Legendary Photographer Ricky Powell’s Still Got It
The word “legend” gets thrown around pretty often these days. But when you dig deep, it’s usually being applied to someone who doesn’t really deserve that mantle. That’s not the case with Ricky Powell, a photographer who made his name snapping pics of Def Jam artists like The Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, eventually turning that and other work into a number of well-received books. He also famously hosted “Rappin’ With the Rickster,” a public access TV show that saw him chatting with artists, musicians, and directors like Jean-Michelle Basquiat, Sonic Youth, and Sofia Coppola. But despite those accomplishments, Powell remains a man of the people and is often seen running around Greenwich Village in his signature cap and glasses, with his blaring transistor radio in tow. He’s also an associate of Good Luck Dry Cleaners, shooting an iconic image of their first Williamsburg storefront gallery for them. With a history like that, we were truly excited when Powell swung by the O.N.S flagship store in SoHo to let us snap a couple photos of him and ask him a few questions.
I know you’re a self taught photographer. Do you think that’s allowed you to be more creative and more yourself in your work?
Yes, you could say that. I basically shoot what and whom I’m drawn towards. Since I use a “point and shoot,” I learned through trial and error. I also learned from looking at photos from photographers that I like and respect.
What’s your association with West 4th Street? Why are you always wearing that West 4th Street hat and what does it mean to you?
I like the logo and the design of the hat. It’s simple. And more importantly it’s where I’m from. I grew up in the Village. And used to hang out there in the early ’70s, when I was a lil’ runt, about nine or ten, mostly in the “half Cage” basketball court. It was a scene. The whole park was a scene. The regulars on the full court were interesting. Those games were hotly contested and I knew all of them and they knew me. I still see a few of them around, notably Kenny Graham AKA Mr. West 4th Street. He started the summer tournament there, so he’s still around and still runs it. Love that guy.
Your photographs always convey your subject’s personality and style so well. Do you have any tips for people on making sure their own personalities and vibes shine through in everyday life?
Well, all I can say on that is do you, in whatever you’re comfortable in. I know there’s a fashionable part to how people want to look or be, which I relate to. But personally I like to come off as “fashionable by accident.” Listen, everybody has their own taste and can choose how they want to present themselves in public. I would say don’t stress yourself out by trying too hard. Unless it’s a matter of income or status, then I guess you have to conform. And that’s whatevers.
What’s your all-time favorite pair of sneakers?
Oof, my all-time favorite? That’s a tough one. Well I used to love the Pro-Keds lows in white and grey suede, like what Pistol Pete Maravich rocked in the early ’70s. I also rocked the Puma Clydes for many years. Now I like the classic Converse One Stars, but I do wish they’d make them in hi-top again.
You’re often seen with your transistor radio, but back in the days did you carry a big boom box? What’s doper: a big boom box or transistor radio?
[Laughs] I had a semi-big boombox that I would take to Washington Square Park. Then I downsized to a one-speaker cassette player, because it was lighter and easier to stroll with. But I’ve had transistors since the mid-’70s. It’s easy to carry and I always need something to listen to, either music, news, ball games, or some nonsense. But now, for music, I use Spotify with a Bluetooth. It’s redonkadonkadonkulous.
If you had to sum up your whole vibe in one word, what would it be?
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Photography: Eduardo Brassai