thrust into a social circle that directly included the likes of Run DMC and LL Cool J, not that this fazed him: “They liked me, they took me in, they embraced me. I appreciated it. We had a good chemistry, it’s not always guaranteed, but with them the chemistry was good.”

“It just kind of cascaded upwards from there, as far as the rap connections,” he recalls. “I was into the music so it didn’t take me much to kick myself in the pants to go check shit out cause I was psyched and I liked the music, especially KRS One, EPMD, Rakim, Slick Rick, Run-DMC…”

Of so many memorable tours — one’s which have since gone down in folklore amongst the lucky relative ‘few’ who attended them — there is still one that stands out: “Licensed To Ill (Beastie Boys and Run DMC in ’87) was definitely a raw dog one — I have to say that was my favourite cause that was the jump off. I think for Run DMC the Together Forever tour was in the middle of that, Licensed To Ill album was number one, we were having a goof, it was a lot of fun and high-jinx. Each tour had its own identity. Checkerhead tour in ’92 was fun too. That was the first tour they made me work. They said “You gotta work this time,” so I was the luggage guy.”

During the times he wasn’t on the tour bus in the mid-to-late 80’s, Powell could be found at his beloved Frozade stand (frozen lemonade that is) in the heart of downtown New York. The prime position to catch the city’s characters promenading up and down the lower east side’s avenues, the spot became something of a social hub for the area’s most colourful characters. “I took some of my most important photographs from that lemonade stand in Soho, Manhattan. I used to set up my stand, I would bring folding chairs, my radio with tapes in it, a bottle of Bacardi rum…it was the scene to hang out there at my stand.”

This vantage point offered the ideal opportunity to record the activities of the everyday Manhattan resident and worker in addition to the city’s elite. Powell’s abundance of images of Joe public, from bums on street corners to joggers in Central Park, all still maintained an acute sense of engagement and revelation even, exhibiting his profound ability to capture beauty in the ordinary as well as the glamorous. “I was always more drawn to real life — I would rather be known as a street photographer because I think it’s more humble. It speaks to me to say that I’m not on my high horse and I appreciate real-life. One kid told me he spoke about me with his professor and asked in what kind of style he would classify me. His professor said ‘environmental portraiture’; I liked that.”

Despite photographing the likes of Keith Richards, Christopher Walken, Sophie Coppola, Calvin Klein, Paloma Picasso, John Lee Hooker, Grace Jones and Cindy Crawford to name but a few, Powell has always been wary to avoid the ‘celebrity photographer’ denom, a label he considers with ample distain. “I used to do ‘paparazzi’ or ‘celebrity photography’ in the mid-to-late 80’s but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a hip hop photographer or a celebrity photographer cause I think that sounds too flamboyant.” Nowadays, it would seem this stratagem also distances himself from the discipline as a whole: “I’m not interested in the photography industry, what’s being shot today, I’m more interested in the past. I don’t really dig too many photographer’s, and the one’s that I’ve been seeing…they seem to be using it as a tool to make themselves look like they’re fabulous and I just don’t want any part of it.”

Powell’s forays into other creative industries reinforce this desire to operate on a multi-faceted level. By his own admission, he still dresses “like a kid”, personified by the ubiquitous old school hip hop uniform of tracksuit, sneakers, and cap that he wears to this day. He’s designed his own special edition sneakers for Puma, hosted the public access TV show ‘Rappin’ With The Rickster’ (“there was nothing good on TV so I decided to make my own show”), and most recently ‘It’s The Shoes’ on ESPN 2 in America. He’s also written regular columns for various street culture magazines, and hosts a radio show on East Village radio. “I describe myself if I have to as an individualist,” confirms Powell, as our cross-continental conversation comes to a close. He’s not wrong. Ricky Powell may have a reputation as New York’s resident curmudgeon, but twenty-five years on since he first wielded a Pentax in anger, hip hop’s Oscar Madison is still setting the street culture agenda to this day.

This interview took place over the phone in July ‘09.