“I’m a bummy-ass motherfucker but my photography happens to be high falutin,” said Ricky Powell, the self-described “individualist” and seminal street photographer who passed away yesterday. For the uninitiated, Powell was to the ‘80s and ‘90s what Martha Cooper was to the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Whereas Cooper documented burgeoning hip-hop culture and graffiti, Powell famously leveraged his access to figures like LL Cool J, Run DMC, Laurence Fishburne, and most famously the Beastie Boys (he was lovingly referred to as “the fourth Beastie Boy) into now-iconic photos that accurately depict the raw, unbridled energy fomenting at the time.
“Taking pictures of people is like collecting baseball cards,” said Powell in quite possibly one of his last interviews. It was a Q&A with director Josh Swade and Loren Hammonds, senior programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival after the online premiere of The Individualist, a documentary on Powell’s life that Swade directed.
Originally slated to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, that was obviously delayed because of COVID, but eventually made its online premiere at the We Are One global film festival in May.
“I started hanging out with the Beastie Boys in fall of ‘85. I’d take my camera with me because at some point I just said, ‘I have to document this…on some time-capsule-type shit,’” said Powell in the April 2008 issue of Vibe magazine. His photos are included in a series about some of the most definitive photographers of hip-hop’s various eras.
“When the Beasties were on Run DMC’s ‘Raising Hell’ tour, I flew down to Tampa [to meet up with them]. When you were hanging around [Run DMC and the Beasties]. you knew you were with superstars. We’d visit cities, walk the street, and people would part like the Red Sea. I was just glad to be part of it.”
More than simply part of it, Powell was an embedded presence in the scene. His bond with the Beastie Boys didn’t just net him a cameo in the “Fight For Your Right to Party” video (that’s him reading a copy of Popular Science), but also the notable shout-out on “Car Thief” in the lyric “Homeboy, throw in the towel / Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell.”
What made Powell such an influential figure wasn’t just his work behind a camera, but his presence in front of one. One of the last great New York weirdos, he was as much an heir to people like Glenn O’Brien, who weren’t just participants in the scene, but documentarians who knew how to portray it in an accurate light.
Powell’s public access show, Rappin’ With the Rickster followed in the footsteps of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, but was also an extension of how he approached photography. It was super guerilla, impromptu, and largely revolved around making sure he could immortalize the moments when he’d run into notable and interesting people. Whether it was a quick snap of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat on the street, or footage of Run DMC playing on E 4th and Lafayette Street, there’s something very real in the moments Powell creates.
It’s fitting that when he was asked to recall some of his favorite moments from the show for The Village Voice, he starts the list by mentioning his first guest, a homeless dude who wore a sandwich bag on his head. It’s New York attitude whose spirit lives on in accounts like @NewYorkNico and @sidetalknyc, but was certainly emblematic of the times. You can even still buy the highly-anticipated DVD of Rappin’ With The Rickster featuring all the episodes, too.
While there have been many collected tomes featuring Ricky Powell’s photography (the most recent being 2018’s Contact High), some of his best work exists in the obscure back issues of magazines like Vibe, The Source, and of course Grand Royal, the cult publication run by the Beastie Boys from 1993-2000 (let me know in the comments if that warrants its own deep dive).
Ricky Powell used to have a recurring column in Vibe called “What’s Up With That?” It ran in the mag’s early days under founding editor Rob Kenner, and Jon Caramanica used to be its music editor before eventually becoming the pop culture critic at The New York Times. Of course “column” is used very loosely, as it was more like Powell’s stream-of-consciousness tweets in a world where Twitter didn’t exist yet. But one missive particularly worth noting from the March 1994 edition of “What’s Up With That?” pictured above is Powell positing: “Good-quality graffiti? It’s gone!”
Just one year prior, Powell took to the pages of The Source magazine’s November 1993 issue to pay tribute to some of the artists he deemed as graffiti’s most prominent writers. Unearthed by Complex staff writer Lei Takanashi, it’s not only the closest we’ve gotten to a modern graffiti canon, but a perfect example of why Ricky Powell’s talents stretched so much further beyond the lens.