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Blurring Lines/Breaking Barriers: Harlem and Beyond, the Career of International Photographer Ming Smith

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Abstract

American photographer Ming Smith is known for her distinctive photographic style, evoking a Surrealist mood through her use of low light and slow shutter speeds, resulting in blurring of forms. Her work also blurs the line between the personal and the political. Smith has had twin challenges in negotiating her status—being Black and being a woman. Now hailed as one of the greatest photographers working today, Smith found few places to show work when she launched her career in the early 1970s; her first exhibition was in a Manhattan hair salon. But the Black Power and the feminist movements were both helping to push doors open, and Smith was tenacious. Her powerful imagery became a form of activism in its own right. The first woman to join the Kamoinge photographers’ collective and the first Black woman photographer to have work acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Smith has only recently come into her own. The Black community has been the foundation and primary focus of her art, which continues to break barriers as she experiments with new approaches to art making.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Brendan Embser, ed., Ming Smith, An Aperture Monograph (New York and Dallas: Aperture Foundation, 2020/Documentary Arts, 2020).

  2. 2.

    “Books Coming Soon—Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph,” Aperture Foundation website, https://aperture.org/books/coming-soon/ming-smith-an-aperture-monograph/, accessed December 28, 2020.

  3. 3.

    Charlotte Jansen, “Ming Smith on Pursuing Her Transcendent Photo Practice despite Decades of Discrimination.” Artsy, August 28, 2020, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ming-smith-pursuing-transcendent-photo-practice-despite-decades-discrimination, accessed March 7, 2021.

  4. 4.

    See, for example, Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present, 4th ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964) and Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s The History of Photography: From the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969).

  5. 5.

    Andrea Nelson, The New Woman Behind the Camera (Washington, D.C.: The National Gallery of Art, 2021).

  6. 6.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, “A Portrait of the Artist,” in Ming Smith, An Aperture Monograph, 10-11.

  7. 7.

    Sarah Eckhardt, Interview with Ming Smith, April 6, 2018, posted on Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Whitney Museum of American Art’s websites during the spring of 2021 in conjunction with the exhibition Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, https://whitney.org/exhibitions/kamoinge-workshop?section=12&subsection=1#exhibition-artworks, accessed March 20, 2021.

  8. 8.

    Cinandre was featured in a New York Times article as being on the cutting edge of innovative hair styles in the 1970s. See Alexandra Penney, “Beauty: The New Wave of Permanents,” New York Times, September 11, 1977, 237.

  9. 9.

    Helen Williams is generally identified as the first Black model to move into the mainstream. See, for example, “Too Black for America: 1950’s Beauty Helen Williams—the First African American Fashion Model,” on the website Arogundade, https://www.arogundade.com/helen-williams-the-first-black-female-fashion-model.html, accessed August 18, 2021, and Ben Arogundade, Black Beauty: A History and a Celebration (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 36 and 63.

  10. 10.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Flash of the Spirit,” in Ming Smith, An Aperture Monograph, 229.

  11. 11.

    Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, “Revolutionary Hope: Landmark Writings, 1965-85,” in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, A Sourcebook, Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, eds. (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2017), 17.

  12. 12.

    See Kyla Schuller, The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism (NY: Bold Type Books, 2021). See also “Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights,” https://www.nps.gov/articles/black-women-and-the-fight-for-voting-rights.htm, accessed September 17, 2021.

  13. 13.

    Steinem addressed some of these issues head-on in a 1969 essay titled “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” originally published in New York magazine on April 4, 1969, and reprinted by the same publication on May 7, 2008. Retrieved at https://nymag.com/news/politics/46802/ on August 18, 2021.

  14. 14.

    “Linda Goode Bryant by Rujeko Hockley,” Bomb Oral History Project, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/linda-goode-bryant/, accessed July 20, 2021. See also “Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” in Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress, Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/women-in-the-civil-rights-movement/#:~:text=Women%20in%20the%20Civil%20Rights%20Movement.%20Many%20women,its%20successes%20in%20popular%20historical%20narratives%20and%20commemorations, accessed August 7, 2021.

