One day in the late nineteen-eighties, Ming Smith put on a snug, low-backed dress and a glittery necklace and posed, facing a mirror, against a wall papered with a lavish floral print. Her hair was loose and curly. She picked up her Canon and held it to her face as if it were a lover. She turned sideways and snapped a self-portrait, her eyes shining against the shadows of the room. Almost everything about her pose was calm and beautiful, like Alfred Stieglitz’s intimate images of Georgia O’Keeffe, or Anne Brigman’s delicate photographs of herself and other women. One major difference between this picture and those, besides the fact that Smith is Black, is how tightly she clutches the camera, one of her hands grabbing the Canon with such intensity that her fingers look almost like claws.
For me, those hands symbolize so much. When Smith started out in photography, in the seventies, Black photographers were often overlooked by the major museums and galleries, or fetishized and misread. One notorious low point of the era was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” in 1969, which purported to document the neighborhood’s creative legacy but eschewed all Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement painting, sculpture, and drawing. Instead, the exhibition used photographs to illustrate Harlem’s history and undercut their significance by presenting them less as art than as sociological documentation. The Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava, who refused to participate in the show, said at the time that the organizers had “no respect for or understanding of photography, or, for that matter, any of the other media that they employed. I would say also that they have no great love or understanding for Harlem, Black people, or history.”
DeCarava was also the founding chairman of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of fifteen Black photographers who gathered at one another’s homes, usually on Sundays, to discuss topics such as racial discrimination within the American Society of Magazine Photographers and critique members’ work. Smith was the first woman admitted into this group, which was known for artists, like DeCarava, who made it their mission to create images of Black dignity and beauty. In the course of her career, Smith photographed various forms of Black community and creativity, from mothers and children having an ordinary day in Harlem to the majestic performance style of Sun Ra. In the nineties, she pursued conceptual projects, such as her “August Wilson” series, for which she visited the playwright’s home town, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and took pictures of places where she imagined his characters would have dwelled. Around the same time, she created her “Invisible Man” series, inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel, featuring blurry, elusive images that expressed longing and rage over Black people’s lack of recognition. Smith also pushed back against the sidelining of Black art and subjectivity through scenes drawn inimitably from her own life as an aestheticized and objectified woman of color.
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Smith began experimenting with photography as early as kindergarten, when she made pictures of her classmates with her parents’ Brownie camera. She attended Howard University, where she continued her practice, and, upon graduating, in the early seventies, moved to New York. She supported herself by doing modelling work for agencies, including Wilhelmina, where she became one of the top performers, appearing in ads for almost every cosmetics company in the business. Around the same time, she began to associate with photographers in the Kamoinge Workshop and had her first exhibit at Cinandre, the innovative New York hair salon.
Smith’s self-portraits through the years evince a preoccupation with the constructs of femininity, the gaze, race, color, and beauty. In “Me as Marilyn” (1991), for example, she dolls herself up in a brassy Marilyn Monroe wig, tempting the viewer by thrusting her chest out while wearing a seductive, if somewhat blank, expression. Smith, who often used hand coloring, in addition to collage and overpainting techniques in her work, tinted the Marilyn image with red, pink, and light and dark blues; Smith’s skin tone appears as a dark rose, complicating our racial reading. It could be seen as a race-conscious translation of Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” (1967) or of the theatrical self-portraiture of Smith’s contemporary Cindy Sherman. Although Sherman’s playacting highlights gendered stereotypes, Smith’s bravura gesture presses a hot lamp to the ways in which whiteness shapes the desirability and reception of women, evoking not only her own quandaries but those of minority female beauties of Monroe’s time, from Dolores del Río to Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, and Rita Hayworth.
Smith photographed many famous Black cultural figures in the course of her career, and her images of Black women communicate the resilience and vigor necessary to flourish in the face of society’s exclusions. In “Grace Jones, Studio 54” (1970s), the performer doesn’t so much pose as unfurl herself before the camera, wafting a gilded scarf over her head and shoulders, wearing bewitching black-tinted glasses and staring into the middle distance, lips apart. Glamour, here, is a weapon and a power source that Jones embodies with her seemingly unvanquishable gift for movement. In an interview last year with the Financial Times, Smith said that she and Jones, a friend, would commiserate about “trying to make money, trying to survive.” She added, “We came out of Jim Crow. And so just coming to New York and trying to be a model or to be anything was new.” “Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1984) was captured at the second apex of the singer’s fame, but this is not the show-woman of MTV. Standing on a dock beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, Turner looks off to one side, her lips pursed and her eyes shaded as if she’s conjuring up a difficult memory. Smith must have waited to get the shot, knowing not to chatter or ask too many questions but to let silence descend on the scene so that Turner would begin to turn inward.
In 1975, Smith became the first African-American female photographer to have her works enter moma’s permanent collection. Then, as she said in one recent interview, “for forty years, there was nothing, no shows, no artist talks.” But it appears that the modern day has finally caught up to Smith, who is by now about seventy. (She does not disclose her exact age.) In recent years, her work has been included in exhibitions such as “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and the Brooklyn Museum’s “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” Smith, who lives in Harlem, has welcomed the recognition—“It’s not just having my photographs in Frieze Masters, it’s people who are supportive of black artists,” she told the Financial Times—but she has waited too long for it. Her remarkable body of photography belongs in the canon for its wealth of ideas and for its preservation of Black women’s lives during an age, not unlike today, when nothing could be taken for granted.