Ricky Powell is a bonafide New York City legend. He’s also a charming, only-in-New York character with a lingo all his own, or as he refers to it, his “Scorpio mango-izm.” That charm has taken him a long way. Born and raised in the city, Powell made his name in the photography world shooting off-the-cuff portraits of the people he encountered out on the streets and in the clubs, galleries, and nightspots of the city. His photos capture the life of New York, from the biggest stars to everyday people. In his telling, it’s all just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Fresh off the plane from Tokyo, Powell stopped by The Standard’s offices to tell us some of the stories behind his latest book featuring a slew of photos he’s never shown before.
THE STANDARD: Let's start with the Mike Tyson photo. What was going on when you shot this?
RICKY POWELL: Well, this was a Public Enemy show at Studio 54 in 1988. It had become a venue for different shows—it used to be, of course, the old disco. This particular picture was the night after he had an infamous street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. I think it was in front of Dapper Dan's actually. I had known him already for a couple years just from being around and I saw him standing there and I said, "Ooof, there's a photo." I just snapped a quick flickeroni and I titled it "Pitbull Off the Leash." This was in the Daily News the next day, page two. It's funny 'cause here we are, almost thirty years later, and people are jumping out the window over this photo—it's gotten a rebirth. So, I'm happy, I like it.
What were your interactions with Mike Tyson back then? Did he recognize you?
I met him in '86 at the Palladium, right after he became the youngest heavyweight. I was wearing a Beastie Boys shirt, and he thought I was one of the Beastie Boys. I kept telling him, "I'm not. I'm not." He kept saying, "Stop bullshitting me." So, I said, "Alright, I'm one of them." [Laughs.] So, I had become tight with [the Beastie Boys] and I started touring and I remember he showed up at the Greek Theater when they did a week straight with Run DMC. He came backstage and he had seen me around because I was out and about. That era that people designate as the Golden Era of Hip Hop between '86 and '89—it was a meaty, hefty part of my shooting, actually. Club stuff, art gallery openings, hip hop shit. So, you know, I was out and about. He used to see me around. We had a mutual respect.
Do you have a favorite Beastie Boys photo?
Not really, not one. You know, it's like having children. Which one's your favorite kid? I don't know. There's different ones. I like the ones I shot when I hooked up with them in '86. Then of course I like the Licensed to Ill era in '87. I like the Paul's Boutique era in '89.
Were you their tour photographer?
They brought me on as an unofficial official tour photographer. Then, for the Check Your Head tour in '92, they were like "No, you gotta work this time. You're gonna do luggage." I was like, "OK." So, that's how it basically went. In '94, same thing. It was good times touring the country with an intelligent, hip group. I was lucky.
Were they game subjects to be shot? Were they easy to wrangle?
We had a good chemistry. I wouldn't always be up in their face. Actually, two years ago, I commemorated "30 Years of Pro Photos on a Hangout Tip." That's how I did it—hanging out and being a part of the scenery and then something would come up and I'd be like "Lemme get this flick, this is a good one, you're going to thank me one day" type shit.
Yeah. Elliott Irwin. Ron Delsner, who was a music promoter. Leroy Nieman. Cool dudes. Mark Metcalf, he was Niedermeyer in Animal House.
How did this book come together?
The person to lay out the book did it, but it got tweaked along the way. I'd give input and a guy finagled, you know what I mean? Finagled? So, you know, this is the final piece. It took two years. It was an arduous wait for me. I wanted it out as soon as possible, but Pietro at 1X1 [publisher] wanted it to be perfect, so he was like, “Cool your buns, have a knish, we're going to make it perfect.” I saw him a month or two ago and I kind of nudged him in the ribs and I said, "Listen, don't get fuckin' souped, but you were right. It was worth the wait." And we both kind of chuckled.
What's going on in this Brooke Shields photo?
That’s from '86 when I was in my paparazzi [phase]. Shooting for Lynn Goldsmith. Lynn Goldsmith, you know about her? She's a legend in photography. She had a photo agency called LGI, so she kind of brought me into the agency. I got all into this paparazzi frame of mind, going to events, hanging out and just taking my pictures with a little Minolta Sure Shot, never used the big cameras. I just kind of hung out. So, [Brooke Shields] was enchanted by my Scorpio mango-izm right there. I could have doinked her if I wanted. [Laughs.]
What's one in here that people haven't seen before?
Tons. That's Warhol in '86.
Warhol was just out and about, right?
That's at the AIDS benefit, too.
What was your impression of him back then? What was your relationship?
I had taken a picture of him and Basquiat a year earlier on the way to their duo show at [Tony] Shafrazi [Gallery]. So I'd seen him around. Dude congregated with zillions of people, I don't think he remembered me, but you know, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, I said, "What's up? Can I get a flick with you?" type of shit. I call this one "15 Seconds of Fame."
And he was shooting photos all the time, too, right?
Yeah, with a Sure Shot, so boom-boom-boom. We had that in common. I'm kind of like the next generation on that tip, even though I didn't really emulate him, but I've seen pictures of him shooting with a little Sure Shot.
What’s the story of this Kenny Scharf photo?
Oh yeah, that's a good one. I don't know why they put this one in, it's kind of embarrassing.
For him or you?
Posed or not posed?
Nah, I just walked up to him and go, "Hey Kenny!" I think maybe he did it as a joke with the look. He was very cool for a big shot artist. Like regular peoples on the scene. I see him around now. He’s a very nice guy.
What's this sitting on top of the urinal? Do you know?
Jesus, I don't know. Good question. I have no idea.
Here’s Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons.
Dynamic duo right there. Heavy hitters.
I didn't realize Lyor was so tall.
Yeah, he's a big kid. He's cool.
What about this photo of Chuck D at Lyor Cohen's wedding?
Dominican Republic. Lyor flew down 100 people for one of his weddings.
Everybody together on one plane or separate?
Yeah, together. It was buck nutty. I think everyone got Montezuma's Revenge except me. That's the main thing I remember.
How'd you avoid Montezuma's Revenge?
I just drank soda out of the can. They get you with the ice cubes. [Laughs.]
Flips through photos
Chuck Close. Funny ass mofo. Good sense of humor. I heard him saying some ill shit to women on the sidewalk. It was witty, though, 'cause they were laughing. I was like, "Oh shit, you got some rap."
How have you been able to shoot so many noteworthy people over the years?
People had a positive response to me, so I just went with it. I like when I have a chemistry with someone. Obviously, my Scorpio charm is oozing. My highly-sophisticated Oscar Madison bah-bah-bah.
What's with the radio you carry all the time?
My Jewish boombox? It's everything to me. I need a soundtrack when I'm walking down the street.
What are you listening to, what are your stations?
Jazz88, WFAN Sports Talk Radio, the news stations on AM. WBAI. I like the Jay Smooth show.
Have you always carried one of those?
I need it. I use it in a lot of videos. I have a hashtag—#LateNightKookStroll. I can't sleep. I'm a night owl. I go for walks. I live in the West Village and I go for walks. People love it. If I may.
What time is that?
Two, three, four in the morning.
Are you the kook or are kooks the people you encounter?
It's me. I like to call myself that. Self-deprecating. I just shoot whatever. Life according to me. People like my taste.