  15. 15.

    Margaret Sloan, “Black Feminism: A New Mandate,” Ms. (May 1974), 97-100, reproduced in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, 95-98.

  16. 16.

    Sloan, “Black Feminism,” 97.

  17. 17.

    Sloan, “Black Feminism,” 97.

  18. 18.

    In the summer of 1970, a group of African-American women artists in Los Angeles had mounted a show at Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32; see Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley, eds. (London: Tate Publishing and New York: Distributed Art Publishing, third printing 2019), 1110.

  19. 19.

    Kay Brown, “‘Where We At’ Black Women Artists,” Feminist Art Journal (April 1972), 25; reproduced in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, 63.

  20. 20.

    Howardena Pindell, “Art (World) & Racism: Testimony, Documentation and Statistics,” delivered at Agenda for Survival Conference, Hunter College, New York, June 27–28, 1987; reproduced in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, 257-290. For an international perspective on many of these issues, see Katy Deepwell, ed. Feminist Art: Activisms and Artivisms (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2020); see, for example, Christine Eyene, “Curating from a Black Female Perspective: A Testimony on Adversity and Resilience,” 401-407.

  21. 21.

    Rujeko Hockley, “Race and Women’s Liberation,” in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, 67.

  22. 22.

    “About: History,” Kamoinge Working Together, https://Kamoinge.com/timeline, accessed April 24, 2021.

  23. 23.

    “About: Mission,” Kamoinge Working Together, Kamoinge.com/timeline. See also Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 40–55.

  24. 24.

    Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, Whitney Museum of American Art, November 21, 2020–March 28, 2021.

  25. 25.

    “Ming Smith—Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop,” video, posted March 19, 2020, on the Whitney Museum of American Art’s website, www.whitney.org; also available on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SsTMIMgn5k&t=129s.

  26. 26.

    “Dreamweavers: In Conversation—Ming Smith and Arthur Jafa,” curated by Nicola Vassell, UTA Artist Space, available on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Byzvuq9yY7c, accessed September 8, 2021.

  27. 27.

    Candice Pires, “Ming Smith: ‘I’ve Always Had to Break Boundaries,’” The Guardian, May 17, 2020, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/may/17/ming-smith-ive-always-had-to-break-boundaries, accessed June 23, 2021.

  28. 28.

    Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, Whitney Museum of American Art, November 21, 2020–March 28, 2021.

  29. 29.

    “The Sound She Saw: Ming Smith in Conversation with Greg Tate,” Whitney Museum of American Art, March 26, 2021.

  30. 30.

    “The Sound She Saw: Ming Smith in Conversation with Greg Tate,” Whitney Museum of American Art, March 26, 2021. In an interview with the author, Smith mentioned that she and Model lived only a few blocks from one another in the West Village and would meet and share meals in local cafes. Ming Smith, Interview with Gillian Greenhill Hannum, October 26, 2021. Additional influences are mentioned in Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 15.

  31. 31.

    Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, Whitney Museum of American Art, November 21, 2020–March 28, 2021.

  32. 32.

    The other work was Christmas Constellation, 1978. See Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 14.

  33. 33.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 15.

  34. 34.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 15.

  35. 35.

    Namwali Serpell, “The Shimmering Go-Between,” in Ming Smith, An Aperture Monograph, 55.

  36. 36.

    Arthur Jafa in Conversation with Greg Tate, “The Sound She Saw,” in Ming Smith, An Aperture Monograph, 220.

  37. 37.

    Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

  38. 38.

    Moten, Black and Blur, 26.

  39. 39.

    Toni Morrison, “Foreword,” The Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 1, 1973. Accessible online at https://user-qpwbkti.cld.bz/bpa1973/22/#zoom=z.

  40. 40.

    Mikki Ferrill, Dorothy Gloster, and Elaine Tomlin were also included.

  41. 41.

    “Ming Smith,” portfolio, The Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 1, 1973, 71.

  42. 42.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 14.

  43. 43.

