Ming Smith was the first woman—and for a long time the only one—to join the Kamoinge Workshop, a group of fifteen black photographers founded in 1963, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the beginning of a convulsive period in American history. One impetus for the group was self-determination: the fifteen members wanted to document black life, as well as push back against the limited racial views that had been propagated by white photographers. 


The influence of Kamoinge and specifically of the group’s aspirations for political change, can be clearly seen in Smith’s work. Her photographs reveal the underlying tension between citizens and communities. She positions her subjects as intimates feeling their way through specific conditions and circumstances, and deliberately invokes this exchange in her images. She took up black-and-white photographs of her changing milieu: New York neighborhoods, including Harlem; jazz musicians; her trips to Europe and Africa.


She has cited music as being a big influence in her work, specifically the genres of jazz and the blues, and Nina Simone’s.  Smith has likened her work to the blues, saying, “In the art of photography, I’m dealing with light, I’m dealing with all these elements, getting that precise moment. Getting the feeling, getting the way the light hits the person — to put it simply, these pieces are like the blues.”


Her work is closer to dreams and memories than to The Decisive Moment (1952) of Henri Cartier-Bresson, although she has cited the importance of a decisive moment in her photographs. In her hands, the image becomes about time slipping past, rather than the frozen moment.


Ming’s work, personal and expressive, draws from a number of artistic sources, preeminently surrealism. She has employed a range of surrealist techniques: photographing her subjects from oblique angles, shooting out of focus or through such atmospheric effects as fog and shadow, playing on unusual juxtapositions, even altering or painting over prints.


Ming Smith is known for the ethereal quality of her photographs created through complex processes. Her shooting style often results in out-of-focus images in which the finer details of figure and background are obscured. This deliberate blurriness creates a half-abstract effect, which lends her work an instantly recognizable and utterly unique dream-like feeling. This magical quality is amplified in some cases by Smith’s experimental post-production techniques including double exposed prints, collage, and painting on prints.

Smith is the first Black woman photographer to be included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. In addition to the MOMA, Smith's art has been featured at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum & Center for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.


Smith has twice exhibited at the Bellvue Hospital Centre in Morristown, New Jersey, through their Art in the Atrium exhibitions. The first was in 1995, for Cultural Images: Sweet Potato Pie, an exhibit curated by Russell A. Murray. In 2008 she contributed as part of the exhibition New York City: In Focus, part of Creative Destinations 2008 Exhibition of African American Art.


Smith's photographs are included in the 2004 Ntozake Shange book The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family and Life.


In 2010, her work was included in the MOMA's exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography. Organized by curator Roxana Marcoci, it was curated by Sarah Meister through the Department of Photography.


In 2017, a major survey exhibition of Smith's work was held at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York. The exhibition featured 75 vintage black and white prints that represented Smith's career.


Smith’s work was first published in the Black Photographer’s Annual in 1973. After submitting her work to an open call for portfolios in 1975 Smith became the first African-American female photographer to be acquired by MoMA.


Her work was included in their exhibitions Life in the City (2002) and Making Choices (2000) but it wasn’t until almost 35 years after her work was acquired into the collection that her importance was fully recognized by her inclusion in MoMA’s 2010 groundbreaking exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.