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'Fourth Beastie Boy' Ricky Powell Curates Photo Exhibit for 50th Birthday

By Della Hasselle | December 15, 2011 9:40am
The Beastie Boys, shot by hip-hop photographer Ricky Powell. Powell will be showing this photograph and many others for an exhibit curated for his 50th birthday.
The Beastie Boys, shot by hip-hop photographer Ricky Powell. Powell will be showing this photograph and many others for an exhibit curated for his 50th birthday.
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Ricky Powell

GREENWICH VILLAGE — A famed hip-hop photographer known as "The Fourth Beastie Boy" is celebrating his 50th birthday in style this Saturday with a special group photography exhibit in the Village.

Ricky Powell has photographed rappers and rock stars for numerous magazines and newspapers over the last four decades. His career has taken him on tours with the Beastie Boys, backstage with Run DMC and Def Jam artists, and landed him centerstage on his own cable-access show, "Rappin' with the Rickster."

Powell first started taking photographs in 1985, around the same time that he was hanging out with the Beastie Boys. When the group went on its first tour with Run DMC, Powell quit his job to join them, ultimately snapping the shots that would make him famous. For the next four tours, he went everywhere the band did.

From there, his career took off, with his intimate portraits appearing everywhere from the New York Times to The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. He went on to author four books of his photography, chronicling the lives of rap stars like Public Enemy and LL Cool J, and featuring shots of celebrities like Madonna and Flava Flav in the streets of New York.

To celebrate his hip-hop lifestyle and honor his friends, Powell is curating "The Rickford Institute All-Star Classic Group Exhibition," a collection of images from the early 1980s through today. The compilation was curated by Powell and includes the work of more than 30 photographers, all of whom are "the best of the best of" friends with Powell and are integrated in various music and theater scenes in different cities.

"I said, you know what, instead of me celebrating my 50th with a show about me, let me bring in my friends and do a group show," Powell told DNAinfo. "Some are big time, some are regular folk like me who love photography. But they're all cool cats."

The exhibit, at Milk Studios, is comprised of images by both up-and-coming artists and established photographers, many of whom have captured superstars such as Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and others.

While the images come from different photographers, Powell said they all have one thing in common: celebrating "urban photography," a kind of street photography that captures life outside the studio. 

"I grew up in New York," Powell said about his aesthetic. "I've always been an observer, girl watcher, people watcher, dog watcher. I specially selected who I want for this."

He wants to use the photos to establish a focal point in the genre, he added.

"I like the idea of setting new trends, new barriers," Powell added.

The photographs selected range from subjects like Run DMC, to Andy Warhol posing on a gritty New York street with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Others capture neighborhoods in the '80s, with dogs posed in decked-out cars or afternoon games of basketball.

"The images that have been submitted and chosen for this show are pretty mind-blowing and very special to each of the artists involved," said Brooklyn resident and photographer Craig Wetherby, 39, who is featured in the exhibition and took candid shots of Powell for the show.

"I think it will have a deep impact on all who come to view what we concocted for this exhibition."

One notable photo in the show features Dennis Hopper smoking a cigarette on a balcony — an image captured by seasoned celebrity photographer Estevan Oriol. Oriol said the photo — taken in black and white for an article in Juxtapoz Magazine — is indicative of his own style, because it's "rough, rugged and raw."

LL Cool J is one of the many artists Powell has photographed.
LL Cool J is one of the many artists Powell has photographed.
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Ricky Powell

Oriol, known as much for his books and calendars about "fierce LA women" as he is for his celebrity shots, gets his signature look by shooting with film rather than digital cameras, he explained.

That is one of many techniques Oriol said he learned from Powell, a lifelong friend and mentor since the mid-'80s.

"He's always been a cool guy," Oriol said, "and I love the way he goes about everything."

He said he learned a lot from his friend just by watching him take risks, like the time Powell quit his job to do the Beastie Boys' first tour with Run DMC, launching Powell's career.

"I'm on board with the way he puts out his books and does all this stuff, just through experience. I like that kind of coach better than going through photography school and getting an agent and all that," Oriol added.

"He keeps it punk rock. It's just so much cooler."

The opening reception for "The Rickford Institute All-Star Classic Group Exhibition" will be held on Dec. 17 at Milk Studios, located on 450 W. 15th St. The party will run from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.