With consummate skill and dedication Ming Smith has created an extraordinary body of work over the last sixty years.
Smith’s practice is broadly characterised by textured, emotive photographs shot in black and white. A sense of movement or ‘vibration’ (as discussed by Greg Tate and Arthur Jaffa in this new monograph) is emphasised by slow shutter speeds, double exposure, hand tinting, overpainting and occasional collage. While subjects vary, Smith’s practice has remained rooted in honest, tender, sometimes brutal, depictions of Black family life and of Black communities in the USA and elsewhere.
Born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Smith was the first female member of the New York-based Kamoinge Workshop, a pioneering group of talented and politicised Black photographers formed in 1963. Her work was the first by a Black woman photographer to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1979. But it is only more recently that Smith’s practice has garnered popular attention, in part through recent acquisitions by the Whitney and Getty Museum, and inclusion within the touring exhibitions ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ (2017) and ‘We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85’ (2017-18). An online solo exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery (2020) proved to be a tonic during the first pandemic lockdown.
The scale and scope of this monograph, co-published by Aperture and Documentary Arts, befits the full gamut of Smith’s practice. The rhythm of the book – significant given Smith’s long-term preoccupations with jazz, blues and dance – deftly leaps between time, subject, series and location. Photographs range from intimate and commercially-influenced self-portraits (Smith was also a successful fashion and beauty model), to documentary-style shots of political protest, anonymous lone nocturnal figures, portraits of cultural icons such as Sun Ra and Grace Jones, to ‘ordinary’ Black lives. The publication features a spread of geographical locations, with works made in Harlem, Dhakar, Paris, Gambela, Venice and sites in Japan and Mexico featured.
Some of the most affecting photographs are those concerned with female suffering and survival, including ‘Aunt Ruth’ (1979), an isolated, depressed figure whose form is barely discernible beneath her bed covers. ‘The Window Overlooking Wheatland Street was My First Dreaming Place’ (1979) and ‘Ming – First Trip to New York’ (ca. 1959) meanwhile, are counterpoint images, both self-portraits that contain a dreamy, suspended sense of hope and regret. Indeed, many of Smith’s figures are caught in action or in between states – walking, conversation, dissent, breathing – that vibratory quality evident especially in images such as ‘Doves for Dunham’ (2006) and ‘Circular Breathing, Hart Leroy Bibbs, Paris’ (1980).
It is ‘Oopdeedoo, Brooklyn’ from the series ‘Coney Island’ (1976), however, that is to my mind one of the standouts. In this, a Black toddler is lifted up high, the beach beyond their small frame, their arms thrown back in freedom, flight and in joy. This fleeting moment is a timely, hopeful reminder of the power of photography to transport us and in the superlative emotional power of Smith’s work specifically.
Image: Ming Smith, Oopdeedoo, Brooklyn, 1976 (from the series Coney Island) from Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph (Aperture/Documentary Arts, 2020) © Ming Smith, courtesy the artist and Aperture