HEROES: Ming Smith

HEROES: Ming Smith

HEROES: Ming Smith

A visionary exposing contemporary culture, frame by frame

A visionary exposing contemporary culture, frame by frame

Photography: Kendall Bessent



This feature appears in the pages of V140 now available for purchase

There’s a spiritual aspect in Ming Smith’s photography, one that’s recognized in the refracted light that shines off a car window or the shadows that obscure parts of a face. Smith acknowledges the importance of temporality in her work, savoring fleeting moments, either stored in her mind or the film wound in her camera. Often finding herself cherishing these moments alone at a park, Smith speaks to the rare omens that may appear: “I look up, and there’s this bird, this bluebird,” Smith recounts. “It was tweeting, and it looked like it was for me–I had never seen a blue that blue. I tried to get a good picture of it, but it was gone. I Googled it later, and [the bird] represents joy, love, and a change for good.”

At an early age, Smith became enthralled by photography through her father, who owned, but was very protective over, his cameras. Having the opportunity to handle a camera in Smith’s adolescence laid a foundation for her to explore photography through an artistic lens—a contrast to the industry at the time, where photography was a means of documentation and cataloging. Born in Detroit, Michigan, with a childhood in Columbus, Ohio, the Howard University graduate found herself in New York City chasing dreams of becoming a model, though later, she cemented her passions as a photographer. Smith’s emotive offerings capture scenes of jazz shows, the streets of Harlem, James Baldwin in Paris, women at leisure, and people in motion—a gaze swatched in feeling and never devoid of spontaneity. “I’ve always approached my photography at the moment,” Smith explains. “It’s one time in your life when you have some control, and you’re just capturing that particular scene. So whatever you’re feeling, those emotions come out of living in the moment.”’

Since shedding early ambitions of modeling, taking the time to concentrate on her craft allowed Smith to become the first and only woman in the Kamoinge Workshop, a group of Black photographers founded by Roy DeCarava. This collective of influential photographers celebrated Black culture through individualized image-making, highlighting the vibrance of Black American life. These years were a chrysalis in Smith’s journey, developing her instinctual eye and lent perspective. Amassing decades of work, a meditation on existence through everyday acts, Smith’s art is cathartic, relieving emotions that may stay pent up otherwise. “The intention is to create something beautiful. In some of my most terrible years, or when I had a lot of angst or anxiety, I used the camera to get me through those moments,” Smith notes. “It was peaceful, but I could also do it anytime I wanted. There is freedom in photography for me.”

Becoming the first Black woman to have her photography acquired by the Museum of Modern Art–decades later, Smith anticipates her upcoming solo exhibition, Projects: Ming Smith, a full-circle moment for the New York-based artist. Presenting archives threading years of observations and experimentations that have informed contemporary photography, Smith invites viewers to embrace her love of music, atmospheric visuals, and cosmic accounts that bear witness to her unique point of view. Reaching into the depths of her consciousness for the past 40 years, Smith’s legacy is a string of raw images drenched in visceral emotion, allowing young creatives to envision themselves as artists who can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

Projects: Ming Smith is on view at the Museum of Modern Art February 4 through May 29, 2023.


Makeup: Mitch Yoshida

Hair: Niko Weddle (Judy Casey) using Shu Uemura Art of Hair

Location: Blanc Studios New York

Special Thanks: Sydney Shaw, Tyre Thwaites, Jeremy Mitchell, Mingus Murray


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