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Remembering Ricky Powell Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

2 February 2021

Ricky Powell, who captured New York City as only a native could, has died of heart failure at the age of 59.

Powell was born and raised in Brooklyn, growing up in Greenwich Village where he lived his entire life except for the two years during 7th and 8th grades he spent in the Upper West Side.

He went to school at PS41 with Rachael Horovitz, the sister of the Beastie Boys Ad-Rock, which would later prove useful to him, gaining him access to the group as its photographer and unofficial "fourth Beastie Boy."

He graduated from LaGuardia Community College with an AA in Liberal Arts and later from Hunter College with a BS in Physical Education.

'I went from being Joe Smuck to The Rickster, downtown photographer.'

His interest in photography became serious when he broke up with his serially unfaithful girlfriend who left a bag with "some clothes in it and a little Minolta Auto Focus jammy." He'd toyed with the camera before on their dates but now he was determined to "take this and make something big and something out of myself."

He credited Bill Cunningham, the monastic fashion photographer of the New York Times, with influencing him in the summer of 1986. "I was like, Yo, I'm going to try it once like that weirdo dude right there [Cunningham]. I'm going to stand on 57th and 5th and see what happens."

He started taking pictures of famous people on the street who he would approach and charm into posing for him. "Anyway, so those shots got me like, instant -- I went from being Joe Smuck to The Rickster, downtown photographer."

In 1986 Powell joined the Beastie Boys on Run-DMC's Raising Hell tour, taking photos that later became well known. He toured with Def Jam as its in-house photographer as well.

From 1990 to 1996, he interviewed celebrities like Russell Simmons, Doug E Fresh, Harold Hunter, Kool Keith, Rahzel, Laurence Fishburne, and Cypress Hill on his public-access television show Rappin' With the Rickster.

He also published several books. Oh Snap!: The Rap Photography of Ricky Powell (1998) featured 88 photos covering 10 years of rap and hip hop portraits. The Rickford Files: Classic New York Photographs followed with images of "the real New York." Frozade Moments: Classic Street Photography of Ricky Powell included postcards of Madonna, Jam Master Jay, KRS-One, Frankie Crocker, Andy Warhol and Flavor Flav, among others. Public Access: Ricky Powell Photographs 1985-2005 was a retrospective of two decades of his celebrity portraits. The Individualist (2018) featured dozens of never-before-seen photos, including portraits of the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring and hundreds more alongside ordinary people.

"I became famous for taking pictures of famous people. It's a weird dynamic in photography," he said.

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