    Minor White, “Found Photographs,” unpublished 1957 essay in the Minor White Archives, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography (New York: MoMA, 1992). Essay available at http://www.masters-of-photography.com/W/white/white_articles2.html, accessed August 18, 2021.

  44. 44.

    Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph, 105.

  45. 45.

    The Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 2, 1974, 7. Available online at https://user-qpwbkti.cld.bz/bpaV2/6. This image is part of a body of work the photographer undertook on a trip to Africa in 1972.

  46. 46.

    “The incomparable Nadar: Master photographer, political cartoonist and balloonist of nineteenth century Paris,” Imagingresource.com, https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2013/03/22/the-incomparable-nadar-master-photographer-cartoonist-balloonist-of-paris, accessed June 12, 2021.

  47. 47.

    Gordon Parks, “Foreword,” The Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 3, 1976, 6. Available online at https://user-qpwbkti.cld.bz/BPA3/5.

  48. 48.

    James Baldwin, “Introduction,” The Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 3, 1976, 7. Smith had three images in this issue, on pages 51, 53, and 57. Baldwin’s comment refers to the photo on page 53; it is Dakar Roadside with Figures, Senegal (1972).

  49. 49.

    John A. Williams, “Introduction,” The Black Photographers Annual, Vol. 4, 1980, 5. Available online at https://user-qpwbkti.cld.bz/The-Black-Photographers-Annual-Volume-4. The work mentioned is on page 30.

  50. 50.

    Smith danced in front of her photographic work as part of the exhibit. Smith was featured in the Jenkins Johnson Gallery’s presentation at Frieze New York, May 1–5, 2019, at Booth JAM6, part of a “Just Above Midtown (JAM)” section of the fair curated by Franklin Sirmans, Director, Perez Art Museum, Miami, FL. The Museum of Modern Art will be opening the exhibit Just Above Midtown, 1974 to the Present, organized by Thomas J. Lax, Curator, Department of Media and Performance, in the fall of 2022.

  51. 51.

    See also Rujeko Hockley’s interview with Bryant for Bomb’s Oral History Project.

  52. 52.

    Rujeko Hockley, “Just Above Midtown Gallery,” in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, 135.

  53. 53.

    This should not be a surprise given the significant role HBCUs have played in promoting the work of Black artists. See Jessica Lynne, “School Spirit,” Artforum (Summer 2021), https://www.artforum.com/print/202106/jessica-lynne-on-art-and-historically-black-colleges-and-universities-85777, accessed September 28, 2021.

  54. 54.

    Tony Whitfield, Interview with Linda Goode Bryant, May 15, 1994, reprinted in Hockley, “Just Above Midtown Gallery,” 153-154.

  55. 55.

    At the time, the Studio Museum’s focus was strongly Black Nationalist, and the hierarchy very patriarchal.

  56. 56.

    It was through my friend and long-time Manhattanville College colleague, Randy Williams, that I was introduced to Ming Smith’s work.

  57. 57.

    Whitfield in Hockley, 156. Originally, the gallery was to be at 86th and Broadway; later, she decided that it should be on 57th Street in the heart of the New York gallery district, but the name was retained.

  58. 58.

    Advertisement for the inaugural exhibition at Just Above Midtown Gallery, Artforum 13, no. 3 (Nov. 1974): 86.

  59. 59.

    Soul of a Nation, 128.

  60. 60.

    Hockley, “Just Above Midtown Gallery,” 136.

  61. 61.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 19.

  62. 62.

    In her Oral History with Hockley for Bomb, Bryant recalled, “There were several other black communities in Columbus. One was called the Hilltop. Ming Smith, the photographer, and her family lived there. Our families knew each other. They were on the West Side of downtown, and we were on the East Side of downtown.”

  63. 63.

    For the roots of Bryant’s activism, see Hockley’s Oral History for Bomb; see Jansen’s interview for Smith’s reflection on her political activism.

  64. 64.

    Ben Arogundade, Black Beauty: A History and a Celebration (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 8.

  65. 65.

    Deborah Willis and Carla Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 2.

  66. 66.

    Huey Copeland, “In the Wake of the Negress,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, eds. (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 481.

  67. 67.

