By Remington Mark Feierbach
Photographed by: Izzy Cohan
“Cornballs make it unbearable to go into these places” he says with a wink as his iced coffee overflows with a generous serving of half & half. “Let’s go find a stoop.” “Yes, ma’am. If you want the ultimate, we can go sit in my garden; smoke some weed or something.”
To describe Ricky Powell as subtly sensational—a term coined by the linguistic lothario himself—would be a tragic understatement. There is nothing subtle about the New York native. His charm is infectious, his tales captivating, and his generosity grandiose. Sharing the company with such a sincere soul requires more than a polite discussion over coffee and the newest “it” pastry.
A few blocks traveled and an unexpected run-in with an old bike messenger friend later, we find ourselves traveling up the stairs of his East Village apartment and out into a shaded garden area. Thoughts on prior researched materials of how Powell rose to fame as a photographer in the Basquiat and Warhol era are all consuming, leaving my cerebrum in an air of unexpected comfort. Ease surrounds us as we escape into the accompaniment of soft trumpet melodies enhanced by his iconic transmitter radio.
“I never call myself a photographer. I want to be mystical and shit. I’m 52, I’m an individualist.” Powell’s humility is impalpable as he strings together anecdotes of the time he sold frozen lemonade (shot of rum optional) to Jean Michel Basquiat, or his encounter with Cindy Crawford in the restroom of Club MK while working as a busboy—one photograph—taken while collecting dirty glasses from the women’s restroom with a bus-tub in one hand and his Minolta in the other. These photographs ultimately helped launch his career as a staple photographer of the time.
“To me, taking pictures is like collecting baseball cards. Saying ‘oh dip, I want that person in my collection’ that’s who I’m drawn to. Most celebrities today, I wouldn’t take their picture. They’re cornballs, corndogs. I like character, intelligence.”
That iconic photograph of Jean-Michel Basquiat on the street with a lemonade in hand? Powell gleefully recounts the story as a simple incident of a young artist with more money than he knew what to do with. “He stopped by my Frozade stand—of course, I’d already met him before—and hands me a hundo to pay for his lemonade and I’m all ‘c’mon man, you ain’t got anything smaller?’. So that’s when I took that picture, when he was digging into his pocket for change.” Powell harps on the importance of always having a camera with him, as life happens unexpectedly.
In Powell’s eye, the key to his success is perseverance. “I’m glad I put my pants on and got out of the house today,” he chirps. Talent is one part of the equation, but Powell certifies that the gusto to apply oneself goes much further. “It’s the people you know and the face-to-face connections you create. Life doesn’t get set on cruise control once you’ve established a sense of security. Life is about the hustle.” The skill that is so steadily being lost in the generation of nose-in-screen interaction, is the very thing that attributed to the rise of Powell’s career.
Between a collaboration with Chrome Industries that spawned a custom messenger bag featuring some of Powell’s most infamous photographs (Sofia and Francis Coppola, a young Basquiat, and a self-portrait or two), and flying to Tokyo to judge a photo contest for the Manhattan Portage, Powell takes advantage of his love for Spotify and releases unique mixtapes with names just as quirky as him. “Funky Uncle Park Bench,” “Chunky Uncle Bohemian Mixtape for Eccentric Lovemaking,” and “Professor Puffington and the Invisible Jazz Cigarette” are a few amongst the many captivating concoctions.
Growing up, New York City presented itself in a wealth of opportunities from which Powell could pick and play. He was raised by his single mother on 9th & 5th. “The guy who doinked my mom dipped. They went to a diner one day, he said he’d be right back, and never showed up again” He says this without a hint of self-pity; a martyr is one thing Ricky is not. He assures that life is about the ability to get up and pursue the path you’ve chosen. However, not everything you do is going to connect and click, it’s a tough hustle. Powell doesn’t follow formulas in life, he coons. “It all comes down to ‘the right fit’. Sometimes it’s arduous, sometimes its handed to you. It’s unpredictable, you’re rolling the dice.”
Our train of thought is interrupted as screams erupt from the flip phone that has so humbly been balanced on Powell’s left knee. “Doper Jones! What’s up?” Plans to meet at Milk Studios for a Caribbean themed soiree are soon set into place. “She’s a good one,” he says ceasing the conversation, “I call her my Joe Pesci, but with titty balls.”
The cab ride to Milk Studios is plentiful with stories of the past and tips for the future. Powell recounts how, though life may have gotten in the way at times, he has never let failure scare him. He shoots with a simple camera and cares to focus on juxtapositions that are appealing to him. To Powell, photography was a natural progression. What spawned from the discovery of a Minolta camera left behind after a bitter breakup, “she ditched me for a guy in tie dye yoga pants. It’s a well known story. She played me like a soggy cannoli,” soon became the caveat for Powell’s new identity, “‘The Rickster', downtown photographer.”
Our adventure is concluded with an assent up an elevator that delivers us to a dreamland of Caribbean vibes. The evening drifts into a rum-fueled haze, grins are exchanged over the sounds of tin drum unity and inhibitions quickly fade with the sunset.