With a gentle but decisive eye and a deep love for the spirits of the figures and spaces she captures, Ming Smith holds in her hands a truly unique world. A pioneer in her field, Smith has been telling stories for decades through her dynamic and considerate photographs; they follow her life as she modeled, danced, and explored through the midwest and east coast, and they follow all the lives she touched along the way.
Following in her father’s footsteps and beginning a lifelong passion, photography found Smith at a very young age—as early as Kindergarten. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and her midwestern photographs emanate nostalgia and the softness of family and home. After studying microbiology and getting her degree from Howard University, Smith moved to New York in the early 1970s and found her creative community. Smith was the first woman member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of influential black photographers in the 60s and 70s who worked to capture and celebrate Black life in the city. Her innovative work has inspired many aspiring artists from the beginning of her career to the present day, impacting not only individuals but the scope of photography as a whole. Ming Smith is art history—as Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, puts it, Smith “lives deep in our history,” and is “central to how we think about photography in the 20th century and as we move into the 21st.”
As the first Black woman photographer to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York after simply dropping off her portfolio in the 70s, Smith’s journey came full circle at the beginning of 2023 with a featured solo exhibition in MoMA’s project space. Recently lauded with International Center for Photography’s (ICP) Lifetime Achievement Award, and with an upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim alongside the works of Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Lorna Simpson, Doris Salcedo, Carrie Mae Weems and other great artists, Smith is finally seeing the profound recognition her phenomenal and extensive career deserves. She has been included in exhibitions internationally, including “Pictures by Women” at MoMA, “Soul of a Nation” at Tate Modern and the Brooklyn Museum, and “Working Together” at Whitney Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Smith is also featured in the collection of the Tate Modern, Whitney Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, in addition to many more.
Smith is in love with light—what catches our eye and what lifts our spirits. What she leaves in the shadows, she leaves for the viewer to dig deep and question. She calls upon the viewer to fall in love as well; we cling to what she spotlights and we crave to know more of what she obscures. It is this thoughtful balance that keeps the eye coming back for more, both caught by brightness and lost in the depth. Her work is musical, bouncing through melody and harmony that reflect her long-held connection to the electric intuition and improvisation behind jazz.
With Ming Smith, the mundane becomes magic. She finds beauty in everyday life and in the mystery of lives we’ll never know beyond a passing glance. There is an undeniable aura behind each image—each moment is a caught breath, rapt with suspended movement. Her experimental techniques also shine when traveling from photograph to photograph. Rough edges, blurred lines, intuitive strokes of paint, and double exposures all contribute to a fantasy of reality that Smith dreams to life.
Her images are intimate, whether they are catching someone’s striking stare into the camera, following the soft lines of skin and fabric, or twinkling with the speckled light of nature through the trees. She looks for something deeper than what we can take in at first glance; she looks for family, for perseverance, for joy, for life. It is a special thing to drive into the world of Ming Smith, and she invites you to do so with open arms.