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How Ming Smith Used the Camera to Write Poems of Black Life

How Ming Smith Used the Camera to Write Poems of Black Life

For half a century, Ming Smith has blazed her own path, creating photographs celebrating the beauty, power, and strength of the Black experience.
Oopdeedoo, Brooklyn, 1976 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture

Throughout her extraordinary life, Ming Smith has blazed a trail, becoming a pioneering figure in front of and behind the camera. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Smith grew up amid the horrors of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Her high school guidance counselor discouraged her to attend college, advising Smith her future lay as a domestic, scrubbing floors. Undeterred, Smith enrolled in Howard University and received a BS in microbiology before moving to New York City in 1973. 

To pay the rent, Smith took up modeling and worked alongside Grace Jones, B. Smith, and Toukie Smith as part of the first generation of Black models in beauty and fashion. But the limelight held no particular charm for Smith. Possessed with acute sensitivity to joy and pain, she found solace in being alone, camera in hand, guided by a desire to bearing witness to the spirit made flesh. Whether on the streets of Harlem or Dakar, making portraits of photographer Gordon Parks, writer James Baldwin, and musician Sun Ra, or photographing a field of sunflowers in West Germany, Smith used the camera to preserve the fleeting and fragile beauty of the world.

Symmetry and the Ivory Coast, Abidjan, 1972 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture
Sun Ra Space II, New York, 1978 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture

“When I’m shooting, I usually have a sense: ‘This is the photograph that I’m going to print. This is the moment,’” Smith says in the new book, Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph. “I like catching the moment, catching the light, and the way it plays out…The image could be lost in a split second. I go with my intuition.”

Lady Sings the Blues

“If people could feel what I feel when I hear a Billie Holiday song — that’s what I would want them to feel when they look at my work,” Smith reveals in the book. As sight evokes sound, the sensation of synesthesia becomes palpable in her work. A dancer who studied the Dunham Technique, Smith understands rhythm, harmony, melody, and texture in a visceral sense, her eye exquisitely attuned to the invisible energy that sets the mood.

Acid Rain (“Mercy Mercy Me,” Marvin Gaye), ca. 1977 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture
Cover: America Seen through Stars and Stripes (Painted), New York, 1976 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture

“The way I work as a street photographer is, you go out in the street with your camera, and many times I was in Italy or in Paris, and it’s like improvising. For me, that was my joy,” she explains. “Jazz is that way, it’s improvisation. Especially the blues, the feeling.”

Smith’s career also followed a similar path, a winding trajectory around the world driven by a passion for the arts. After meeting Louis Draper while on a modeling assignment at Anthony Barboza’s studio, Smith became the first female member of the longest-running photography collective, Kamoinge, which is finally being recognized with the major touring exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop

Amen Corner Sisters, Harlem, New York, 1976 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture

Possessed with the soul of an artist, Smith did not identify as such until she received her first paycheck, which, as fate would have it came from the Museum of Modern Art in 1979 when she became first Black woman to have work included in the collection. Despite these milestones, Smith’s contributions to the photography would largely go unrecognized until recent years. As Smith sagely observes in the book, “Part of getting through life is riding the tides. It takes effort, and I’m glad I kept going.”

Self-portrait, ca. 1988 © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph
Photographs by Ming Smith 
Contributions by Emmanuel Iduma, Arthur Jafa, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Yxta Maya Murray, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Namwali Serpell, Janet Hill Talbert, and Greg Tate
Published by Aperture

Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop
November 21, 2020–March 28, 2021
Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014, USA

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