Ming Smith is an African American photographer who takes candid street shots and makes them magical. She has mastered a singular and technically challenging style to produce ethereal images. Her images soften the lines between the subject and the background, thus giving the illusion of movement.
Smith attended Howard University where she studied microbiology and pre-med but took the university’s only photography class to keep up her love of photography inculcated in her by her father. She then went to New York City in 1972 where she became a model to earn a living so that she could continue taking photos of people on the city’s streets.
She joined the Black photography collective, Kamoinge Workshop, founded in 1963 by Louis Draper and Roy DeCarava, whose purpose was to document and disseminate the work of Black photographers. Smith learned to identify good lighting and print quality and the benefits of shooting in black-and-white over color. She was the first woman admitted into the group, and people would ask, “ ’How did it feel to be the first woman?’ but that was never on my mind . . . I remember feeling, this is a very different group of people, because they were funky, down guys.”
Smith documents Black life in works that have emotional expressions. Her techniques include double-exposed prints; superimposition; long exposures that blur subjects and surroundings; slow shutter speeds; and photos painted, collaged, and hand-tinted. Her moody scenes are “often suspended between visibility and invisibility.” Faces of her subjects are often turned away, blurred, or hidden by shadows or darkness.
She has photographed everyday Black life as well as Black cultural icons such as James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Nina Simone, Tina Turner in a poignant moment, and Grace Jones dancing. In her 1978 “Grace Jones at Studio 54” she treated the print as a canvas, enhancing it with paint and collage. In the same year, she made two images of avant-garde jazz composer and musician Sun Ra, captured from the front and the back in an ecstatic whirl.
From 1988 through 1991, Smith made the photographic series “Invisible Man, Somewhere, Everywhere,” inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man.” One iconic image shows a man walking alone on a snow-covered street with his head down and his hands in his pockets. This photo is more than a monochromatic, moody street scene as the man blends into the shadow of a looming building. This and other photos from the series portray the tensions that form the African American experience.
She has photographed Black athletes. For the 25th anniversary of the Women’s National Basketball Association, she took pictures of players known for sinking three-pointer shots. She has compared her own photographic technique with basketball’s three-pointer shots. For her, a photographer must have patience to wait for the right moment. “. . . it’s like a basketball player hitting three-pointers: practice, repeat, practice, repeat. You get better, and still you’ll miss a few. In photography, you have to nail it the moment it’s in the lens. Take the shot when you see it.”
In 1979, she became the first female African American photographer to have her work acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her first solo exhibition at MoMA was “Projects: Ming Smith.” In 2010, she was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking exhibition “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.” In 2021, she received the Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, among others.