Ming Smith. Mother and Child, Harlem, NY. 1977. Gelatin silver print, 11 × 14" (27.9 × 35.6 cm). Committee on Photography Fund

“The image is always moving, even if you’re standing still.”

Ming Smith

“I like catching the moment, catching the light, and the way it plays out,” the photographer Ming Smith has said. “I go with my intuition…it’s about always looking at lines and the quality of the movement. It’s about seeking energy, breath, and light. The image is always moving, even if you’re standing still.”1 For Smith, these are the central tenets of her approach to image-making: a practice attuned to bodily movement and spatial relations that maintains a commitment to the poetry of light and shadow.

In the early 1970s, Smith arrived in New York City after graduating from Howard University. She had studied microbiology and chemistry, but took the university’s only photography class to sustain a passion for the image inculcated in her by her father. Supporting herself as a model while shooting on the city streets, Smith spent time in Anthony Barboza’s studio and met photographers such as Louis Draper and Joe Crawford, swiftly becoming immersed in fiery debates about the stakes of photography as an art form.2 In 1972, Draper invited Smith to join The Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of African American photographers who gathered weekly to review and critique each other’s work. Its name derived from the Kikuyu word for “a group of people acting together,” Kamoinge was founded in 1963 and emerged as a shared political and artistic space for photographic improvement and, especially, self-determination. It was a powerful sentiment at a time of pivotal gains for the US Civil Rights Movement and decolonization across the African continent.

Joining Kamoinge was transformational for Smith’s photography and self-perception as an artist. She cut her teeth as a photographer and sharpened her conceptual focus, mining the structural and psychological tensions that animate experiences of Blackness. By turns dense and diaphanous, Smith’s pictures sustain hefty blacks alongside frothy swirls of gray and white. These mercurial, moody scenes resist spectacular clarity or straightforward interpretation. As historian and curator Maurice Berger has said, “Ms. Smith’s subjects are often suspended between visibility and invisibility: faces turned away, or are blurred or shrouded in shadow, mist or darkness, a potent metaphor of the struggle for African-American visibility in a culture in which black men and women were disparaged, erased or ignored.”3 In this way, Smith gives shape to the quotidian idiosyncrasies of Black life.

In an unending oscillation between light and darkness, Smith revels in the emotive elements of her subjects. Key to this is the photographer’s command of the blur, which critic Jessica Lynne succinctly defines as “the technique by which Smith collapses the boundaries between a photograph’s subject and its background.”4 Executed with rhythmic pacing and maintaining an acuity of vision, her engagement with sonic and lyrical forms is particularly notable. Subjects and captions refer to the plays of August Wilson, the words of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and the music of Marvin Gaye and Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and David Murray. These intertextual references bring forward recognizable figures while affirming the function of these photographs as speculative compositions, shaped through intuition. “In the art of photography, I’m dealing with light, I’m dealing with all these elements, getting that precise moment,” Smith has said. “Getting the feeling, getting the way the light hits the person—to put it simply, these pieces are like the blues.”5

Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Associate Curator, The Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography, 2022

  1. Ming Smith quoted in “A Portrait of the Artist: Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert,” in Ming Smith (New York & Dallas: Aperture & Documentary Arts, 2020). 15.

  2. Ibid., 12.

  3. Berger, Maurice. “A Photographer Who Made Ghosts Visible,” The New York Times, January 11, 2017. Accessed online. https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/a-photographer-who-made-ghosts-visible-ming-smith/

  4. Lynne, Jessica. “Jessica Lynne Revisits Ming Smith’s ‘Amina and Amiri Baraka (Lovers),’” Frieze, August 20, 2020. Accessed online. https://www.frieze.com/article/jessica-lynne-revisits-ming-smiths-amina-and-amiri-baraka-lovers

  5. Ming Smith quoted in “Photographer Ming Smith Shows Just How Much Black Life Matters,” by Siddhartha Mitter. The Village Voice, February 7, 2017. Accessed online. https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/02/07/photographer-ming-smith-shows-just-how-much-black-life-matters/

Works

8 works online

Exhibitions

Publication

  • Among Others: Blackness at MoMA Hardcover, 488 pages
Licensing

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].

Feedback

This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].