an overdue celebration of ming smith’s surreal documentary photographs
In 1975, Ming Smith became the first black female photographer to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Over 40 years later, the first major retrospective of her work opens today in New York City.
Ming Smith, Dakar Roadside with Figures, Dakar, Senegal, 1972. Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery
In 2016, i-D released The Female Gaze Issue, the first time in our 37-year history the magazine has been entirely shot by women. We spoke with some of our favorite female-identifying photographers — from Ronan McKenzie to Collier Schorr — not simply about their lives and practices, but about moving beyond the medium's male dominance. Our calls have become louder for fashion imagery to better represent the diversity of the world we share. And as we champion these fresh new perspectives in photography and art, we must reinvestigate history to herald those who paved the way. Ming Smith is one such photographer.
In the early 70s, Detroit-born, Ohio-raised Smith was pursuing a career as a model in New York City when she met Anthony Barboza, a member of the influential Kamoinge collective. The union of African-American photographers sought artistic equality and to challenge negative representations of black life. Though Smith developed her craft and exhibited with Kamoinge as its first ever female member, her work deviates from its documentary focus. Her rapid shooting style and experimental post-production techniques have yielded surreal, dream-like visions in abstract double and triple exposures. Smith's work is arresting, evocative, and distinctively her own.
During the same period as these Kamoinge workshops, Smith's work began being published — first in the Black Photographer's Annual in 1973 — and collected (by the MoMA, when Smith submitted her photographs to a portfolio open call in 1975). This made Smith the first African-American female photographer to be acquired by the institution, though it wouldn't exhibit her work for another 35 years.
Today, Ming Smith, the first major retrospective of Smith's work, opens at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York. Featuring over 75 black and white prints, the exhibition unites photographs from the entirety of Smith's career. There are abstracted portraits of titans like James Baldwin and Sun Ra alongside street snaps from Harlem and Coney Island. Smith shot many of these New York City neighborhoods in the 70s, yet the retrospective also features pictures made in Belgium and Senegal just a few years later. Each is somehow simultaneously hypnotic, romantic, and real. All are worth celebrating.
'Ming Smith' is on view at Steven Kasher Gallery from January 13 - February 18, 2017. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Ming Smith, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York