Ricky Powell’s Balancing Act

Published February 16, 2012

ABOVE: RICKY POWELL. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN DWELS

Ricky Powell has roots in the streets. Yet this old-school West Village native has become an international force, shooting celebrities with a gritty, honest eye as well as training his lens on the genuine characters who inhabit sidewalks from New York to Tokyo. We caught up with Powell on the set of a recent Christopher Street photo shoot, where he explained where his inspiration comes from. “My grandmother used to take me shopping on Orchard Street in the late ’60s. She used to talk Yiddish with all the shop owners. It was special. So in faces, I look for authenticity, down to earth, sometimes comical shit. Models or posers don’t do a thing for me.”

As Powell left behind his set to pick up a print from fellow photographer Glen Friedman, he gave us an impromptu tour of the neighborhood which shaped so much of his early visual experiences, from the Jefferson Market Library—which was still a women’s penitentiary in Powell’s day—to stoops he made famous by posing Sofia Coppola, Public Enemy, and Run-DMC on them.

Powell, a self-described “lazy hustler,” just turned 50. “I’m going to celebrate all year,” Powell rasped. “I got seven hustles. Lucky seven. The individualist writes, takes pictures, does video, does interviews, entertainer, producer, I design.” Yet he isn’t just referring to reveling at posh parties, where he’s snapped some of his famous subjects (Andy Warhol, Cindy Crawford, Spike Lee). Powell is designing his own shoe for PONY, which will be animal-friendly in deference to his vegetarianism; his book Public Access: Ricky Powell Photographs 1985–2005 (powerHouse Books) is out now; he’s put together a Funky Uncle Bohemian Mixtape through WeAretheGoodLife.com this week (listen if you want to attain “Discrete Older Man” status); and in December he curated an All-Star New York show at Milk Studios featuring the work of Aviva Klein, Charlie Ahearn, Cheryl Dunn, Jamel Shabazz, Jim Britt, Martha Cooper, and many more.

Powell looks for authenticity in his curation, as well as his subjects—on certain photographers he chose not to include, Powell moaned, “Ugh, yo that creep is the Van Wyck. Wyck Expressway to Schmucksville.” And true to his Manhattan roots, the rest of 2012 will find Powell collaborating on exhibitions and limited-edition prints with MEMES NYC. A half-century in, he’s just getting started.