Photographer Ricky Powell
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“To me, street photography is like my transistor radio,” says Ricky Powell. “The playlist is infinite.” It’s fitting that Powell should use such imagery to describe his artistic calling—after all, it was his work as Def Jam Records’ de facto in-house photographer that first brought Powell widespread notice and acclaim. (It was that, and the following couplet from the Beastie Boys track “Car Thief”: “Homeboy, throw in the towel / Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell.”) These days, Powell is more likely to photograph strangers in his Greenwich Village neighborhood than multiplatinum hip-hop acts and Downtown art stars—but both sides of his artistic journey are represented in The World Famous Ricky Powell Slideshow, which swung by the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown in July. Whether lensing Cindy Crawford or a random dog, Powell brings a candid, everyman’s eye style to his photography—and to the slideshow, though his acerbic wit and insider anecdotes are as much an attraction as the photographs. In advance of the show, Powell spoke to The A.V. Club from New York, sharing the cinematic inspiration for the slideshow, the feedback he gets from Matthew Broderick, and a sports metaphor to go along with his transistor radio simile.
The A.V. Club: What was the origin of the slideshow?
Ricky Powell: Well, it’s taken all kinds of forms over the years, decades. I don’t know how it started, but I would go to clubs in New York, and they would get me to put slides up on a big wall over the dance floor—as scenery. But then I saw a clip from the movie Carnal Knowledge with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen. There’s a scene [where] Garfunkel goes to his apartment with a new chick, and Jack Nicholson has a slide projector and a little screen set up in his living room. And he proceeds to show the women throughout his life—girlfriends—that he had pictures of. And he had some pretty snide remarks, which were actually pretty witty—had me rolling—and I said, “Oh man, I could do that!” I’ve been shooting now, officially, since the spring of ’85, and I had a body of work that could be somewhat intriguing to an audience who cared what I was doing.
AVC: What’s it like to see your photos projected on the big screen like that?
RP: It feels real good, like super legitimized. I put pictures up that I think would be interesting, as far as an anecdote as well as visually interesting. I like it to be a reciprocal energy going in the venue or room, or whatever. So when I hear a reaction from the audience—that really is a super-charged adrenaline, or however you call it. I love listening to typical reactions to my photos. It’s really rewarding, because it lets me know I was on to something when I chose that moment to photograph whoever or whatever it was.
AVC: Has your perception or appreciation of any photos in the show changed due to an audience’s reaction?
RP: It’s like art. Different people got different reactions to things. If me and you are standing in front of the “Mona Lisa,” I might like it, but it might not do anything for you, or vice versa. Sometimes the success of my photos varies according to geographic locations of people.
I internally computerize what kind of reactions it’s gotten. I actually came up with a new idea—I mean it’s not original or new or groundbreaking, but—for what I want to do in having photo exhibits. I want to put, instead of just having regular photos up, I want to put talking bubbles or thinking bubbles coming out of the subjects saying some stupid shit, or whatever, and hear people in the gallery bellowing with laughter instead of just looking at my photos.
AVC: Has the slideshow affected or influenced what you look for in a photo these days?
RP: Yeah. Like I said, I like to put together an ensemble of images that I think tells a good story in a certain pattern that—[Talks to someone off of the phone.] You know who that was?
RP: Matthew Broderick. He lives across the street from me. He’s a good guy—we used to play ball together as kids. I see him around. He’s cool. He’s usually shy and doesn’t talk to me, because there’s always paparazzi out there. I think he appreciates knowing that I take pictures but I’m not on his tip like that—grab a picture like a roach. ... I like getting his feedback ’cause he’s a cerebral type.
AVC: What do you hear back from Matthew Broderick?
RP: Oh, it’s great. He loves my shit. He’s on my dick, kind of. I got to tell him to fall back. But that’s between us.
AVC: You’ve transitioned into the role of a street photographer. When you’re walking around New York City, what inspires you these days?
RP: I never wanted to be confined to being called “The Beastie Boys’ photographer,” or “hip-hop photographer,” or “celebrity photographer”—all those things get played-out. But street, that can never get played-out. In spring of ’85, I figured all you got to do is step out your door and you’ve got infinite images to shoot.
I’ve taken on a role of documenting [Greenwich] Village, where I live. It depends on where my head’s at. Sometimes I take a picture of, I don’t know, two people sitting on a stoop talking or sitting in front of some establishment. Or dogs. Anything I think might be relevant as a Greenwich Village historical photo. But then, [at] times I might take a picture of some people if I think it’s funny, or this or that. It depends where my head’s at and what I come across. It kind of has to be kind of a chemical connection of some sort.
AVC: Or if you like you catch the perfect moment—like the shot in the slideshow of the two guys sleeping on the park bench.
RP: That one I call “Interracial Bumminess.” That was a good moment. I thought it was funny. A bum taking a nap, and then like two feet over is a businessman—and they’re both taking naps. Also, the thing that entices me to take certain photos is the interracial relationship. It’s a strong point of my commentary—being friends with someone who’s black or non-white is a little extra-special to me, I’ll be honest. I don’t know if it’s guilt or the white past, or I just dig or want to be down with them. I don’t know. It seems like two different kinds of humans coming together.
