The artist was the first Black woman photographer to have her work acquired by MoMA. Now, decades later, as she returns for a solo show, she reflects on her singular career.
In 1979, the artist Ming Smith arrived at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with a portfolio of her photographs. She had been living in the city for a few years, nurturing her obsession with photography, when she heard that the museum had announced an open call for submissions. As Smith walked into the building, prints in tow, the receptionist thought she was a messenger. A few days later, the department of photography’s then chief curator, John Szarkowski, and assistant curator Susan Kismaric bought two of Smith’s pieces, making her the first Black woman photographer to have her works acquired by the museum.
Even before gaining institutional recognition, Smith had faith in her art. “I didn’t care if I fit in,” she said to me in her quiet, Midwestern-inflected voice. “Photography was my sacred space.” It was an overcast day in January, and we were sitting in Smith’s home studio, a compact apartment in a tall residential building in central Harlem, surrounded by her work.
The MoMA acquisition was on Smith’s mind because she was, over 40 years later, in the midst of preparing for her first solo exhibition at the museum. “Projects: Ming Smith,” which opens Saturday, is a comprehensive introduction to the artist’s poetic style and experimental approach to photography.
Organized by Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Oluremi C. Onabanjo, an associate curator in MoMA’s photography department, the show collects work spanning Smith’s decades-long career, from her prints inspired by the playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” to her famous 1991 print “Invisible Man, Somewhere, Everywhere,” plus a handful of never-before-shown images. Her work — a mix of kinetic street photography, introspective portraiture and whimsical collage — captures the hidden moments that make up ordinary lives.
“I paint with light,” Smith said, noting that she did so with the intention of “creating something beautiful.” She likens her process to a jazz musician’s surrender to instinct when chasing an ephemeral feeling or mood. Smith channels that sensibility in the arresting portrait “Sun Ra Space II” (1978), in which she renders the jazz composer and musician as a radiant celestial being. Light and shadow conspire to at once focus and distract our attention from the otherworldly figure: the blur of musicians, the tiled ceilings, Sun Ra’s cape glittering as it orbits his figure. “Womb” (1992), taken during a family trip to Egypt, collapses distance and perspective into a haunting image, a tourist snapshot transformed into something uncanny. At first glance, the Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Giza looming in the background come into view. Then the boys — dressed in gi, posed in defiant stances — leap out of the frame. It takes a minute to notice the gauzy figure in the foreground, which Smith initially mistook for a trick of the light: The shape, upon closer inspection, was actually a photo of herself, an unplanned, superimposed self-portrait.
Smith was born in Detroit but grew up in Columbus, Ohio, near her grandparents, whose lives she described to me with wonder and admiration. Watching them activated her distinctive way of seeing the world. They treated their routines with “integrity,” she said, from her grandfather’s disciplined daily reading of the Bible to the way her grandmother washed and hung the clothes to dry every week. They also kept a garden, and witnessing “the beauty in the way they grew fruits and seeing, you know, the green beans come up,” Smith said, “influenced me more than anything else.”
She was also, perhaps indirectly, shaped by her father, who practiced photography as a hobby. Smith recalled her initial skepticism of the medium based on his fastidious approach. When he was taking a portrait of her, she recounted, he urged her not to move and wrote down all the exposures. “I never thought of myself going into it because of the technical aspect,” she said. But curiosity still guided her toward the medium: She remembers borrowing her mother’s Kodak Brownie on the first day of kindergarten and taking photos of her classmates.
Over the years, Smith’s cameras became steadfast companions, traveling with her as she moved from Columbus, to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, where she studied microbiology, and then to New York. Although Smith said she has never felt entirely comfortable calling herself an artist, the city offered her the chance to become one. She started modeling as a way to make a living (“I always needed to make money,” she said) and found an artistic circle in the Kamoinge Workshop, the Black photography collective founded in 1963 by Louis Draper and Roy DeCarava, among others. They were committed to creating a community for Black photographers, treating their work with rigor and representing their subjects, who were mostly Black, in ways that avoided documentary journalism. Smith was the first woman admitted into the group, whose members would meet to discuss techniques and critique one another’s works. She learned to identify good lighting and print quality, as well as the benefits of shooting in black-and-white over color. “Once I learned the basics,” Smith said, “I just improvised.”
Decades later, Smith still ad-libs, even after she gets her prints back from the lab. If an image doesn’t capture a scene exactly as she envisioned, she treats the print as a canvas, altering or fixing it with paint or collaging scraps, as in “Grace Jones at Studio 54” (1978) or “Self Portrait” (1972), which are both enhanced with confident brush strokes. “I make something beautiful out of what could have been discarded,” Smith told me.
Since the 1970s, Smith has quietly risen to prominence the art world, and in the past ten years she has increasingly found acceptance in the mainstream, with monographs, solo shows and appearances in major exhibitions. This slow public embrace reflects the still mostly white art world’s delayed appreciation of deliberately illegible, existential work — or what the late critic Greg Tate referred to as the “rendering of evidence of things unseen” — by Black artists.
Smith’s photographs purposefully evade easy categorization, which makes her part of a lineage of Black artists, such as Romare Bearden, DeCarava and Norman Lewis, who leaned into abstraction to create images that spoke to the senses. Smith also sees herself as an artistic descendant of the 20th-century American writer, filmmaker and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and the choreographer, dancer and fellow anthropologist Katherine Dunham for the freedom with which they approached their mediums. In the spirit of these heroes, Smith anchors her work to her sensibilities and is unfettered by trends. She has made her mark on the photography world by mastering a singular and technically challenging style: Her images shake and soften the lines between the subject and its background, mimicking movement itself.
Before Smith answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire, I asked her how she felt about her forthcoming exhibition. “It’s very emotional,” she said. “It’s a surreal experience.” Then she told me another story: Years before she brought her portfolio there, Smith had walked by the building. In that moment, she remembers saying quietly to herself: “I’m going to be in that museum one day.”
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
Every day is different. I improvise. I try to get up at daybreak, but if I don’t feel like it, I will lie in bed and do nothing.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
Every day is creative for me because I don’t have a set schedule.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
I guess my handprint when I was in kindergarten.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
My ex [husband, the jazz musician David Murray,] had a rehearsal at my apartment, when I lived in the West Village, and Amiri Baraka came with his wife, Amina Baraka. She saw one of my works and said, “Is that yours?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “I like that. How much is it?” I think I said $300. She was one of the first people who gave me validation.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?
Whatever catches my eye.
How do you know when you’re done?
It’s never done.
How many assistants do you have?
I have one, off and on.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
It depends. I talk a lot about jazz, but I play R&B. Today, I had on Drake. Sometimes no music.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
I’m a snacker and I love sugar, but I’m trying to cut it out now.
How often do you talk to other artists?
Daily. Most of my friends are artists of some sort or another — writers or dancers. I talk to dancers a lot because I go to dance class.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
I think Boy Willie’s monologue in August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson” on Broadway and Kasi Lemmons’s film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” It was not just the movie but the time and place — I knew some of those folks.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
The bridges over the East River.
What do you bulk buy with most frequency?
What’s your worst habit?
Snacking before I go to bed.
What embarrasses you?
Flattery or seeing things about me. I don’t dare look at my interviews.
Do you exercise?
Yes, but I procrastinate on that, too.
What are you reading?
I’m rereading Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” (1931) and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937). I want to see how I feel about them now that I’m older.
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
I love Romare Bearden’s Martinique artworks and “Odysseus” series.
This interview has been edited and condensed.