Ricky Powell: ‘Famous Bum’ who once chronicled the downtown New York art scene

In 1985, in Greenwich Village, superstar artist Jean-Michel Basquiat pulls up in front of a Frōzade (frozen lemonade) cart. The cart guy, who would add a shot of rum for an extra dollar, said, “Yo, what’s up, Jean,” pronouncing it “Gene.” When Basquiat rolled his eyes and corrected him – he used the French pronunciation for his name – the cheeky salesman replied, “Sorry man, I’m bad with exotic names.” How can you get mad at someone with such disarming honesty and sense of humor? Basquiat allowed the seller to take a picture of him.

Shortly after, the young street photographer was hanging out outside the Shafrazi Gallery on Mercer St. with some high-profile graffiti artists when Basquiat got out of a car with Andy Warhol. The Frōzade guy, loose and spontaneous like the street baller he was (that trait alone would be key to his future success), stood in front of the duo (they were collaborating at the time) and said, “Hey , Gene.” Warhol gave him a sideways glance, but Basquiat said, “He’s cool,” and they stopped so he could step away from the shot.

Frōzade’s guy was Ricky Powell, a street kid and then a club kid raised with minimal supervision from a loveless single mother in Lower Manhattan’s Washington Square Park neighborhood. Powell said he went to Hunter University to become a substitute gym teacher, because it was an easy job, but on a whim he picked up a cheap Minolta autofocus camera that a girlfriend who had just dumped him for an older man had left behind, just to see if he could put her back in her place. Some careers are launched out of spite. Very quickly, Ricky became a star, just like the people he photographed.

This photo of Basquiat with Warhol launched Powell’s budding career as a street photographer into the stratosphere. To this day, many consider him the iconic picture of the two artists. He would eventually have his photos appear in The New York Times, The New York Post, daily news, The voice of the villageTIME, NewsweekATMOSPHERE, Source, rolling stone, and much more. Powell has had six books of his photos published.

At the beginning of Ricky Powell: The individualist, a 2020 documentary film about Powell’s life directed by Josh Swade, Powell tells the cameraman, in his heavy New York accent, “I’m really just a Joe Jerk off. And like, I’m a jerk jerk off , but my photography happens to be highfalutin’.” He and the cameraman had just emerged from his crowded little West Village apartment that looked like a hoarder’s paradise — a location that would be perfect for an archaeological dig to explore the downtown art scene in the 1980s.

In that film, actor and Brooklyn boy Lawrence Fishburne summed up the essence of Powell: “You’d see him everywhere. He was a fucking photographer, man. He needed to take pictures.” Jon Caramanica, embellishing this description, once wrote in the New York Times that Powell “exceeded New York City’s vintage charm and grit”. The photographer loved walking the streets of New York. In a sense, he ‘accessed’ photography – which is a matter of personality – but Powell also had an eye, and he worked hard to improve his formal technique after a professional on the business side spoke to him directly. .

Powell used an inexpensive Minolta point-and-shoot camera. Someone who described himself as a “famous tramp” didn’t need fancy equipment for his brand of spontaneous photography. Expensive equipment would have separated him from his subjects. Embedded in the scene, he would wait for an opportunity for a shot, and it would quickly end once he had it, before the subject could prepare. The result was spontaneity, which made his instinctive work more art than commercial photography. Powell’s fish-eye lens portraits of Beasties, skateboarders and punk-rockers became a signature of urban image-making in his day.

Slipping into another medium, while he was “broken, living in a dump between the 14th and the 9th”, Powell hosted, between 1990 and 1996, what must have been the most public access television show hippest ever –Rapping with the Rickstera vehicle he used to provide commentary on downtown art and party scenes via candid imagery and impromptu interviews.

Powell was raised for the “crowd”. His eccentric mother took him to Max’s Kansas City, a downtown bar where luminaries like Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop hung out. Mom would place her son by the jukebox and socialize with what he called “the kooks.” Young Ricky was alone in the city early, biking around the neighborhood and playing catch with pimps and junkies in Washington Square Park. The white kid grew up fast, often acting “black”, perhaps influenced by all the street basketball he played. By the time he reached adulthood, Powell was as “New York” as a person could be.

Many know The Rickster as a hip-hop photographer, especially after touring extensively with the Beastie Boys as Def Jam Records’ de facto in-house photographer, and later as the band’s “porter”. He had his own bunk on their bus, and many called him the “fourth Beastie Boy”. Powell photographed every New York hip-hop star, but that was only one side of his job. He captured images of Madonna, Keith Richards, Keith Haring, Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields, Sofia Coppola, Laurence Fishburne and many more. The one who paid the photographer’s rent for many years – a stunning candid shot, taken in the ladies’ room of a nightclub, Cindy Crawford.

Culturally, the 1980s were a fertile time in Lower Manhattan, and Powell was everywhere as a chronicler of that scene. Clothing and lifestyle brands saw the power Powell had in capturing this culture, and he was busy with commissions. But when the Beastie Boys took an artistic turn in 1995, Powell got off the bus, after which he descended into drugs and depression. It was a comedown for a player whom the band once hailed with these lyrics: “Homeboy, throw in the towel / Your daughter got stung by Ricky Powell.”

Gentrification was underway (“all those New Jack corn dumplings are coming”), compounding the castaway’s misery. He gained weight and started losing hair. The cool hipster who once pulled girls effortlessly started staying home in his Village block and ordering escorts from the back pages of the Voice of the village. His once rock-solid confidence was shot, but he had the wherewithal to create his own fantasy world, at least until reality kicked in.

But Powell was finally able to shake off the self-pity and clean up. As he said, one day he thought to himself, “You know what, Duke, it’s time to turn things around.” Powell relaunched his career, albeit from a different angle, photographing everyday people rather than celebrities. He was also lucky enough to meet a professional photographer assistant who helped him organize things, a skill Ricky never possessed.

The photographer who called himself a “lazy hustler” has made a comeback, but he had neglected his health for too long to expect to live long. On February 1, 2021, Powell died of heart failure.

Powell said his work was “of the highest quality,” but it wasn’t. It was just simple. He adored a small patch of land in midtown Manhattan that he never left and captured the essence of an interesting time past. As he said, “I’m just a time capsule to a man. Whoever’s interested, great. Whoever’s not is fine, too. That’s it.”

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