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One For the Treble

Words: Emily Youssef

Image of Photographer Ricky Powell with Andy Warhol

Though the world knows him as one, Ricky Powell is not a photographer. Not a self-described photographer, anyway. Too modest for hyped titles, too hilarious for the beaten path, put simply, he has always been in the right place at the right time. With a camera permanently strapped, he has documented the elite to the street, the fabulous to the forgotten. His is a sincerely diverse collection, capturing the je ne se quois in everyone who graces his lens. Dubbed “The weegee of hip hop” by Fab 5 Freddy and as the unofficial fourth member of the Beastie Boys, it’s not what he is, but who he is. It’s not why he’s done it, but how he’s done it. In a playground as vast as New York City, natural curiosity, charisma and down-for-whatever vibes were a perfect cocktail for the eternally youthful cult-icon he is today. With a career that has expanded into TV, radio, print journalism, fashion and a regular dose of mischief, his life has been neither predictable nor boring. But one thing is certain—there will “always be photos to take.”

To let him tell it, his start came by knocking on a back door at the Tampa Dome during the now-legendary Raising Hell tour in 1986. He could take pictures, he explained, and as a result, received a bed on the bus as Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Whodini, LL Cool J and the Timex Social Club made their way across the southeastern United States. But maybe his jump off began by photographing artists and celebrities, then submitting the pictures to then-little known magazines such as “Paper” and “Details” for use in their party re-caps. Could it have been his classic role as one of the geeks in the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)” video? Or perhaps his career commenced as he took snapshots while on the clock at various jobs: substitute teacher, busboy, Frozade vender and bike messenger (complete with a flower basket). Between 1985 and 1989, he “photographed on the chill out tip” and caught images that would become permanently emblazoned in the mind of every hip hop fan—backstage pictures of Run DMC, the “Paul’s Boutique” album photos and Eric B. and Rakim on tour.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, his work has been published in “The New York Times,” “The Daily News,” “Time,” “Newsweek,” “Ego Trip,” “Village Voice” and “Rolling Stone,” among many other publications. Clients such as Cannon, MTV and Capitol Records have solicited his talent. He has hosted his own public access TV program, “Rappin’ with the Rickster,” co-hosted Columbia University’s radio funk show, released a DVD and three books and is a columnist for “Mass Appeal.” His subjects are innumerable: Rakim, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Eazy-E, Dondi, Doze Green, Steven Tyler, John Lee Hooker, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michele Basquiat, Grace Jones, Madonna, Francis Ford Coppola. He doesn’t get pushy. “I try not to be intrusive when I document.” Famous for the captions beneath his photos, his commentary is both insightful and funny. And his one-liners are effortless. “Rick Rubin? He’s got some good ideas.” On Russell Simmons, a personal theory applies: “You can tell a man’s personality by the joint he smokes.”

His fourth book, “Public Access: Ricky Powell Photographs 1985-2005,” celebrates two decades of images that are instantly recognizable. Each documents an exact moment in time, many delivering just the right mix of elements necessary to offer a story, but loose enough so that its viewers can imagine their own. In his new book Ricky writes, “...that’s what I love about pictures. They preserve precious moments forever. I’ve been into photographs ever since my mother started bringing home sports magazines. I’d tear out my favorite pictures and put them up in my room.” But what stirred his artistic skill came long before he began sneaking into movie premieres, hitting concerts and chopping it up with the cool creative set. “Growing up, I couldn’t stand books without photos. I always preferred nonfiction because I like knowing what really went down, who was who, who was doinking who. I got inspired by people’s experiences.”

The native New Yorker, using his trusted old-school Minolta, now focuses solely on street photography: “I carry my camera when I run errands.” His style works because he can tell a story with and without words. He has access to the exclusive, but willingly shares it. And as one of the coolest historians of our time, Ricky Powell captures what everyone else wants to. Not bad for a kid who knocked on the back door.

“Public Access: Ricky Powell Photographs 1985-2005” is available this fall from Miss Rosen’s imprint on powerHouse Books.

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