If you have ever attended any of the area’s glittering galas, embassy parties, fund raising luncheons or fashion shows, you’ve probably noticed the busiest photographer in the room, scooting from table to table and covering every square foot of the event. Odds are great that the picture taker is Tony Powell, DC’s go-to photographer chronicling some of Washington’s best-known functions. Starting with portraits and event photography published in Washington Life magazine, through the years demand for his brand has exploded; he now employs eleven photographers he can call on to cover events he can’t attend. His photos have been featured in many well-known publications such as National Geographic, The Washington Post, Forbes, Washingtonian Magazine and Vogue.com. His photo portfolio includes portraits of cabinet members, celebrities, ambassadors, and the current and former presidents. Another feather in his cap: he recently scored his first photo shoot for a major New York fashion house … Nicole Miller NYC’s 2020 Fall Fashion Campaign.
Powell's painstaking process of ordering the 14 ingredients for the two acai bowels he assembles each day at Georgetown's South Block (kale, coconut water, almond milk, acai, chia and goji, to name a few) mirrors the perfectionist approach he applies in his photography work, involving as many clicks of the shutter – and as much time as it takes – to get what he wants (see KC Cole's photos for an example).
Powell has a remarkable story to tell, a journey that would make a riveting movie with its incredible highs and lows. He starts by recounting how his life totally changed when his family moved from DC to Montgomery County, Maryland. Powell was “discovered” at the age of nine at Chevy Chase Elementary School when Howard University 's Drama Department presented an outreach performance for all the students. Out of hundreds of kids it was Powell's dynamic personality and dance moves that were noticed by the director of the drama department. When he was called into the principal’s office over the loud-speaker Powell was mystified – he thought must have done something wrong but couldn't guess what that might have been. He was summoned to audition for the role of Travis in the European premier of Raisin, and at the young age of nine he found himself traveling on tour to Switzerland, Germany and Paris for six months.
Although Powell says he was always an artist, playing the piano and trumpet at six and drawing at nine, the experience of touring with a national theater troupe opened up all the arts to him. “I had a chance to observe how the dances were created, how all the parts of the orchestra came together. I learned lighting design, set design, how to sing and act. Being exposed to all of these aspects of the arts in once place influenced me greatly.”
Arriving home he finished grade school and high school, participating every summer in Howard University's Children's Theater. His interest in photography came along in junior high. He also kept busy appearing on tv and performing in local plays and musicals. When college beckoned he came close to going to architecture school but acceptance at Julliard trumped all else. While there he supported himself taking photos for the Julliard Journal and the New York City Ballet. For three years he thrived at Julliard, studying dance and music and rubbing shoulders with such well-known actors as Laura Linney and Jean Tripplehorn and musicians Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis. Things weren't all great, however, and he finally hit a barrier that stopped his education in its tracks: alcoholism.
Because of his heavy drinking he wasn’t allowed to graduate but two of his favorite professors lobbied on his behalf and after five years of sobriety he was allowed to complete his degree. Returning to Julliard in 1995 he was given the opportunity to live with modern dance pioneer Anna Sokolow, “a pivotal figure in my life.” Sokolow was 85 when Powell lived with her and “got to take care of her.” She introduced him to the major figures in the dance world including Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, whose portraits he was able to take as a result.
Returning to Washington he founded his own nonprofit Tony Powell/Music&Movement as a vehicle for the creation of his music, choreography and films. He was seemingly everywhere, making his mark in the arts in many mediums, choreographing many ballets, composing numerous orchestral scores and creating over a dozen avant-garde films, many of which were screened at the Hirshhorn Museum. His multi-dimensional and prolific output had The Washington Post calling him “A Renaissance Man”, and others dubbed him “a polymath” and a “one-man art movement.”
But then he hit another roadblock: the battle with drugs and alcohol tripped him up and his amazing career stalled once again. Powell is candid about this difficult time. His addiction caused him to lose his wife, children and business. But hitting bottom was a blessing in disguise, he realized: “It wasn't until I lost everything that I could build a foundation to build a new life.” While in rehab in 2009 he had a profound spiritual transformation that he views as “the beginning of the rest of my life.” He became a strict vegan, quit smoking, drinking and using drugs and became a Buddhist.
Today he has been sober for eleven years and life has never been better. His youngest child was born in his sobriety and all four of his children are with him once again. Business is booming – even in the pandemic he managed to photograph three socially-distanced weddings. Several other weddings and other events have been temporarily postponed but the little downtime he can enjoy allows him more time to travel, another passion. He views photography “as a spiritual thing.” With his photography he has built friendships with amazing clientele including Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton, Secretary of the Treasury Wilbur Ross and his wife Hilary, Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, billionaire and philanthropist David Rubenstein, the Albrittons and the Bradleys. When Pope Francis visited Washington in 2015 Powell, at the behest of Catholic Charities, was his photographer. He even has a selfie of himself with the pontiff!
One on-going source of joy for Powell is the principal investment he made in the hedge fund he cofounded with his best friend in Los Angeles in 2014. His stake in the hedge fund continues to give him the financial freedom for even more artistic pursuits. He reflects on his journey: “After having lost so much I’m finally where I always dreamed I could be and excited to see how much better it can get.”