Ricky Powell: Sharp Shooter

Ricky Powell’s lens never lies. Neither does he. Ricky Powell is one of the reasons this writer has a manual focus camera. The strikingly humble “fourth Beastie Boy” has been capturing numerous snaps of MC’s, DJ’s, 70’s cinema extras, and dimes since the mid 1980’s. These images have developed into a visual archive of what […]

Ricky Powell’s lens never lies. Neither does he. Ricky Powell is one of the reasons this writer has a manual focus camera. The strikingly humble “fourth Beastie Boy” has been capturing numerous snaps of MC’s, DJ’s, 70’s cinema extras, and dimes since the mid 1980’s. These images have developed into a visual archive of what many might call "better times."

On the release of his fourth book, Public Access, Ricky Powell builds with AllHipHop.com. The latest release features new photos, plus artistically altered classics. Ricky shared some excerpts and waxed his thoughts on New York, photography, and Kool Keith’s crazy sports references. Oh snap!

AllHipHop.com: What’s it like to be doing this in 2005?

Ricky Powell: There’s a lot of ups and downs – a lot of all or nothings. Right now, it’s very rough. I’m doing very well, professionally, but – I don’t know man, it’s crazy – I got no cash-flow right now.

AllHipHop.com: Do you think that Public Access will change that?

Ricky Powell: Oh yeah, it’s gonna take a minute till I get any royalties though. You know, I’m waiting on s**t, just different things. I just shot a bunch of pictures in France, at Paris. I’m waiting on that, and a couple knuckleheads owe me a couple 20’s here and there.

AllHipHop.com: How did it come about to let artists add to your existing photographs?

Ricky Powell: I got the idea like five years prior. I had this girlfriend, and one day she painted on [a photo of] DMC with an ice-cream truck. She made it like Italian colors. I was just like, “What?” – it struck me hard. I give my pictures to my friends and let them get busy – let the viewer see the collaboration. I collect books on Greenwich Village, and I love seeing what artists were hangin’ out together in the 50’s and 60’s, even if they were just hanging out for a drink. So, I figured I’d make a modern one – let people know who I’m doing s**t with. Photo books these days are just so much about what the photographer shoots, it’s kinda monotone. With this part added to the mix, it adds a dynamic I love. It puts some color in the book. I like bringin’ my peoples up [too].

AllHipHop.com: I really love this Eazy-E print. I read that you met him at a hotel in New York for an Ego Trip story shortly before he passed…

Ricky Powell: He kinda set the mood right away when I got to the New York Hilton. He greeted me at the door with a rolled blunt with blackberry leaf paper – it was ridiculous. We vibed, ya know, which I loved, especially with someone of a different race – breaking down the racial barriers. It was kinda special. It got kinda open. I broke out the video camera and did a segment for [Rappin’ With the Rickster] as well as the story, I kinda accomplished three things in that one session. A lot of my pictures, I took while working other jobs, whether a bike messenger or a busboy, or my Frozade stand…

AllHipHop.com: In Oh Snap! there’s a shot I love of you in ’86 with the Beastie Boys at the lemonade stand. They’re kids, about to go on their tour the next day. You’re grinding. That’s history.

Ricky Powell: Yes yes yes. That’s a good one.

AllHipHop.com: Taxi Drive ris probably my favorite look at New York, as well as a dope film, period. There’s a short shot of a guy playing the drums on a street corner. He says, “And now for the syncopated style of Chick Webb.” It’s spooky. You found him over twenty years later in Lower Manhattan. That’s the kind of stuff in your art that b###### away…

Ricky Powell: You know what, I messed up with that one. I credited him as “Chick Webb” in the book. That’s what he says in the movie though, “The syncopated style of Chick Webb,” his real name is Gene Palmer. I don’t know what I was thinking. There’s this building that houses people a lil’ mentally to left field, a halfway house. I be seein’ him. “Holy s**t! That’s the dude from “Taxi Driver” One day I said, “Yo, peace, how you doin’? Can I take your picture?” I took two shots, and he obliged. Dude was bugged. I’m proud of that picture, thank you. It exemplifies my s**t.

AllHipHop.com: I often wish I could live in the New York that you capture, when I see those shots.

Ricky Powell: Wow. Very flattering, thank you. But know what? I ain’t s**t. I wish I was shooting five years earlier. I missed the [boat]. Glen E. Friedman, I give him props, ‘cause he started shooting in ’75 or ’76, and I’m so envious of that. I think I caught a lil’ bit of the mid 80’s flavor in my s**t. I think the mid 80’s was very close to the end of the golden era. The late 80’s came, good, whatever. But once [Former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani got in office – killed New York, killed it! Killed the essence of cool. I think he’s a major factor in s**t being wack.

AllHipHop.com: Will it ever turn around again?

Ricky Powell: I don’t wanna get political, but we need to get the Republicans out of the offices. I think they’re pulling some stupid corny s**t on America. It’s insulting to America, and it’s insulting to me. I don’t like to be represented by these people. I mean artists, musicians, whatever – we’ve got some freedoms. But s**t is wack right now, there’s not much to get excited over. I don’t wanna get depressed, but you know?

AllHipHop.com: You’ve got the executive and the street beggar cat sleeping on the bench together. That kinda speaks on these politics…

Ricky Powell: That’s my shot. I think it’s either called “Sophisticated Bums” or “Bummy Sophisticates.” I see a lot of moments like that, I just gotta have my camera with me.

AllHipHop.com: Has there ever been a Hip-Hop artist that adamantly did not want their picture taken?

Ricky Powell: Huh. That’s interesting you say that. I try not to force the issue. I’ve made a couple of mistakes – tryin’ to take a shot on the sneak where things didn’t go over well. Not really, though. I’ve never had no problems with anybody in Hip-Hop. Umm, as far as celebrities, I’ve asked John F. Kennedy Jr. one time if I could take his photo. I saw him in the bathroom of this club one time at a Halloween party. He was in camouflage. I asked, he said, “I’d rather if you didn’t.” Respect. Also, Sean Penn at Robert DeNiro’s restaurant, I saw him at a party. I bumped into him at the stairway [same thing]. I know how it feels. I don’t like dorks taking my picture.

AllHipHop.com: I meet many people who wanna just hang out with rappers. You’ve done it your whole career as a collaborator and a fan. There’s shots of Kool Keith freaking his Black Elvis doo in your bathroom. How do these things happen?

Ricky Powell: You’re funny. I think I was doing a story for a magazine, The Fridge or some s**t, and Keith came over. I knew he was cool. Someone informed me that he knew early 70’s sports trivia real good. That’s exactly what I’m into. I have this thing I say about him: I like any rapper that mentions Jerry Grody [Keith does so on Ultramagnetic MC’s “Two Brothers With Checks”]. He was a catcher for the Mets. We just bonded, man. It was cool. He kinda reminded me of a dude I went to Junior High School with, Roy Ambrose, funny. That was a good one. I tell ya – most of my experiences have been positive. I’ve had a couple of bad ones. It wasn’t all rosy. S**t doesn’t come easy for me. I don’t call myself a photographer. It sounds wack; dorky. I’m lucky to be doing what I do. I get minor miracles out of the blue – it keeps me going.

Selected images from Public Access: A Miss Rosen Edition by Ricky Powell, published by powerHouse Books, ©2005.