Ricky Powell, the zelig from downtown New York who used his camera to document the early years of hip hop’s rise as well as a host of other subcultural scenes and the celebrities and marginalized figures who populated the city, was found dead Monday in his West Village apartment. He was 59 years old.
The death was confirmed by his manager and archivist Tono Radvany, who said a cause was still pending. Mr. Powell learned that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last year and that he had ongoing problems with his heart.
Mr. Powell – often affectionately referred to as “The Lazy Hustler” – exuded New York charm and courage. As a die-hard hiker, he hit the sidewalk with his camera and took photos of everything he liked: superstars, well-dressed passers-by, animals.
Crucially, he was about to form the Beastie Boys, which catapulted him into an unexpected career as a tour photographer and key member of the entourage, earning him a front-row seat in the global hip-hop explosion that began in the mid-1980s.
“Even though Ron Galella was his hero – he was the original paparazzi – I always told Ricky that you had a taste for Weegee, too,” said the once ubiquitous New York street photographer Fab 5 Freddy, the early hip-hop impresario and a longtime friend and photo subject of Powell. “He was always in the inner circle, one of the few – if not the only one – who took photos.”
Mr. Powell’s photographs were intimate and casual, a precursor to the spontaneous hyperdocumentation of the social media era. They often felt completely in the moment and lived it instead of watching it. His subjects were varied: Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who were captured on the street before a gallery opening; Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sofia at one of their early fashion shows; Run-DMC poses in front of the Eiffel Tower; a pre-superstar Cindy Crawford in a nightclub bathroom; People who sleep on park benches.
“He wasn’t trained, he didn’t know how to compose a recording, he didn’t know what an aperture was,” said Vikki Tobak, editor of the photo anthology “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop”. (2018) and curator of a traveling exhibition of the same name, which also included the work of Mr. Powell. “But you could feel his curiosity about the people he was photographing, so none of that really mattered. He made people laugh and felt good; you can see all of this in his photos. “
Ricky Powell was born in Brooklyn on November 20, 1961 and grew up primarily in the West Village. He attended LaGuardia Community College in Queens and graduated from Hunter College in Manhattan with a degree in physical education.
His mother, Ruth Powell, was a schoolteacher – he didn’t know his father – but it was mostly a habit of downtown clubs like Max’s Kansas City, which Ricky brought with her when he was a kid. She is its only immediate survivor.
“I grew up fast, dude. Fast, ”Powell says in Ricky Powell: The Individualist, a life documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. It is now planned for this year’s festival in June.
Josh Swade, director of the documentary, said Mr. Powell had raw social and cultural intelligence “because he was just out on the streets of New York defending himself in the 60s and 70s”.
Actress Debi Mazar met Mr. Powell while both teenagers were riding bikes around downtown Manhattan. They are “children of the city”. Together they went to the Paradise Garage, the Mudd Club and other hot spots. “Every door opened to Ricky,” said Ms. Mazar. “When we went to a club, we were the cool kids. He had this savoir faire, this electricity. “
Fab 5 Freddy recalled that “New York was a polarized place when we met,” but that Mr. Powell “was comfortable with black kids in a time when people weren’t just going to other places.”
He became a staple of the Fun Gallery, Danceteria, Roxy, and more, alongside graffiti writers, rappers, punk rockers, artists, and other creative eccentrics who populated New York’s vibrant, jagged downtown area. He played on the softball team of graffiti artist Futura 2000, the East Village Espadrilles.
“It was almost like he was invisible too,” said Futura, as he is now called. “He was always looking for a picture to take.”
After graduating from college, Mr. Powell sold ice cream from a street cart for a while and offered to add rum to the treat for an additional dollar. During his shift he photographed people on the street, including stars of the scene like Basquiat. He was already friends with the Beastie Boys, who had just signed a record deal with Def Jam, and one day he bought a plane ticket to accompany them on the street – they opened up to Run-DMC on the Raising Hell Tour – and never looked back.
Mr. Powell became a vital part of the Beastie Boys ecosystem – he partied hard, chased luggage at times, played one of the nerdy protagonists in the video “(You Must) Fight Your Right (To Party!)” And more. He was name checked on “Car Thief,” a track from the group’s 1989 album “Paul’s Boutique,” and was well known enough to have his own groupies.
“When he showed up, the party started,” said Radvany.
As he took photos, they quickly became essential artifacts. Mr. Powell was a documentary filmmaker for a demimonde who was often too busy living aloud to stop and think. Over the years his pictures have appeared in Paper, Ego Trip, Mass Appeal, Animal and other magazines. He also published several books, including “Oh Snap! Ricky Powell’s Rap Photography ”(1998),“ The Rickford Files: Classic New York Photographs ”(2000), and“ Public Access: Ricky Powell Photographs 1985-2005 ”(2005).
“I liked being part of the crew, just hanging out. The entourage itself, but also a photographer who takes relevant pictures at the same time, ”Powell says in the documentary. “I think you have to get a degree in humanistic behavior before you can master the two together.”
Futura said, “He had the gift of being very much a New Yorker. He embodied that for me. I know my own way. “
For several years in the 1990s, Mr. Powell had a public television show called “Rappin ‘With the Rickster,” in which he swapped a still camera for a video camera, but retained the loose, unpredictable energy it both attracted and generated his own. (A DVD of the show’s biggest hits was released in 2010.)
He had been by the Beasties’ side for a decade, but he split with them in 1995 when the group left their old noisy, disruptive, and rude ways behind. “It got ripe,” says Mr. Powell in the documentary. “They did what they did, but I still stayed me.”
After returning to New York, Mr. Powell struggled to find meaning and for a time struggled with drug addiction.
He hadn’t always been sure how to use his crucial archive of an under-documented era. “He could have turned the connections into a profitable operation,” said Swade. “But you have to show up for that.”
Eventually, he began working with Mr. Radvany, who set about organizing his archives, and partnering with brands that licensed his old work or hired him on new projects that channeled his eau de New York energy. He also shared live slide show presentations of his old pictures and told the stories behind the photos.
“When I started with him he was down and I had to help him build an income,” said Mr Radvany. “He loved social media. He was the lazy hustler – he could sit on his futon and sell prints. “
And he never moved out of his little West Village apartment, which was bursting with the vibe of life in the epicenter of the city: contact sheets, sneakers, basketball jerseys, vintage magazines and records, endless memories of the development of contemporary New York creative culture. Even after all these decades, he was one with the scene he was capturing.
“You didn’t see him as a photographer,” said Fab 5 Freddy. “He was a cool kid in the mix who took the camera out, took a few pictures, put it down and said, ‘Pass that joint over here.'”