There’s all kinds of elements. I’m an animal lover. Of course, women. Women are a different species. It’s totally special when I make a bond with a girl, because they are different. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not, with me and girls. Actually, I’ve got the classic jinx when it comes to being involved with one. The ones I want, they give me the doo-doo look. The ones that come at me, they look like trolls from under the bridge. I’m like, “Why can’t I ever catch a break?”
AVC: If you’re going to date a girl, is it essential to you that you can take her picture?
RP: No, that’s two separate things. If I’m going to date, I’m not looking for a classic beauty. The “troll under the bridge”—that was a joke thing. At this point of my life, I’m 49-and-a-half. I’ve only had, like, three relationships that were a year-and-a-half each, and were each tumultuous. So, I’m a lone wolf. It’s just been a weird pattern. But I’ve got some nice women in my life now that I go out with socially and have a good time—I don’t try to get in their pants right off, anymore. I just try to have a good time, a good conversation. I met one woman at this thing, and she took me to a Broadway play [The Motherfucker With The Hat] a couple of weeks ago with Chris Rock and Annabella Sciorra. We had two front-row seats—we had a great time. I took her out for drinks at different bars. At Jimmy’s Corner—which is Muhammad Ali’s old trainer, he has a cool bar in Midtown—just had a great time. I’m thankful for that—having a great time—at this point. If I get horny, that’s when I order in. That’s why escorts were created, if I want to just get off. Because once I get off, then it’s like, “Okay, got that out of the way,” and then I can resume with what I got to do.
AVC: You can get back out to taking photos.
RP: I used to be a real freakazoid. That used to be my priority, like head of my schedule. But now, I just try to make quality shit. I’ve got a lot of things going on in my head. I’ve gone through a lot in the last decade. Every decade—but the last couple of years have been very heavy. I’m just trying to stay out of trouble and produce dope shit. And create a real fucking dope-ass, unique legacy. Which I think I’m doing, thankfully, because the feedback I get from people on Facebook, or whatever, tell me all positive things. I don’t want to repeat them, because I’ll feel like a cornball talking about myself. I can’t complain, except I wish I got more work. When I don’t have anything going on, I’m in between checks, it drives me nuts. So it’s like, whatever man—I chose this life, not working a conventional 9-to-5 job. I’d rather work for the Ricky Powell show. It’s got its pros and cons, just like everything else, but I’ll take this. I’m not conventional. I can’t do anything regular; it’s impossible. It’ll all be in the autobiography, The Lazy Hustler, when it gets published.
AVC: How close is it to being published?
RP: It’s funny you ask that. It’s taking on all kinds of different situations, formations—how it’s going to be published, who’s going to pick it up. Last I heard, some big literary agent, who’s like the Jerry Maguire of art books, said he’d like to see this big art book, big coffee table-type shit, and blah, blah, blah. But I haven’t heard back from him after he jazzed me up. I want to see something like that. I don’t want to do a book that’s all text with 20 color pictures in the middle. That would be like, “Bleh, boring.”
AVC: And it wouldn’t be you.
RP: I want to incorporate other people into the book. I have collaborations. I have this thing I do, “Funky Dope Maneuvers.” That’s not an original name, but that’s how I like to phrase it when I have people, artists, to get down on my photos, incorporate their artwork into them. I want to put that in there. I want to scan contact sheets. I just want to get it unpredictable and not so regular.
I’m lucky to be—sometimes I go into real deep periods of anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness. Like, “There’s no money coming, I want to make at this, boom, boom, boom, boom.” This works out, thankfully. I’ve had people tell me that I have, like, a dog god looking over me. I got some good things in the works. This sneaker company, PONY, just reached out to me, and I’m going to be like their star quarterback next year when they go for their 40th anniversary. It’s perfect, because PONY stands for “Product Of New York.”
AVC: That’s definitely what you and your photography are.
RP: And I get to design a pair of sneakers. And they want me to shoot their ad campaign. So, that was a nice thing. A lot of times when I think of people or companies that I think would be good to get down with and I reach out, they fucking treat me like soggy cannoli or a wet tuna sandwich. They never get back to me, or they’re fucking just rude. It’s real fucking whack. And then something better comes along shortly thereafter. It’s weird. I have different monikers for myself, like The Lazy Hustler, The Cool Substitute Teacher, The Oscar Madison Of Hip-Hop, The Horny Dog Walker, The Illy Funkster. I’ve actually come up with one recently: Half And Half, like the cream, ’cause I think I’m half-liked, half-praised, or whatever—and half-despised.
AVC: How did you arrive at that?
