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Ming Smith on Pursuing Her Transcendent Photo Practice despite Decades of Discrimination

“Overlooked” is an overused word in the contemporary art world, yet for the better part of four decades, that was ’s experience. Not that it bothered the New York–based photographer too much—she has never stopped creating. “Photography saved me,” Smith, now in her early seventies, said over a recent Zoom call. “It was about getting through the struggle, the negativity, the violence and pain. It was my struggle and the camera was my friend, it didn’t have anything to do with anything else—it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. It was pure.”
Describing herself as shy and self-conscious, Smith said as a young person she “lived in a fantasy world. I was a dreamer—I was always looking more than interacting.” She took her first photograph on her mother’s Brownie, at the age of seven, of her class in Columbus, Ohio. She can’t find the picture now, long lost, like many of her photographs from over the years, as well as rolls of film that were delivered to be developed and never collected, or forgotten about, or discarded. One of those photographs, preserved only in memory, is a picture she took of Muhammad Ali, from when he visited her college campus, Howard University, in the early 1970s. Standing among a thick crowd of cameras clamoring for a photo, Ali singled out Smith and called her over. “You, come here and take my photo!” he said. So she did.
“Did that have anything to do with you being an attractive woman?” I asked Smith in our interview. Smith, who is clearly exceptionally beautiful still today, worked as a model when she moved to New York after graduating from Howard in 1973. “Didn’t that open a lot of doors?” “I think it worked against me,” Smith replied, recalling the times she presented her portfolio to (exclusively male) gallerists early in her career, and was told she was pretty and should be an actress. As for the modeling, Smith is modest about her looks and said it was simply a well-paying job.
As a woman—a Black woman—and a photographer, Smith faced a triple hurdle in the art world she encountered in New York in the 1970s. She was familiar with the Black Arts Movement, but it was winding down when she moved to the city; still, something of it spoke to her. The apex of the Black Power movement had also already passed through, but it left a certain charge. Smith would visit a diner frequented by photographer , whom she was in awe of. Model would speak often of her concern for “Dee-anne,” but Smith didn’t realize she was talking about until years later. Photography was happening, but it was not emancipated as an art form.
In 1972, Smith was invited to join a group of older, more established male photographers known as Kamoinge. They were emphatic in “defining themselves as photographers,” Smith recalled. She first participated in a Kamoinge group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1972, and is currently part of a major exhibition on the photography collective that opened this year at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and will travel to the Whitney Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Though the group eventually disbanded to focus on their own work or family life, Smith was shaped by them. “They felt it was a duty for artists to speak to the spiritual and the cultural,” she said. “It was about owning our own image, making our own images about Black people, working against the stereotypes created by the people in power.”
Smith’s involvement with Kamoinge helped her define herself as a photographer—“their validation helped,” she said. Yet while the rest of the group was interested in the technical aspects of cameras and photographic methods, Smith admits she preferred to work more intuitively. Her photographs demonstrate a technical panache nonetheless, employing various in-camera and printing techniques, such as double exposures and plays with focus. She is equally experimental with what happens after the darkroom, adding touches by hand to her prints, via paint or collage.
The vision of a dreamer never left her; in the ethereal light of her photographs you can sense rapture and delight in moments that pass others by. She is gentle but authoritative towards her subjects, often returning to mothers and their children, to lone and solitary figures; to moments of contemplation and transcendence, whether through prayer or music, or a child thrown up in the air with delight.
Ali was hardly the only iconic American figure Smith photographed—and unlike that lost photograph, many of her later pictures of famous musicians and artists, like Nina Simone, Betty Carter, Alvin Ailey, David Murray, and Sun Ra, did see the light of day. Yet those works represent only one strand of Smith’s work.
She has also been drawn to ordinary people—families, children, churchgoers, passersby—and fleeting connections that, thanks to the photograph, last a lifetime. There is a prescient joy in many of these photographs, a sense of awe.
The two photographs Smith chose, in 1978, for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection perhaps best capture this dualism in her work—between the iconic and the poetic, an appreciation of the present moment and an observation of what endures in the human experience. The first image is an elegant portrait, in profile, of David Murray with his saxophone. Picturing Murray at the peak of his career, it captures a cultural movement of its time. The second photograph pictures an older woman, wrapped in a heavy winter coat and hat, Christmas trees lit up and towering high above her. “I love that photograph, it’s such a human image,” Smith said. The juxtaposition—as often is the case in Smith’s work—speaks of the inexorable pull of time, the contrast between the body and what contains and conditions it. They could be described with Kamoinge founder ’s words: “My pictures are immediate and yet at the same time, they’re forever. They present a moment so profoundly that it becomes an eternity.”
The story of that MoMA acquisition in 1978 has been recounted many times as interest in Smith’s work has renewed. The story most commonly told is one that centers the institution and celebrates the inclusion of the first Black woman photographer in its collection. However, there are details in the story that frame the historic moment differently: the racism Smith experienced when she submitted her portfolio and was assumed to be a courier, or the fact that she was only paid “around $300” for her two works, which at the time hardly covered the cost of creating them. MoMA curators John Szarkowski and Susan Kismaric loved the images, and the acquisition was a triumph for the museum—but less so for Smith. “Nothing happened for 40 years after that,” she said. It is a too-familiar narrative of excellence muted; the quality of her work recognized, but then not supported; the omission of women and people of color from the institutions that create our visual history. Indeed, even at the time, Smith almost declined the offer, knowing it wasn’t good enough. “I was quiet and not confrontational, but I was political, and I had the fight in me,” Smith recalled.
Over the intervening years, a few exhibitions—mostly group shows—did happen, and after “a few bad experiences” with publishers, Smith began publishing her own photo books in the 1990s. Her breakthrough year came in 2017, when she took part in major exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Tate Modern, and Nottingham Contemporary, and she collaborated with for his show at London’s Serpentine Galleries. She had a solo show with Pippy Houldsworth Gallery this summer. And this November, Aperture is due to release a new monograph of her work.
Whether her subject is a gentle summer breeze lifting curtains against a window, mothers and their children, or the glow of a television screen, Smith photographs life’s mysterious effervescence. “It is like God working through me,” she said. “I really feel that.”
Charlotte Jansen