The stellar photographer Ming Smith remembers walking past the Museum of Modern Art when she was in her early 20s and telling herself, “I’m going to be in that museum one day.”
Anyone hearing her might have thought: Dream on. This was the 1970s. Smith was Black, female, new to New York City, with zero art credentials of the kind demanded by any museum of even the brashest up-and-comer, which Smith — a self-described low-key loner — was not.
But even then some changes were afoot — a few, isolated, sporadic — for artists and institutions alike. In 1979, in response to an open call by MoMA’s photography department for new work, Smith dropped off her portfolio. (The receptionist assumed she was a courier.) The museum bought two pictures, making hers the first by a Black woman photographer to enter MoMA’s collection.
Forty years later came another landmark. In 2019, when MoMA opened its new Geffen Wing and the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Smith had shown over several decades, closed to build its new home, the two institutions began collaborating on exhibitions at MoMA’s Midtown and Long Island City locations.
The current show, called “Projects: Ming Smith,” installed on the ground floor at MoMA on 53rd Street (which has free public access), is the latest of these joint ventures, and it’s a beauty. With 52 pictures, mostly black and white, several being exhibited for the first time anywhere, it gives a good sense of Smith’s subject range and of her distinctive, self-invented style: improvisatory, multilayered, painterly, shadow-soaked, with images blurred as if shot at very high or low velocity, or viewed through retreating memory, or a volcanic rain.
Born in Detroit, raised in Columbus, Ohio, Smith started taking pictures when she was young — her pharmacist father was an amateur photographer — and learned the formal ropes as she went. While majoring in pre-med biology at Howard University she took a photography class and was told by the teacher that, given her race and gender, her prospects of a career in that field were next to nil. After graduating in 1971, she moved to New York City, where she supported herself as a fashion model, and kept taking pictures.
She soon plugged into a crucial support system. In 1972 she joined the Kamoinge Workshop, a Black photography collective based in Harlem. Kamoinge’s first female member, she participated in their notoriously hard-hitting group crits and for a while worked closely with one of the originating members, Anthony Barboza, accompanying him on a working trip to Senegal.
As was clear from a traveling survey of Kamoinge artists organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2020 — it later came to the Whitney Museum — the collective’s original members were eclectic in their styles and interests. But almost all their work adhered to the genre loosely known as “street photography,” grounded in a direct capturing of images, candid and unposed, of everyday life, with results that were documentary in effect and humanistic in intent. Smith’s work basically comes out of this aesthetic too, but also radically, romantically departs from it.
Many of her images, including the 1972 “Raise Your Window High,” the show’s earliest entry, are of city life, which became a long-term subject. A selection of Harlem-related pictures includes shots of the Apollo Theater marquee, a church service in progress, Alvin Ailey’s 1989 funeral, and a fist-pumping rally for the 1998 Million Youth March.
At the same time, much of her urban photography is not event-oriented, or even geographically specific. A series of photos taken in Pittsburgh in 1991, conceived as a visual response to a series of plays by August Wilson set there, could, by the look of them, have been shot in almost any city. A woman and child sit pensively on a Greyhound bus. A man in a pool hall practices cue moves. A dark silhouette of a figure trudges at night down a snow-covered street. Mood, not place or even people, is the real subject here. The title of the snowstorm picture, “Invisible Man, Somewhere, Everywhere,” says as much. So does the fact that the image once appeared in a MoMA show devoted to New York City.
Smith is a longtime jazz and blues devotee. She married a musician (the saxophonist David Murray) and has photographed many. A visual equivalent of jazz performance has produced her most experimental work. Applied to street photography’s fairly set subject matter, her use of quick, reflexive shooting, manipulated shutter speeds, and multiple exposure printing opens the possibility for perceptual accident, and for improvisation, to be followed wherever it might lead, which is often in an abstracting direction. In addition, her penchant for framing small areas of light in fields of prevailing darkness gives a bluesy cast to all of this.
The show’s organizers — Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Oluremi C. Onabanjo, an associate curator of photography at MoMA, working with the curatorial fellows Kaitlin Booher and Habiba Hopson — provide a chance to consider a wide and varied sampling of work at a glance in a group of 17 photographs from the 1970s and ’80s, printed large and small, and installed up and across a high gallery wall.
Many of Smith’s favored subjects are here: city life, performance, travel. A white cloth whips in the wind on a tenement clothesline. The moon, a vortex of brightness, hangs tangled in trees in a Tokyo park. Alvin Ailey dancers flicker like vigil lights in a dark theater. The saxophonist Pharoah Sanders looks rock-solid onstage in New York while another musician, Sun Ra, is clearly an E.T. about to lift off, his sparkling gold scarf streaming like a comet tail behind him.
There’s a street-level mystic at work in Smith’s art. You sense it in her tremorous cityscapes, especially in her images of people — the primary subject, after all, of street photography. She shoots straightforward portraits, sometimes identifying the sitter by name (the composer Edward Boatner; the dancer Judith Jamison; the writer Amiri Baraka), sometimes not. She makes self-portraits, though they’re hard to read. In one from 1992 called “Womb,” which Smith shot on a trip to Egypt, she appears to be emanating, barely materialized, from a pyramid behind her.
And then there are what I can only call holy pictures in which charismatic figures are transcendentally lifted up. In one, from 1979, titled “James Baldwin in Setting Sun Over Harlem,” Smith, using double exposure, overlays very faintly a photo she took of Baldwin onto a skyscape of light-shot dark clouds. In a second picture using the same technique, she floats above the city the visage of the immortal Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee. Sure, these images are just blatant hero worship. They’re also, like so much of Smith’s art, just wow.
Projects: Ming Smith
Through May 29, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400; moma.org.