RP: Like I said, I get a lot of praise from people on Facebook saying they love my style, my photography, my old public-access show. And then there’s other people who—I don’t know what it is—maybe they’re jealous of me or whatever. I’ve got a faction of society that really tries their darndest to try to fucking shit on me, and I’m just like, “Damn.” They think they’re the model, they’re the judges. That’s actually a lot of people that I grew up with. I used to wild out a lot. I was a real party animal. I had all kinds of mini-orgies in my studio apartment on my futon. Just with girls, though, but you know, wildin’ out and shit. But I have a lot of good people in my life. A lot of new friends, new acquaintances, people who I like, respect, and appreciate. I’ve moved on. I would have liked to have been friends with a lot of people I grew up with and had that foundation, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
I’m happy right now. I want, if anything, to be an entertainer. I want a regular job, where I can get paid major-league money—or decent money—to do what I do, and still do my street photography. But I would like to have a show of some sort, some kind of TV show, just to pay the bills regularly, but still keep it regular. One thing about me that I’m proud to say: I’m still like Regular Joe from the neighborhood, no matter how much praise or props I get.
AVC: How would you envision a new TV show? What kind of ideas do you have for that?
RP: I shouldn’t give it away, but fuck it. I’ve got at lot of projects in the works. One, this dude filmed me for his idea of a pilot: It’s a thing on dudes who are into sneakers and records. We filmed that over the winter and he put it in the hands of some people, distributors, and it’s been getting great feedback. One of my visions is I want to have a talk show. You remember my old public-access show, Rappin’ With The Rickster?
RP: I would do a lot of interviews on benches and shit, or wherever. That shit was crazy, a nutty format. But now, I’d like to do a talk show on park benches, like in Central Park, and just fucking feed squirrels with the guests, and have squirrels coming up to us. I like that, because if you’re the viewer, you’re looking at little creatures in the picture, too. And I like that.
AVC: The only problem with that is finding the guests who like that as well.
RP: Yeah, that’s true. But the kind of people I’d be interested in, I don’t think they’d have a problem with it. Also, I have another format: I think when two friends get together and have a slice of pizza at a pizza joint—that’s real good conversating, when you’re eating a slice together and looking out into the street and looking at life. There’s something about it. I’d like to do that: interviews with people outside of pizza places, having a slice, talking about life.
I’d like to be on Bill Maher’s show. I don’t have cable, but I’ve seen it a few times. I like his show; I like what he says. He’s one of the few out there that I like. Sometimes I get bitter or mad when I see cornballs like Carson Daly with a show or Conan O’Brien—they fucking suck. They’re tools, and they think they’re fucking witty. And I see that and I’m like, “How do you jerk-offs have a show?” but then I get off that, just change the channel and get off that tip, because it’s negative. I heard an HBO representative is going to be at this show in Austin. I’m going to do a great show. First and foremost, I want to have a great show and entertain the audience, and we all have a great time. But it wouldn’t be bad if something came out of it, like a big gig on HBO. I wouldn’t be mad at that.
Ricky PowellAVC: Of all the shots that are in the slideshow, what is the biggest source of personal pride for you?
RP: That’s almost impossible to answer; it’s like asking which one of your children is your favorite. Let’s see, which one do I get psyched about? It’s hard to narrow it down, but I get a groove by telling the one story where I put the Cindy Crawford shot up in the girls’ bathroom at Club MK in 1989. She looks beautiful in it. I was a busboy at Club MK back in the day, in ’89. And I went into the girls’ bathroom with the bus bin, with the bottles and the glasses, and I start picking shit up out of the sink, and I hear the toilet door swing open, and I kind of glance over my shoulder and she’s standing there in the toilet stall, fixing herself up. And we looked at each other and I said, “Oh, snap! What’s up? What’s up, pretty girl?” And she goes, “Not much.” And I go, “Do you mind if I take a picture of you?” And she goes, “All right.” So I pulled out my camera and took one picture of her, right there. It’s actually one of my classics. I want to point out that, in the ’80s, I took a lot of my great shots while I was working bullshit, mundane jobs like bike messaging, bus boy, substitute teacher, frozen lemonade vendor. ’Cause I always brought a camera with me, you know, like point-and-shoot, to battle the mundaneness of the job. And I actually ended up taking a lot of my famous classic shots that way. I like that, looking back.
AVC: It taught you a lesson in always being prepared.
RP: Yeah, of course. If you want to be a photographer, especially street photography, you’ve got to have your camera, man. You’ve got to be ready. And if you’re not ready when an image pops up, to me it’s like a turnover in sports. To me, sports and life are very analogous. To win games, you’ve got to minimize turnovers, if you want to win. So, you’ve got to be ready. I’ve done clothing lines—that’s another thing I do, I’m a clothing designer. Ralph Lauren is one of my competitors. Nah, I’m just kidding. But I usually put on the tag, “Stay in the game. You never know when a fumble is going to come your way.” I got that from a playoff game between the Giants and the Eagles a couple years ago. The Eagles were the underdogs, and I remember the sportscaster interviewing one of the dudes from the Eagles saying, “Hey, you guys are the underdogs. What’s your guys’ strategy for this game?’ And the guy said, “Well, basically, we’re just going to try to stay in the game with them, and hopefully a fumble pops up here and there.” And I was like “Wow. I hear that, I hear that.” That’s how it is with me in life, with jobs and making money to eat and paying my bills. You just got to hang in there, and hopefully you get some gigs. That’s The Cool Substitute talking right there.