    MoMA formed an “affiliate group” in 1993 focused on expanding the museum’s engagement with work of the African Diaspora. See “Museum of Modern Art Affiliate Groups: The Friends of Education,” https://www.moma.org/support/patron-program-and-affiliate-groups/#the-friends-of-education, accessed August 27, 2021. Smith’s work was included in MoMA’s 2010 exhibit Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, May 7, 2010–April 18, 2011, https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/247, accessed October 5, 2021.

  68. 68.

    Willis and Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, 125 and 150.

  69. 69.

    Willis and Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, x.

  70. 70.

    It is interesting to compare Smith’s photos of Jones with those taken by Jean Paul Goude. See Willis and Williams, 109. See also Anny Shaw, “Ming Smith: ‘Being a Black Woman Photographer was like Being Nobody,’” Financial Times, September 26, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/ea64791c-dac8-11e9-9c26-419d783e10e8, accessed October 29, 2021.

  71. 71.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 13.

  72. 72.

    Yxta Maya Murray, “Beauty is in the Eye,” in Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph, 127. See also Yxta Maya Murray, “Excavations of Black Femininity,” The New Yorker, September 23, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/ming-smiths-pioneering-excavations-of-black-femininity, accessed July 27, 2021. See also M. Neelika Jayawardane, “A Song They Can’t Broadcast,” in Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph, 125.

  73. 73.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 19.

  74. 74.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 19.

  75. 75.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Flash of the Spirit,” in Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph, 231.

  76. 76.

    Willis and Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, 125.

  77. 77.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 16.

  78. 78.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 16.

  79. 79.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Janet Hill Talbert, 18.

  80. 80.

    Emmanuel Iduma, “As Seen from a Distance,” in Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph, 143.

  81. 81.

    Alex Greenberger, “Ming Smith Shook Up Photography in the ‘70s. Now, She is Coming Into Full View,” ARTnews online, November 16, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/ming-smith-photography-aperture-kamoinge-workshop-1234576646/, accessed June 6, 2021.

  82. 82.

    “Ming Smith: Biography,” Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, NY; http://www.stevenkasher.com/artists/ming-smith, accessed June 6, 2021.

  83. 83.

    “Ming Smith: Biography,” Steven Kasher Gallery.

  84. 84.

    At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the show was titled Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop (February 1–October 18, 2020). VMFA is the repository of Draper’s archive.

  85. 85.

    Smith feels she and Dunham had a shared vision, and Dunham’s background as an anthropologist especially resonates with the photographer. Ming Smith, Hannum Interview.

  86. 86.

    Ming Smith in Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, 233.

  87. 87.

    Interestingly, Vassell, like Ming Smith, also worked for a time as a model. See Robin Pogrebin, “A Rare Black-Owned Art Gallery Lands in Chelsea,” New York Times, May 18, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/18/arts/design/nicola-vassell-gallery-chelsea.html, accessed August 17, 2021. Bryant has also been receiving much-deserved attention in recent years, with recognition of her role being a centerpiece of Frieze New York in 2019 and an upcoming exhibition about JAM at MoMA scheduled for fall 2022. See Nate Freeman, “This Dealer Fought for African-American Artists for Decades—Now the Market is Paying Attention,” Artsy.net, May 1, 2019, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-dealer-fought-african-american-artists-decades-market-paying-attention, accessed June 7, 2021.

  88. 88.

    Rachell Morillo, “Electric Images: Ming Smith’s Transcendent Photography,” Hyperallergic, June 22, 2021, https://hyperallergic.com/658148/ming-smith-nicola-vassell-gallery/, accessed September 7, 2021.

  89. 89.

    Martha Schwendener, “Ming Smith” in “3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now,” New York Times, June 23, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/23/arts/3-art-gallery-shows-to-see-right-now.html, accessed October 29, 2021.

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Hannum, G. (2023). Blurring Lines/Breaking Barriers: Harlem and Beyond, the Career of International Photographer Ming Smith. In: Hannum, G., Pyun, K. (eds) Expanding the Parameters of Feminist Artivism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-09378-4_12

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