Ming Smith can still remember a phrase that Arthur Jafa used to describe something he saw in her photography: “the blur.” The two artists were at an opening for Smith’s work at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York, and Jafa uttered those words in such a way that they were elongated and guttural, suggestive of a kind of presence that can be felt as much as seen. For followers of Smith’s photography, blurriness figures in images sometimes shot in low light and with a slow shutter speed, so that they are often smudgy and hard to read—but also evocative in probing and poetic ways that evade easy analysis.
Although Smith has been considered a touchstone for generations of Black photographers, it took a while for her to become a mainstay in the art world’s biggest institutions. Over the past few years, her expressive pictures have been featured in two key surveys—“We Wanted a Revolution,” focused on Black women artists during the 1970s at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018, and “Soul of a Nation,” a traveling show about art and the Black Power movement that originated the year before at Tate Modern in London. Jafa also included her work in a show that made the rounds in European museums, and this week, some of her pictures will go on show at the Whitney Museum in an exhibition about the Kamoinge Workshop, a key Black photography collective of which Smith was an integral part. Smith has also just been awarded one of the ultimate accolades for a photographer: an Aperture book surveying her work.
Smith considers her work a form of survival—for both herself and her subjects. “When I look at photos, if it’s a successful photograph, I can feel their spirit,” she said. “They become alive, to me, because I’m alive.”
Part of that energy owes to Smith’s method, which is improvisational and determined by her own desires. “A jazz musician has certain notes—and then they improvise. I basically improvise with what I have,” she said. “If there’s low light, I deal with it.”
In some cases, improvisation has meant applying paint to her pictures or processing them in ways that turn black-and-white into purplish and greenish tones. Pointing to photographs such as Flamingo Fandango (Painted), West Berlin, from 1988, which features a flock of flamingos in a dusky forested landscape, Smith said she allays color onto her black-and-white pictures when she deems it necessary. “I wanted to add color [the way] someone would put a ribbon on a dress or a lacy collar or a big belt—to embellish and make it more exciting,” she said.
From a young age, Smith began prioritizing visual pleasure in photography. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, she watched her father, who worked as a pharmacist, take pictures and develop them in his darkroom. But she disagreed with his careful technical readings and the culture that he and his friends facilitated, which revolved around protracted discussions of camera technologies. “It was just guys talking about photography,” she said.
On the first day of kindergarten, she took her mother’s Brownie camera from a closet in her house and began snapping pictures of her classmates, instilling in her a lifelong interest in the medium. She remembers facing racism: “There was Jim Crow, so it was a real different time,” she said. But her family fostered an interest in fine art, with her grandmother introducing her to poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar and others. Still, she was told she couldn’t make it as an artist and thus went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., as a pre-med student. When she took the sole photography course available, she was told that, if she pursued a career behind the lens, she could only have two areas of focus: machinery or medical studies.
At the time, Smith was the sole female member among a group that included luminaries such as Anthony Barboza, Louis Draper, and Beuford Smith, but she doesn’t remember feeling dissuaded by the palpable gender disparity. “I wasn’t thinking about it,” she said. “I was just thinking about being an artist or a photographer.” Such a spirit also led her to become the first Black female photographer with work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art when she submitted pictures to an open call in 1979. At the time, few knew about the milestone she had achieved. “It was like getting an Academy Award and nobody knowing about it,” she said. But the experience was so validating for her and her family that, when her father was dying, to make him smile, all she would have to say was “Museum of Modern Art.”
In the years since, Smith has continued producing her signature pictures, creating images that cover a lot of ground. She has photographed portraits (James Baldwin sitting in a theater, Sun Ra performing before a crowd, Grace Jones in her dressing room) and documentary-style images in the mode of Brassaï and Lisette Model. Then there are nature shots that allude to paintings by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh and self-portraits in which she revisits and subverts her modeling photos. Some of her work alludes to structural racism, slavery, and the African diaspora—but usually elusively and by way of their titles.
“I always shot in black and white and in color,” Smith said, explaining that she often totes around two cameras, one for each type of imaging. But because critics stigmatized color photography as being the stuff of advertising and fashion spreads, she initially hewed away from it, until she saw Gordon Parks’s color pictures and felt inspired to take the subject up.
Yet Smith believes that color is even present in her black-and-white work. “With black and white, two colors create magic,” she said, “just from using different shades.”