The exhibition features over 75 vintage black and white prints which span her entire career, from early interiors and streetscapes of the 1970s to the ongoing large-scale Transcendence series. Today there is great momentum to correct deeply entrenched racial and gender imbalances within the photographic canon. Ming Smith is key among the photographers who are due belated recognition.
Ming’s unique vision and surreal touch push back against reductive expectations of “black photography.” Her work challenges any limiting notion of what African-American photography should look like. It is personal and expressive without veering into sentimentality. As Holland Cotter wrote in his 2010 New York Times review, “It’s hard to think of another photographer who could set a misty head shot of the writer James Baldwin in a bank of dark clouds over the Harlem skyline and get away with it, but she [Ming Smith] does, and more than that she creates something heartfelt and gorgeous in its deep feeling and high sophistication.”
Ming Smith is the only original female member of the renowned African-American photography collective Kamoinge. The early charge of Kamoinge members was to challenge negative representations of African-Americans in photography. Smith’s work is less focused on documenting black life than creating a personal response to that life. Her shooting style often results in out-of-focus images in which the finer details of figure and background are obscured. This deliberate blurriness creates a half-abstract effect which lends her work an instantly recognizable and utterly unique dream-like feeling. This magical quality is amplified in some cases by Smith’s experimental post-production techniques including double exposed prints, collage, and painting on prints.