Ming Smith

1950 | Detroit, United States

Photographe américaine.

Photographer Ming Smith graduated from Howard University in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology. She moved to New York City and eventually settled in Greenwich Village. There she pursued a career as a model – working for Wilhelmina Models, Ford Models and Pauline’s, a top agency in Paris, where she became the first Black L’Oréal Ambassador – while beginning to take photographs. Her early photographic subjects include Puerto Rican crime-fighting group the Young Lords and the novelist James Baldwin, her neighbour. She also took dance classes after learning about Katherine Dunham, an artistic influence that permeates her own photographic practice.

M. Smith often employs blurring, double exposure, and even paint in her black-and-white and color photographs. Such techniques lend her evocative and lyrical photographs a painterly and spiritual quality. She is known for her poetic street scenes as well as portraits of important Black cultural figures such as musician Sun Ra in Sun Ra Space II (New York)(1978) and her friend and fellow model Grace Jones, captured in Grace Jones at Studio 54 (1978).

In 1973, at the invitation of photographer Louis Draper (1935-2002), she became the sole female member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers founded in Harlem in 1963. The first publication of her work was also in 1973, when four of her photographs appeared in the first volume of The Black Photographers Annual, a showcase of the work of Black photographers self-published by the collective. M. Smith’s major breakthrough came when she dropped off a portfolio of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979. She was mistakenly regarded as a delivery person until a museum representative discovered the photographs were hers. The museum purchased two of her photographs – David Murray in the Wings (1978) and Christmas Constellation (1978) – making her the first Black American woman photographer to have her work acquired by MoMA.

In 1981 M. Smith was invited by Linda Goode Bryant to participate in Artists Who Do Other Art Forms, an exhibition at the former’s legendary gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM). From 2010, M. Smith’s career has had a resurgence. She was included in the landmark exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 at the Brooklyn Museum and Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern, both in 2017. Her first book, Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph was published in 2020, collecting four decades of M. Smith’s photographs. The same year, her work was featured in the group exhibition Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition travelled to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The following year, Ming Smith: Evidence became the inaugural exhibition at the Nicola Vassell Gallery. Her photographs are in the collections of prominent museums including the National Gallery of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Uri McMillan

A biography produced as part of “The Origin of Others” research programme, in partnership with the Clark Art Institute.

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