Ricky Powell, 59, dies; Early Chronic Hip-Hop and Downtown New York


Ricky Powell, the Zelig of downtown New York who, with his point-and-shoot camera, documented the early years of hip-hop ancestry as well as a host of other subcultural scenes and celebrities and fringe figures who populated the city, was found dead on Monday in his West Village apartment. He was 59 years old.

The death was confirmed by its director and archivist, Tono Radvany, who said a cause had not yet been determined. Mr Powell learned he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last year and that he had ongoing heart problems.

Mr. Powell – often affectionately referred to as “the Lazy Hustler” – oozed vintage New York charm and charm. An avid walker, he pounded the sidewalk with his camera and snapped pictures of everything he liked: superstars, well-dressed passers-by, animals.

Above all, he was close to the emergence of the Beastie Boys, which catapulted him into an unforeseen career as a touring photographer and key member of the entourage, putting him at the forefront of the global hip explosion. -hop from the mid-1980s.

“Although Ron Galella was his hero – he was the original paparazzi – I used to tell Ricky you got Weegee flavor too,” the once ubiquitous New York street photographer, Fab 5 Freddy said. , the first hip-hop impresario and a longtime friend and photo subject of Powell. “He was always in the inner circle, one of the only – if not the only person – taking pictures.”

Mr Powell’s photographs were intimate and casual, precursors to the casual hyper-documentation of the social media age. They often felt fully inside the moment, living it rather than watching it. His subjects were varied: Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, captured in the street in front of the opening of a gallery; Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter, Sofia, at one of his first fashion shows; Run-DMC posing in front of the Eiffel Tower; pre-superstar Cindy Crawford in a nightclub bathroom; people sleeping on park benches.

“He wasn’t trained, he didn’t know how to compose a photo, he didn’t know what an opening 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, both of which featured the work of Mr. Powell. “But you could sense his curiosity for the people he was photographing, so none of that really mattered. He made people laugh and feel at ease; you see it all in his photos.

Ricky Powell was born November 20, 1961 in Brooklyn 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 also, more importantly, a regular at downtown clubs like Max’s Kansas City, where she took Ricky as a child. She is his only immediate survivor.

“I grew up fast, man. Fast, ”Mr. Powell says in“ Ricky Powell: The Individualist, ”a documentary about his life set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. It is now scheduled for this year’s festival, in June.

Josh Swade, who directed the documentary, said Mr. Powell had raw social and cultural intelligence, “to just be on the streets of New York in the ’60s and’ 70s, fending for yourself.”

Actress Debi Mazar met Mr. Powell when they were both teenagers on bicycles in downtown Manhattan. They were, she says, “children of the city.” Together they went to Paradise Garage, Mudd Club, and other hot spots. “Every door opened for Ricky,” Ms. Mazar said. “When we walked into a club, we were the cool kids. He had this know-how, this electricity.

Fab 5 Freddy recalled that “New York was a polarized place when we first met,” but Mr. Powell “was comfortable with black kids at a time when you weren’t just going to other areas. . “

It has become a staple of the Fun Gallery, Danceteria, Roxy and more, rubbing shoulders with graffiti artists, rappers, punk rockers, artists and other creative eccentrics who populated the bustling and jagged world of downtown. from New York. He played on Futura 2000 graffiti artist’s softball team, the East Village Espadrilles.

“It was almost like he was invisible, too,” Futura said, as he’s now known. “He was always looking for a photo he could take.”

After graduating from college, Mr Powell sold ice cream in a street cart for a while, offering to poke the treat with rum for an additional dollar. He photographed people on the streets during his shifts, including stage stars like Basquiat. He was already friends with the Beastie Boys, who had just signed a recording deal with Def Jam, and one day he bought himself a plane ticket to join them on the road – they were opening for Run-DMC on the Raising Hell Tour – and never looked back.

Mr. Powell has become a crucial part of the Beastie Boys ecosystem – partying, sometimes keeping track of luggage, playing one of the cheesy protagonists of the video “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!” )” And more . His name was verified on “Car Thief,” a track from the band’s 1989 album, “Paul’s Boutique,” ​​and was known enough to have his own groupies.

“When he showed up, that’s where the party started,” Radvany said.

All the while he was taking pictures, and they quickly became essential artifacts. Mr. Powell was a documentary of a half-world who was often too busy living noisily to stop and think. Over the years, his images have appeared in Paper, Ego Trip, Mass Appeal, Animal, and other magazines. He has 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 loved being part of the crew, just hanging out. The entourage, per se, but also being a photographer simultaneously taking relevant photos, ”says Powell in the documentary. “I think you have to get a degree in humanistic behaviors before you can master the two together.”

Futura said: “He was very New Yorker for a chat. He embodied that for me. I know my own genre.

For several years in the 1990s, Mr. Powell had a public access television show, “Rappin ‘With the Rickster,” in which he swapped a stationary camera for a video camera while keeping the energy loose and unpredictable. towards which he climbed and generated his own. (A DVD of the series’ greatest hits was released in 2010.)

He was alongside the Beasties for a decade, but broke up with them in 1995 as the group let go of their old noisy, disruptive and boorish ways. “He’s become mature,” Powell says in the documentary. “They did what they did, but I always stayed me.

After returning to New York, Mr. Powell struggled to find a purpose, and for a time struggled with drug addiction.

He hadn’t always known how to leverage his crucial archives from an under-documented time. “He could have turned the connections into a profitable operation,” Mr. Swade said. “But you have to come forward for this.”

Eventually he began working with Mr. Radvany, who set out to organize his archives, and collaborate with brands that either licensed his old work or commissioned new projects from him channeling his New Water energy. -York. He was also telling live slideshows of his old images, telling the stories behind the photos.

“When I started with him he was broken down and I had to help him earn money,” Radvany said. “He loved social media. He was a lazy con artist – he could sit on his futon and sell printed materials.

And he never left his small apartment in West Village, which swarmed with the scent of a life immersed in the epicenter of the city: contact cards, sneakers, basketball jerseys, magazines and vintage records, endless memories of the development. of contemporary New York creation. culture. He was, even after all these decades, one with the scene he captured.

“You didn’t see him as a photographer,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “He was a cool kid in the mix who would pull out the camera, take a few pictures, put it away and say, ‘Pass the joint over here.'”

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