Ming Smith Continues To Inspire Younger Generations As A Trailblazer For Black Artists In America

Ming Smith is a photographer who’s been producing images since the 1970’s, but has never been given the praise she deserves, until now.

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Ming Smith is a photographer who’s been producing images since the 1970’s, but has never been given the praise she deserves, until now. In 1978, Smith finally decided to share some of her work with the world, so she took her portfolio to an open call at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. When she initially got there, the receptionist presumed she was just a carrier for someone else, an ignorant assumption that Smith was unfortunately used too as a black woman living in 1970’s America. However, Smith still dropped off her portfolio and when she returned a few days later to pick it up, the receptionist greeted her much more politely, as the museum wanted to buy her work. 

Smith recalls being offered an extremely low amount of money for the paintings, so low that she was going to refuse the offer, however, a museum curator convinced her to leave two images with them for the weekend just so she could see her work in a museum and potentially change her mind. She ended up taking the money and becoming the first black woman to have her photography hung up in the MoMa. 

Smith grew up in the 1950’s as a part of one of the first black families to move into a white neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. When she was in her twenties she moved to New York where she met Grace Jones, who took her to Studio 54 to watch her perform. It was there that she was introduced to a group of black photographers who called themselves the “Kamoinge Workshop.” Smith became the first woman to join the group and claims that they were the ones who “introduced [her] to the idea of owning the images we saw of ourselves.”

“Being a black woman photographer was like being nobody. It was just my camera and me. I worked to capture black culture, the richness, the love. That was my incentive. It wasn’t like I was going to make money from it, or fame — not even love, because there were no shows. So being the first black woman photographer to have a work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art was like getting an Academy Award and no one knew about it,” Smith recalled in a past interview.

Smith’s style heavily favors a slow shutter speed that plays with light and movement to give her pieces a large amount of motion and life. If you look at her work you’ll notice right away a lot of the pieces have some sort of directional flow or blurriness that makes the image come alive. She draws creative influence from the lives of Brassaï, Gordon Parks, and Diane Arbus, who all preferred street photography over traditional studio portraits. As her career progressed, Smith became more experimental with her art and began adding collage elements and multiple mediums to her photographs. 

Despite Covid-19 closing a majority of the world’s cultural institutions, Smith is still getting her moment, as her solo gallery show at Pippy Houldsworth is now available online in its entirety. The Whitney is also gearing up to include her work in an entire exhibit on the Kamoinge Group that she was a part of. 

One of the reason’s it’s so important that Smith is getting her true moment in the spotlight now is because she’s always been known for portraying black people and black culture in a way that separated the way mainstream society viewed them. It was after Smith began hanging her photos in a friend’s hair salon in the 1970’s that she began getting some name recognition. Soon people from all around the neighborhood came by to look at the portraits in hope to get their own taken, it was this popularity that also led to her meeting Grace Jones and photographing her at Studio 54. 

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“I wanted to capture the spirituality, the humanity of black people, my love for the culture. Jazz musicians were celebrities around the world. They were loved, people identified with the music. So why then was [black] culture stereotyped as guys in the hood or poor folks on heroin?” In reference to becoming the first woman in the Kamoinge Workshop, Smith recalls that she “didn’t really think about being the first woman, I just thought of myself as an artist on my path. I guess in my world I just go for things regardless of the boundaries, because I’ve always had to break boundaries.”

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The same year that her work was hung up in the MoMa Smith ended up marrying jazz musician David Murray. She took the cover art for his albums and toured around the world with him as a means of expanding her own portfolio. When she reflects on the highlights of her career so far, Smith recalls an iconic picture of Tina Turner that she took in front of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 80’s. 

“In 1984 [I] was invited by my friends from modelling to dance in the video for What’s Love Got to Do With It? I took Turner’s picture because I was taking everyone’s picture,” Smith recalled. With all this name recognition and famous clientele, it’s surprising to think about how Smith never really took off as a photographer in the 80’s. 

In the mid-80’s, Smith lost a lot of the friends to the AIDS epidemic, so she stopped modelling and taking photos and had her son, Mingus. Without any proper representation or notoriety in the mainstream besides a few pieces hung in the MoMa, she pretty much fell out of the spotlight completely. Luckily, because of the power of the internet and digital archives, her work has resurfaced and lives on to this day. 

In 2000 she was featured in the MoMa again and the New York Times highlighted her work in its review of the exhibit it was a part of. Smith recalls not even being aware that one of her pieces was in the show until she was about to leave and a curator went up to her and pointed it out. Since then, Smith has become a major name in terms of New York photography and black culture/art in general. 

Now, her accomplishments include having Swizz Beatz, Alicia Keys’ husband, tell her he wants to be her biggest collector after seeing all of her work, she’s shot for Vogue, has been featured multiple times in the annual Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation show, and is gearing up for multiple digital gallery showings within the next year. She credits her later career to the support of her son who’s been supporting her since the moment he knew how to speak. To check out some of Smith’s current gallery shows, check out the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery website

Eric Mastrota

Contributing Editor

Eric Mastrota graduated with a degree in English, Creative Writing, and Journalism. His goal is to create content that readers find entertaining, informative and most importantly, beneficial.