To see a Ming Smith photograph means to follow the light. Light as it swims over Alvin Ailey dancers, light as it illuminates a waitress in a diner, light as it traces a family on the street in Harlem. Indeed, this is what Smith herself does when she makes an image.
“That’s what dictated the compositions, the way the light played out in them,” she says in the exhibition text of the new show “Projects: Ming Smith” at the Museum of Modern Art until May 29, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem. “I follow the light–in the movement, in the flight, in the sun streaming, in the darkness pulsing.”
Smith’s painterly and abstract images in the show–which she makes clear is not a retrospective but an introduction; or rather, a reintroduction as the museum says–are from the first half of her career in New York, from her arrival in the 1970s through to the late 1990s.
First Black female photographer in MoMa collection
The show is “a surreal event,” Smith says when we talk, and it was organized by The Studio Museum’s Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden and The Museum of Modern Art’s Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography.
“I think it was God’s gift to me, to see,” Smith says. And while there’s always been a spiritual and reverent quality to her work, a show like this has also been a long time coming. Smith’s work was first acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1978, making her the first Black female photographer in their collection, and she’s been making work for over 50 years.
Smith hopes viewers of the show will feel the joy that’s part of the work, to “celebrate the work, celebrate the culture, and not have a stereotype of what Black culture is,” she says. And while she hopes of course people will enjoy it, she also hopes it allows them to widen their understanding.
“Maybe it could be one item that would inspire them just to open. They could discover a new world that they had never known before.” She also hopes people will feel the curators’ love and vision, “like a Billie Holiday song or Aretha, you know, ‘I Say a Little Prayer,’” she says. “Because that was the intention of a lot of my work, like music, and I hope they come away with that feeling.”
Black Arts Movement
Smith’s career was positively impacted by the Black Arts Movement, which began in the 1960s and led to the development of both the influential Kamoinge Workshop–of which she was the first and only female member–and the Black Photographers Annual, which was inspired by the group.
She appeared in its first edition in 1973. It was with Kamoinge, Smith says, that she grew to understand photography as an artform, not just a mode of documentation. It was also a way to reclaim space and story with the Black perspective centered. Kamoinge, begun in 1963, was mentored by legendary photographer Roy DeCarava.
In 2015, Teju Cole wrote of DeCarava that “Instead of trying to brighten blackness, he went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.” Indeed, Smith says, this is an important aspect of her images as well.
“It was Black culture being photographed by Black artists, photographers…to have some power on who we are and all the real things about our community”, she said. There was more to the community than the violence and poverty that were regularly highlighted, she said, and culturally the community was thriving.
“The work is bigger than myself“
The work of the artist, she believes, was to change the stereotype and educate the viewer. “This was part of my dream. The work is bigger than myself. I’m happy that I’m noted, but the work itself is what my legacy is,” she says. “I just feel like I’m part of trying to elevate and have understanding to the viewer of who we are.”
The MoMA/Studio Museum collaboration is one of many exciting milestones Smith has forthcoming. Her show “Ming Smith: Feeling the Future” will open at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston on May 26 and will be more of a retrospective featuring the full breadth of her work, she says, and will be her first of this kind.
Along with artists Petra Collins and Danielle Bowman, she was also commissioned by Cadillac to reinterpret the brand’s hood ornament, the Cadillac goddess, for their new electric vehicle. In August 2024, she will have exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University and Kenyon College’s Gund Gallery. And the Columbus Museum of Art will also present her work.
Even with all of these current accolades, it wasn’t something Smith expected when she began as a photographer. “Being a [B]lack woman photographer was like being nobody,” Smith said in 2019. She never anticipated making a career from it, and sustained herself in New York in part by modeling.
“I think there’s more opportunity for Black women [now]. There’s more of a space to express ourselves,” she says. “We have an audience that’s more interested in images and women have more power and there are many Black curators.”
Smith created her images simply by existing in the life she had created for herself. She lived in Harlem and the West Village, she listened to jazz, she went to see dance and concerts, she spent time with friends, and she brought her camera.
Love for images
It became the perfect combination for not just immortalizing her own life, but the lives of icons like Tina Turner, Grace Jones, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Sun Ra, Amiri and Amina Baraka, and countless others.
“Whether it was in the West Village or in a dance class at Alvin Ailey or Rod Rogers, or in Japan, going to the different shrines, or Egypt, seeing the pyramids, that’s what informed [my work],” she said.
“Whatever was around me, I had a camera and I photographed wherever I was…I photographed culture. And I had a love for culture, and I even had more of a love for images.”
“Projects: Ming Smith” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), New York, until May 29.