Ricky Powell is a force of nature, for the past three decades he’s been documenting street culture around the world. As an accidental photographer Powell came up in New York alongside legends in their fields like Dondi White, Keith Haring, KRS One and Run DMC. His images caught a definitive time in the cultural evolution of hip-hop and graffiti. Nowadays Powell travels the globe, camera in hand, leaving a trail of knowledge and empty baggies in his wake. We caught up with the man whilst he was in town for CARBON Festival 2012.
So can you introduce yourself first up?
The name is Ricky Powell.
How’d you get a start?
Well I fell out of my Mum’s hoo-hee in ’61 in Brooklyn and grew up a single child with a single parent and just became a lone wolf. Just a regular kid growing up in Greenwich Village. Then in the spring of ’85 I started taking pictures.
How old were you then when you picked up a camera?
Twenty-three. I was going out with a girl for two years on and off at that point, an artist chick. She would take her camera out, a little Minolta auto-focus and we’d go to clubs like Roxy or Danceteria or whatever and she’d be like “Try it out, you do it too”. Since it was auto-focus I just started shooting people. I had a natural liking for seeing something and freezing it, freezing that moment.
But you know, shit went down and she dissed me for a dude, some jerkoff with tie-dye yoga pants and I was really mad. She left shit at my house and I took one of the cameras she had left and was like “I’m gonna make this bitch sorry she played me like a soggy cannoli”. I just started taking the camera around with me, and I just started documenting all the art openings and nightclubs that I was going to, just having a good time. I naturally started getting published in magazines like Paper Magazine and Details in the club section and I became the Rickster, Downtown Photographer. Things just cascaded, it worked out nicely.
Was it mainly event photography initially?
Nah just anything, anything that I liked. To me taking pictures of people is like collecting baseball cards, you know “I want him, I want her, I want them in my collection”.
Did the music side of it come first?
I was already going to hip-hop shows for my own love; I was going to the Apollo Theatre in ’85 taking pictures of Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash shows. I was already into the music and that whole umbrella of rap, graffiti, breaking; it was all stirring in the pot in the mid-eighties.
As far as getting involved with it professionally it came from growing up with Ad-Rock’s older sister, and I used see him around the Village, he was five years younger than me, which is a big difference when you’re teenagers. Then I started hearing about him being in this group The Beastie Boys, they played in this little club called the Cat Club in that September of ’85 so I was like “Let’s go check out these kids”.
They came out with the big 808 bass drum dropped, boom, and they came out skipping and laughing and cursing, slingin’ beers, and the beats were dope and I was just like “Oh shit, I love this”. I went backstage afterwards to say whatup to Adam and I met the other two, and I just started hanging out with them.
That Spring of ’86 they started taking me along to gigs in like Washington DC, or Boston, and that summer I was a frozen lemonade vendor and I saw that they were on the Raising Hell tour with Run DMC and LL Cool J and Whodini, it was a big deal. So I said “Fuck it”, I rolled my cart in and quit, took a plane down to Florida and knocked on the back of the Tampa Florida Dome and security brought me in and Ad-Rock was like “Oh shit yo, what are you doing here?” and I was just like “Ahh, I was in the neighbourhood”.
They gave me a bunk bed on the tour bus, and I ended up taking a couple of photos. I mean I was in awe of Run DMC, I couldn’t believe it, and I woke up the next morning in New Orleans with them and LL walking around backstage. I did that for a week, and some of the shots I took became relevant and it just helped add to my portfolio as a rapidly upcoming photographer, scenester, or as like to refer to myself, just a kid from the Village.
It just all intertwined, from the time I got Keith Haring, Warhol, Run DMC, they all just meshed and mixed so I just shot whatever appealed to me and kind of created my own universe and whoever was into what I was doing or was drawn to it was just cool. I could never imagine that I’d end up doing what I do; I mean I was going to be a phys-ed teacher after college. I always had jobs off the books to help with cash flow, I was in the weed business for years as a petty dealer, but I’m fifty now. Luckily my mind has generated and created ideas so that I can express myself and inspire people and make a living.
As someone who’s been involved in this culture as documentarian for 25 years, growing up in that golden age with guys like Dondi and Zephyr and Revolt, do you think there’s still an energy there nowadays?
Well that era is like the lost city of Atlantis; you know you’ve got to move with the times, change is inevitable with time. I’m not crazy about how things have evolved culturally and socially and I beef about it a lot. When I walk home drunk I write graffiti now, but I write messages like “Fuck the new-jack cornballs” or this or that. But I only write that because it seems like … I call it the Bush era after President Jerk-off Bush, that everything that came up in that time period, like reality shows and the music industry, everything turned into stale unflavourness, just eughh.
Also a new generation of people regardless of age have a sense of self-entitlement, they think that’s the way to be when they carry themselves, they think they put on article of clothing and it makes them cool and I’m just disgusted with it. But I’m not trying to save the world on my own, because that’s impossible. For my own health and sanity, physically and mentally, I try and concentrate on my own shit and what’s relevant to me and know that there’s a faction of society that’s interested in what I have to say. I almost feel a duty to continue to do what I’m doing, I’ve never strived to be the best or a top photographer, or this or that, I just want my own niche.
Is there anything getting you hyped now? What gets you up in the morning?
You know what inspires me? Meeting nice people. Especially young people who have a fresh open mind and aren’t on a wack tip. A lot of hipsters are on a wack tip, the ones who wear trendy expensive shit, they’re all about superficial shit and they don’t have anything to say. Those kind of people, I shun them, I try and keep myself accessible to good people.
Do you want to take on a mentoring role in that respect?
Yeah, I do. If I can, why not? That’s why I do the slideshows; it’s my way of giving history lessons in my own manner. You know, partying with the legends, which is what it was like.
Do you consider yourself a documentarian?
I do in a certain way; I wouldn’t go around calling myself that. Officially I’d say I’m an individualist, I’ve got a nickname ‘The Lazy Hustler’ because you gotta hustle, but I’m lazy about it, I complain. I’ve got seven hustles, writing, photography, video, designing, entertainer, art curator, mixtape wizard.
Naw, I say shit but I wouldn’t give myself that label. People who give themselves labels are cornballs, especially people who refer to themselves as legends. I just put my little Rickfordisms out there, short and sweet. I have a certain style and I’m sticking to it, and anyone who gets it that’s wonderful. That’s how I’m gonna do it.
Ricky Powell appeared in our New York issue. You can purchase the issue here. (Free shipping within Australia).