Old School – Street photographer Ricky Powell’s work comes to Fuzion

Ricky Powell photo exhibit
Ricky Powell photo exhibit

A day after our walk-n-talk interview on the rainy streets of Santa Barbara, street photographer and rabble-rouser Ricky Powell sends me a thank-you note. His email signature is longer than the message, all separated with slashes like a telegram: Ricky P. / The Lazy Hustler / Funky Uncle / Horny Dog Walker / KooL Substitute Teacher / Bummy Sophisticate / Illy Funkster. All these titles he’s bestowed upon himself, but perhaps Lazy Hustler fits the best.

A very brief selection of Mr. Powell’s work now hangs at Akomplice/Fuzion on State Street through the rest of the year, documenting how Mr. Powell was at the right place at the right time when hip-hop exploded in the mid-’80s.

He’s best known for being the official “unofficial” tour photographer for the Beastie Boys during their Licensed to Ill tour, hitching a ride on that train of debauchery just as it left the station in 1986. The group name-checked him on their second album “Paul’s Boutique” (“Homeboy, throw in the towel / Your girl got (expletive) by Ricky Powell”) and that inner sleeve, psychedelic shot of the group underwater is all him.

The Beastie Boys left that lifestyle behind as they cleaned up, married and had kids, but Mr. Powell, now 50 and wearing the scruff of a grey beard’s beginnings, keeps it old school. He wears long, baggy shorts, a shabby blazer and a baseball hat worn to the side. He still carries around his Minolta film camera, just like he did when he started. (His first camera belonged to an ex-girlfriend who stormed out on him. “I’m a Scorpio,” he explains, and revenge is better than vindictiveness.) He also carries around a transistor radio, which looks more like a walkie-talkie, its antenna a threat to the eyes of passersby. Those sneakers, though, bear his logo, “Do You,” and his hat promotes his “New York Crimes” line. He has made schlubbiness pay off. And Mr. Powell himself is the biggest brand of all.

But on to the photos themselves. Mr. Powell prints on thick board so he can write in the margins with sharpies. His titles fluctuate. There’s a fine photo of a startled Cindy Crawford, taken near the bathroom of club, back when she was just becoming famous. (Mr. Powell didn’t know who she was; he just saw a very attractive woman.)

Perhaps the best photo of the bunch, Mr. Powell’s portrait of rap group Run D.M.C. on some Parisian steps, with the Eiffel Tower in the back, sums up the sudden rise to fame of the group during its Raising Hell tour. The Eiffel Tower looks like a toy, and the members look half shocked they’ve made it to Europe, half proud of their deserved rise.

There’s a very early shot of the Beastie Boys, clinging to the front of a school bus, one of their first publicity shots. They are so young — younger than Mr. Powell was when he shot it.

And then there’s a bit of celeb hunting. Mr. Powell compares taking these photos to collecting baseball cards. There’s a sunny-faced and happy Basquiat, grabbed at the beginning of his fame. Next to that is a photo of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol arriving at a function.

For years, Mr. Powell said, he worked under famous photographer Lynn Goldsmith, although the influence never rubbed off. She made crazy photos taken on the fly look staged; Mr. Powell is grabbing where he can. The photos are best appreciated for what he documented, not how he documented them.

His most recent work simply promotes his fashion line, featuring Terry Richardson-esque shots of topless models wearing his hats. He still shoots every day, though Santa Barbara didn’t seem to give him much inspiration. Asked for his second favorite city to shoot in other than his home base, he can’t name one. “Chinatown?” he asks himself. Instead, he ends with a well-rehearsed quote.

“To me, street photography is like my transistor radio,” he says. “The playlist is infinite.”

Ricky Powell
When: Through December; exact dates TBD
Where: Fuzion/Akomplice, 1115 State St., Santa Barbara
Cost: Free
Information: 845-1155

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