“I’ve seen New York City get invaded and infested by cornballs,” Ricky Powell recently told Interview magazine. “A lot of the cool, interesting people are gone.”
Powell, the photographer who chronicled early hip-hop and Downtown New York in the 1980s, died on Monday, February 1 at his home in the West Village. He was 59. His conversation with Interview turned out to be his final interview.
Powell, a fixture of the downtown scene, was rarely seen without his point-and-shoot Minolta camera, which he used to take iconic images of the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and countless others.
Powell wasn’t a classically trained photographer. In fact, his career began almost by accident. A girl he was dating at the time was in the arts program at NYU and she also happened to own several cameras. When they went out at night, often visiting spots like The Roxy and Danceteria, Powell would borrow his girlfriend’s camera and snap photos of friends, celebrities, and other people that he knew. Soon enough, the East Village Other and Paper were commissioning him to take photographs of New York clubs for their publications.
“I went from Joe Schmuck to Rick the downtown photographer overnight,” he recalled. “Photography opened many doors for me.”
Following the news of his recent death, Powell’s many subjects paid tribute to the late photographer’s work–from Lenny Kravitz and Q-Tip to Chuck D and Questlove:
— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) February 3, 2021
Rip 2 my man Ricky Powell. So NYC official… the parties when he would rock the slides.. the jokes and most importantly his capturing of life 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/qhinT9a10S
— QTip (@QtipTheAbstract) February 2, 2021
#RestInBeats The Rickster aka RICKY Powell of course to the right of Clyde Frazier was the quintessential New York Cityer , iconic B Boy and the ‘freezer of great NEW YORK moments and figures’ as a photographer. He shot with authentic ease and NYC swag before the popular term pic.twitter.com/8omwjYvRXc
— Chuck D (@MrChuckD) February 2, 2021
In so many ways, Powell chronicled and even represented a New York that no longer exists. As Jon Caramanica wrote in last week’s New York Times, Powell “oozed vintage New York City charm and pluck. An inveterate walker, he pounded the pavement with his camera and snapped photos of whatever caught his fancy: superstars, well-dressed passers-by, animals.”
For a closer look at the late photographer’s life and work, Josh Swade’s recent documentary, Ricky Powell: The Individualist (2020), offers an honest, intimate, and at times heartbreaking portrait of the New York original.