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Interview With Ming Smith

‘This is a rare book,’ Toni Morrison wrote in her introduction to the 1973 edition of The Black Photographers’ Annual. ‘It hovers over the matrix of black life, takes accurate aim and explodes our sensibilities.’ Among the artists included in the annual was Ming Smith, a photographer who had only been taking pictures for a year, and whose sensibility would prove to be extraordinary. 

 

Smith grew up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1960s, and moved to New York in the 1970s after graduating from Howard University, where she studied microbiology. While working as a model, she joined the Kamoinge Workshop, an influential collective of Black photographers. Smith was the first and only woman to join Kamoinge; in the 1970s she was also the first Black woman to have her work included in the permanent collection at MoMA. (As she once memorably put it, the milestone ‘was like getting an Academy Award and no one knowing about it.’) An impressionistic chronicler of Black cultural life, Smith’s photographs of street scenes, musicians and churches capture the movement and atmosphere of her subjects in swirls and blurs of light. She frequently shoots in dark places – jazz clubs and streets at night – using a slow shutter speed and no flash. The effects of this technique can be auratic. In Sun Ra Space II, New York City, NY (1978), bright clouds emanate from the figure of the jazz musician Sun Ra, as if his body is shimmering silver.

 

In 2017, Smith became the subject of renewed interest when her photographs featured in Arthur Jafa’s exhibition ‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’, which began at Serpentine Galleries, London and travelled to the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto and the Julia Stoschek Gallery in New York. Jafa is an admiring theoriser. He reads the blurriness in Smith’s images – particularly in the Invisible Man series, taken between 1988 and 1991 – as an aesthetic language for articulating Black culture, and as a means of shielding her subjects from a policing gaze by obscuring their faces. ‘In many of Ming’s photos, you can’t identify anybody,’ Jafa writes. The camera, ‘instrument par excellence of surveillance’, is transformed in Smith’s hands into a tool capable of expressing love and protection.

 

The following interview was conducted by Zoe Whitley, the director of Chisenhale Gallery, London. Whitley co-curated the exhibition ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (1963-1983)’, which opened at Tate Modern in 2017, and featured Smith’s photography. The pair talked about Ming’s time at Howard University, her experiences in New York as part of the Kamoinge Workshop in the 1970s, and The Black Photographers’ Annuals in which her early work was published.

 

Q

The White Review

—  I’ve got all four of my Black Photographers’ Annuals here — even Volume 4 (1980), the one there aren’t very many of because of the warehouse fire.

A

Ming Smith

—  I haven’t seen those in years.

Q

The White Review

— The beautiful thing about Volume 1, from 1973, which has a foreword written by Toni Morrison, is that it says that it’s your first published work. If we go to page 71, it says ‘Ming Smith, New York amateur photographer. Ming Smith has been taking pictures for less than a year. She’s a self taught photographer who was first influenced by her father. “My photograph,” she says, “is an attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.”’ And then we’ve got these wonderful works: the photograph bifurcated with the chain-link fence, the one where in the reflection you can see it says Kruger Brothers Ship Supply Main Office, but you see it in reverse – you see you and then the reflection, which I love. And this beautiful one of the wall and the plant, and another wall with the peeling paint and the silhouettes.

 

What strikes me about these works is the sheer range of different textures and tones you were able to observe. How would you find your locations? Were you just walking the streets in various neighbourhoods in New York?

A

Ming Smith

—  I think they were just the areas that I was most familiar with.

Q

The White Review

—  Was that the Lower East Side?

A

Ming Smith

—  No, it was the Lower West Side. I’m more of a West Side person. And then I would go up to Harlem because it’s historically the neighbourhood of America. Street photography is walking around and making something out of nothing, making art from something that you see every day. That sense of discovery – shooting and walking – it’s almost a form of meditation, because most of the time you’re not interacting with anyone else. It’s just you and the world. I would take my camera and go shoot, and see what I could discover that day. I looked at whatever there was around me, and because light is everywhere, there’s always something that can be created. There were fewer people around so I looked at the buildings more, but it wasn’t anything conscious.

Q

The White Review

—  I noticed that none of the images in the annual have titles. When did you start titling?

A

Ming Smith

— At first I would make a reference, you know, ‘the little girl with the grandmother’ or ‘the woman on the bus’. Then, of course, when anything was published, or when my work was acquired by MoMA, the pieces had to have titles, so I started using them. But I didn’t claim myself as a photographer back then. I was shy, very very quiet. I asked {the author and critic} Albert Murray to title the images in my first book because I hardly spoke then.

Q

The White Review

—  Many of the people involved with The Black Photographers’ Annuals were members of the collective the Kamoinge Workshop, which you were also a part of. How did you get involved?

A

Ming Smith

— I was new in New York in my early twenties, it was 1973, and I went on a go-see. A go-see is where would-be models make an appointment to meet the photographer and he would look at you to see if your image could be good for his portfolio, and you would get photographs in exchange. I had a list from the agency Black Beauty with all the different photographers you could go to, and {Kamoinge member} Anthony Barboza was having an open call. That was one of the first go-sees that I went to. I was waiting in the foyer and I heard two gentlemen debating whether photography was an art form or not. One of them was saying that it was all nostalgia, and the other one was saying that it wasn’t. That piqued my interest. It’s still something to think about today.

