Tony Powell is fierce with a camera. He’s prompt and demanding of himself and his subjects. He’s direct but not unkind. He’s energetic but not overwhelming. And his work is everywhere in DC, adorning program pages for Arena Stage productions and plastered on the covers of Washington Life. He’s shot for The Atlantic. He’s shot for the Pope. He’s shot most of the President’s cabinet.
“I’ve never been more present, I’ve never been more alive, I’ve never been more secure and solid in what I’m doing,” Powell tells me in Georgetown while savoring a vegan concoction from South Block. “I have friends in every quarter of power in Washington. I’m in the homes of the secretaries, our cabinet here. The photography has just taken off.”
Powell is always positive.
For a long time, photography was just one of many tools on his utility belt of expression: a portrait here, a selfie there. Many years prior to his time asking people to smile in the studio, Powell was on the stage. In the late 70s, when he was a child attending elementary school in Chevy Chase, Maryland, he participated in a dance organized by a visiting troupe from Howard University’s drama department. Like the other 500 kids, Powell froclicked and moved freely and effortlessly, but unlike the other children, he was noticed.
“They called me on the loud speaker: ‘Anthony Powell, come to the office,’ and I thought I had done something wrong,” Powell says. “I really couldn’t figure out what I’d done. So I get there and they said, ‘Would you be interested in auditioning for a performance?’ They really liked the way I danced and told me I had a wonderful sense of presence. I said, ‘Sure.’”
Powell found himself on the European leg of Raisin, replacing Ralph Carter of Good Times fame. Here, at the age of 9, he got to experience orchestral performances, professional singers, dancers and creative professionals up close.
“I got to see how an orchestra was put together. I watched the choreographers during the musical, and I watched how the lighting came together in the costume design and set design all in one major production,” he says. “It was like a fulfillment of an artistic dream of mine, even though I hadn’t yet had the dream. I was able to subconsciously see how it all comes together.”
This almost unreal experience served as reinforcement for Powell’s eventual career in the arts. Growing up, his family had always encouraged him to pursue creative endeavors, but upon seeing the multitude of outlets in which he could do so, he embraced them all.
“I was shown at a very young age that the arts were a viable avenue for my life – for livelihood,” Powell says. “I think it’s so important to expose children to the arts at an early age, to really give them a chance to see it as an option. I’m just really blessed, when I look back, that my parents were not closed-minded in that regard.”
A Juilliard Grad
Upon returning, Powell performed throughout the DC area in ballets, plays and other art forms. As a teen, he modeled in print ads, acted in television shows and movies, and was a frequent audition for plays in New York. At 17, Powell almost shifted gears completely to become an architect.
“I was going to either be an architect or go to Juilliard,” Powell declares.
Once the famed school accepted him, it was a no-brainer which direction he’d choose, and he enrolled in 1986 to study dance. The first three years were successful, but during his senior year, he encountered his first bout with alcohol addiction.
After an intervention with school officials and his parents, Powell agreed to get sober and finish out the year, but he ultimately failed.
“It was a chemical dependence,” Powell says. “It’s a disease, and at first it was innocuous. I didn’t have a problem with it for a long time. I could take it or leave it. They let me come back in 1995 after two of my professors fought for me. I had gotten sober and they championed my cause.”
During this time, Powell says he lived with famed choreographer Anna Sokolow, who introduced him to other renowned artists like choreographer Jerome Robbins and actor Lauren Bacall. He also began composing music between taking classes, dipping his toe into yet another medium.
“In my mind, it was more interesting for me to write music than it was to play someone else’s,” he says. “That period of time was just nonstop: three to five new ballets a year with my company Tony Powell/Music & Movement.”
Return to DC
From 1995 to 2002, Powell was a fixture in the DC arts scene, performing at the Kennedy Center, composing and choreographing pieces for the Joffrey Ballet, and making films. He was featured in numerous publications ranging from The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine to Washington Flyer, where he was often referred to as a “Renaissance man,” “precocious” and “diverse.”
“I wanted people to have multiple levels of experience when they came to my work,” he says.
“I’m going to not only see a dance, to hear a piece or to see a film, but I wanted to challenge people on different levels. So many people around town supported my work at a high level. But by the end, the drinking destroyed all that.”
Powell began drinking again in 2002, and like a river bursting through a dam, all hell broke loose.
“[In] 2002, I had probably the greatest performance I’d ever had in my life at the Kennedy Center,” Powell explains. “It was like an apex of my work. It was a combination of everything that I had ever come up with: film, five or six ballets, music. The Washington Post gave me one of the best reviews of my life, and I said to myself, ‘Oh, now I can have a drink.’”
One drink ultimately turned into a divorce and his dance company failing. Seemingly moments after he had finally arrived as a mature artist with great variance and focus, he was gone.
“I felt like, here it is,” Powell says, reflecting on the moment. “What do I do? It was a rapid decline because when I start, I can’t stop. I literally can’t function.”
Powell didn’t finally get sober until 2009. He’s close with all four of his children, and the youngest one has never seen him inebriated.
His most prevalent creative outlet is his photography, and he’s now more often behind the camera than in front of it. In a few hours, he’ll be photographing Ben’s Chili Bowl Founder Virginia Ali before donning a suit to cover a conference featuring top doctors from around the world.
“In one day, I can’t believe how much fun I get to have doing what I love to do,” he says.
The artist still composes music and choreographs movements, but on a much smaller scale. He’ll do a piece for a friend here or get commissioned by a company there, if it fits his shoot schedule. When I suggest a new apex performance in the future that once again marries all his arts mastery, he’s coy but positive. Powell is always positive.
“I had all of that pain to know what that’s like to really know how happy I am today,” Powell says.