Ricky Powells lens never lies. Neither does he. Ricky Powell is one of the reasons this writer has a manual focus camera. The strikingly humble fourth Beastie Boy has been capturing numerous snaps of MCs, DJs, 70s cinema extras, and dimes since the mid 1980s. These images have developed into a visual archive of what many might call "better times."
On the release of his fourth book, Public Access, Ricky Powell builds with AllHipHop.com. The latest release features new photos, plus artistically altered classics. Ricky shared some excerpts and waxed his thoughts on New York, photography, and Kool Keiths crazy sports references. Oh snap!
AllHipHop.com: Whats it like to be doing this in 2005?
Ricky Powell: Theres a lot of ups and downs a lot of all or nothings. Right now, its very rough. Im doing very well, professionally, but I dont know man, its crazy I got no cash-flow right now.
AllHipHop.com: Do you think that Public Access will change that?
Ricky Powell: Oh yeah, its gonna take a minute till I get any royalties though. You know, Im waiting on s**t, just different things. I just shot a bunch of pictures in France, at Paris. Im waiting on that, and a couple knuckleheads owe me a couple 20s here and there.
AllHipHop.com: How did it come about to let artists add to your existing photographs?
Ricky Powell: I got the idea like five years prior. I had this girlfriend, and one day she painted on [a photo of] DMC with an ice-cream truck. She made it like Italian colors. I was just like, What? it struck me hard. I give my pictures to my friends and let them get busy let the viewer see the collaboration. I collect books on Greenwich Village, and I love seeing what artists were hangin out together in the 50s and 60s, even if they were just hanging out for a drink. So, I figured Id make a modern one let people know who Im doing s**t with. Photo books these days are just so much about what the photographer shoots, its kinda monotone. With this part added to the mix, it adds a dynamic I love. It puts some color in the book. I like bringin my peoples up [too].
AllHipHop.com: I really love this Eazy-E print. I read that you met him at a hotel in New York for an Ego Trip story shortly before he passed
Ricky Powell: He kinda set the mood right away when I got to the New York Hilton. He greeted me at the door with a rolled blunt with blackberry leaf paper it was ridiculous. We vibed, ya know, which I loved, especially with someone of a different race breaking down the racial barriers. It was kinda special. It got kinda open. I broke out the video camera and did a segment for [Rappin With the Rickster] as well as the story, I kinda accomplished three things in that one session. A lot of my pictures, I took while working other jobs, whether a bike messenger or a busboy, or my Frozade stand
AllHipHop.com: In Oh Snap! theres a shot I love of you in 86 with the Beastie Boys at the lemonade stand. Theyre kids, about to go on their tour the next day. Youre grinding. Thats history.
Ricky Powell: Yes yes yes. Thats a good one.
AllHipHop.com: Taxi Drive ris probably my favorite look at New York, as well as a dope film, period. Theres a short shot of a guy playing the drums on a street corner. He says, And now for the syncopated style of Chick Webb. Its spooky. You found him over twenty years later in Lower Manhattan. Thats the kind of stuff in your art that blow me away
Ricky Powell: You know what, I messed up with that one. I credited him as Chick Webb in the book. Thats what he says in the movie though, The syncopated style of Chick Webb, his real name is Gene Palmer. I dont know what I was thinking. Theres this building that houses people a lil mentally to left field, a halfway house. I be seein him. Holy s**t! Thats the dude from Taxi Driver One day I said, Yo, peace, how you doin? Can I take your picture? I took two shots, and he obliged. Dude was bugged. Im proud of that picture, thank you. It exemplifies my s**t.
AllHipHop.com: I often wish I could live in the New York that you capture, when I see those shots.
Ricky Powell: Wow. Very flattering, thank you. But know what? I aint s**t. I wish I was shooting five years earlier. I missed the [boat]. Glen E. Friedman, I give him props, cause he started shooting in 75 or 76, and Im so envious of that. I think I caught a lil bit of the mid 80s flavor in my s**t. I think the mid 80s was very close to the end of the golden era. The late 80s came, good, whatever. But once [Former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani got in office killed New York, killed it! Killed the essence of cool. I think hes a major factor in s**t being wack.
AllHipHop.com: Will it ever turn around again?
Ricky Powell: I dont wanna get political, but we need to get the Republicans out of the offices. I think theyre pulling some stupid corny s**t on America. Its insulting to America, and its insulting to me. I dont like to be represented by these people. I mean artists, musicians, whatever – weve got some freedoms. But s**t is wack right now, theres not much to get excited over. I dont wanna get depressed, but you know?
Ricky Powell: Thats my shot. I think its either called Sophisticated Bums or Bummy Sophisticates. I see a lot of moments like that, I just gotta have my camera with me.
AllHipHop.com: Has there ever been a Hip-Hop artist that adamantly did not want their picture taken?
Ricky Powell: Huh. Thats interesting you say that. I try not to force the issue. Ive made a couple of mistakes tryin to take a shot on the sneak where things didnt go over well. Not really, though. Ive never had no problems with anybody in Hip-Hop. Umm, as far as celebrities, Ive asked John F. Kennedy Jr. one time if I could take his photo. I saw him in the bathroom of this club one time at a Halloween party. He was in camouflage. I asked, he said, Id rather if you didnt. Respect. Also, Sean Penn at Robert DeNiros restaurant, I saw him at a party. I bumped into him at the stairway [same thing]. I know how it feels. I dont like dorks taking my picture.
AllHipHop.com: I meet many people who wanna just hang out with rappers. Youve done it your whole career as a collaborator and a fan. Theres shots of Kool Keith freaking his Black Elvis doo in your bathroom. How do these things happen?
Ricky Powell: Youre funny. I think I was doing a story for a magazine, The Fridge or some s**t, and Keith came over. I knew he was cool. Someone informed me that he knew early 70s sports trivia real good. Thats exactly what Im into. I have this thing I say about him: I like any rapper that mentions Jerry Grody [Keith does so on Ultramagnetic MCs Two Brothers With Checks]. He was a catcher for the Mets. We just bonded, man. It was cool. He kinda reminded me of a dude I went to Junior High School with, Roy Ambrose, funny. That was a good one. I tell ya most of my experiences have been positive. Ive had a couple of bad ones. It wasnt all rosy. S**t doesnt come easy for me. I dont call myself a photographer. It sounds wack; dorky. Im lucky to be doing what I do. I get minor miracles out of the blue it keeps me going.
Selected images from Public Access: A Miss Rosen Edition by Ricky Powell, published by powerHouse Books, ©2005.