Ming Smith’s connection to New York City's Museum of Modern Art began in 1979 when she became the first Black woman to have her work acquired by the institution, establishing a relationship that would last over decades. Now the photographer's work is revisited in a new exhibit, Projects: Ming Smith, in partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem, which has also been a long-time vessel showcasing Smith’s artistic merit.
To document the Black experience through pictures, Smith utilizes her distinctive approach to movement, light, rhythm and shadow. This new, extensive body of mostly unseen photographs at MoMA highlights how the artist transforms the image into a space of emotive expression. EBONY chatted with Smith and discovered five incredible facts about her, including the one thing she relinquished so this latest installation could come to life.
She was part of a famous art collective
Ming Smith is the first female member of Kamoinge, a collective of Black artists, musicians and performers that were dedicated to capturing the Black experience. “It was the culture of Black people and the love of Black culture. That was the main thing, the love of Black people,” Smith shares. Being a part of Kamoinge helped Smith discover the artistic side of photography. “It's a mindset of fine art,” she tells EBONY. “I learned about lighting and printing and seeing what makes a good photograph.”
Her photographs are a biological timeline
Smith started taking black-and-white street pictures in the 1960s, and those moments chronicle her life. “I always brought my camera. And that's how most of my photographs came about.” That includes iconic images from Tina Turner’s “What's Love Got To Do With It,” music video shoot in 1984. “It was her first coming out after leaving Ike Turner and my friends were the director, the choreographer, the makeup artist of the shoot, and I was there as a dancer,” Smith recalls. Her past connections to sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and visual artist Samella Lewis are also documented. “Almost every photograph of mine that you see, there was some real experience or exchange there.”
She photographed a young Grace Jones
One of Smith’s most striking photos is of a young Grace Jones reflected in a mirror. "That was Grace Jones before she became Grace Jones," Smith declares. "We were both models in the late 1970s and talked, there was a Belgium hairdresser in New York City where she would get her low flat top. She was performing at Studio 54, and she called me up and said, ‘bring your camera.’ I was living the life of a Bohemian photographer."
She released the reigns for her latest exhibit
Smith usually pulls together the pieces for her presentations. "I always choose my work. It might be good subject matter, or it might be of a famous person, that's not enough," Smith explains of the images she captures. “It has to be artistically the highest.” But she loosened the reigns and put her trust in the curation teams from MoMA and Studio of Harlem for this retrospective, which includes photos from "Invisible Man" in 1991 and the Million Youth March, in Harlem, New York, in 1998.
She’s ready to make moving pictures
For her next big project, Smith wants to make a short film. “I want to include the cultural landscape, the way I see it,” she reveals. “When I started with the celebration of Black culture, it was for the love of Black culture and the greatness of it and basically to change the stereotypes of how people see us around the world.”
Projects: Ming Smith is organized by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem; and Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, with the assistance of Kaitlin Booher, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, and Habiba Hopson, Curatorial Assistant, Permanent Collection, The Studio Museum in Harlem.
The exhibition is on display at MoMA through May 29.