 

That was when I first met Barboza. You have to go back to pick the photos up and choose which ones you like, and I started visiting the studio. I got involved, he took pictures. There were always different artists there: Louis Draper and Shawn Walker, Adger Cowans. Oh, I remember Adger. He had these burgundy red suede pants on, and he always had a pretty girl. Naomi Sims, who was a big, big model, would come in and out. There was a photograph with some African children hanging up, and they had distended bellies from starvation. Adger’s girlfriend at the time was looking at it, and she fainted because she was shocked, the image was so upsetting. I liked that, because I felt the same way but I was not that sensitised.

Q

The White Review

—  Did images like the one of the child help you see that photography was so much more than nostalgia?

A

Ming Smith

—  I just knew it had the right sentiment, I saw the power of images. At that time I had started to take photos, and Louis Draper asked to see my work. I was shy, but I always had more confidence about my photographs than anything else in my life. Maybe that’s why I became a photographer, because I could look at my own photographs and understand what was good from my own sensibility. That’s what I tell all young photographers: you have to have conviction in yourself, and you have to find your own way. You can’t just go and copy someone else’s work. You can find something original if it comes from yourself.

 

Louis Draper saw my work and he said, ‘You’re a good photographer. You should join Kamoinge’. I say it’s all spirit that led me to Barboza’s studio, for them to be having that conversation at the time I walked in, and then being asked to join. At the very first meeting, I remembered something Shawn Walker said that really shocked me. Shawn said that he grew up in Harlem, and that none of his peers or the children he grew up with were alive. That was devastating. I remember that. A lot of people at Kamoinge weren’t from Harlem. They were from other places in the city, or from other places entirely. The climate they came out of was different to my own. I came in more at the tail end of it, when the Black Arts Movement had started. The Black Arts Movement was the sister group of the Black Power movement. Both were founded to address the cultural and spiritual needs of the Black community, and Kamoinge, even though no one really mentioned it, came out of that too. My sentiment was Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. I grew up with that, coming from Howard where they had student protests.

Q

The White Review

—  You went to Howard?

A

Ming Smith

—  My parents, my father and my aunts, they graduated from Ohio State and they wanted me to go there, but I didn’t really want to go to a white college, I wanted to go to a black school. My father was very upset, but I wanted to go to Howard. Adger was like me, he was from Ohio – which was very Ku Klux Klan racist. He knew my father when he was a little boy because my father was a pharmacist. He said he remembered seeing me as a young girl. Isn’t that amazing?

Q

The White Review

—  It’s a small world.

A

Ming Smith

—  Especially the photography world. My father, Doc Smith, people loved him. In those days, many pharmacists knew how to make medicine and could prescribe things for you. The pharmacies were Black-owned, because there was still Jim Crow going on. Everyone knew the pharmacist because they were like the local doctor.

 

At early Kamoinge meetings, I learned about lighting and framing, printing, and other aspects of photography that I didn’t know. The basic tools were different then. If you are studying now, there are a million and one different classes that a student can take, which I think is beautiful. I would have loved to study photography like that.

Q

The White Review

—  When you were at Howard, did you study the history of photography or come across any photographers there that started to influence you?

A

Ming Smith

— They didn’t have anything like that. I graduated in 1970. There wasn’t even Black history. There was no programme of Black studies. I asked a teacher, how can you earn a living from photography? He said machine and medical photography. Machines I don’t get. That’s my problem now with the computers. I’m not very oriented towards machines, all the different equipment. All I need is my camera, the film and the natural light. That’s how I work. It’s kind of like how jazz is, you use what you have. And you create something in that moment.

Q

The White Review

—  I was talking to Arthur Jafa about his work and yours before his show ‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’ (2017) opened at the Serpentine. One of the things he remarked on that was so awe-inspiring in your work was your relationship to shutter speed. You really see it in the images, the way that time seems to slow down. It’s almost like you can visualise it.

A

Ming Smith

—  From the very beginning I was always aware of light. My father used to do light readings on portraits and he would sit there for half an hour because he would do a test before he would even start shooting. Every photographer is different, artists have different things that they like, but the way the light played out on objects is what I would see. In the early days, there were no light meters in the camera and there was no automatic. So you had the aperture and the shutter speed, that’s pretty much it. Back then I had maybe five or six combinations that I used constantly because I could just look at the light. I just knew these things by eye. And when you do a lot of shooting, you said ‘okay, I know this is 125 at 5.6’. A cloud could change the light just like that. And you could adjust it. With black and white film, there’s a lot of latitude.

 

Jafa specifically really likes the Invisible Man series, taken in Harlem in the late 1980s and early 1990s in honour of Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man (1952). The lighting was already low, and I didn’t ever use flash. So I would have to hold the camera still, but I can only hold it so still without a tripod, and I never carried a tripod. With Invisible Man, I’m dealing with the light in the shadows.

Q

The White Review

— You see it in other works too, like Sun Ra, Space II, New York City, NY (1978). That sense of time becoming visible and material is something that makes you very aware of the atmosphere and the subject. Returning to the Black Photographers’ Annuals, in Volume 2 (1974), there’s a stunning picture of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. It has a non-invasive quality, and speaks to a real trust between her and you, and the respect that you must have had for her in taking the photograph.

A

Ming Smith

—  This was taken in Gambela, I was on a fashion modelling assignment in 1973. When I went to take the photograph, she didn’t have her cloth on.

Q

The White Review

— So she was bare-breasted.

A

Ming Smith

— Yes. I have some pictures somewhere where she is bare-breasted. I’ve never printed them up, or I might have – you have to realise you’re talking about forty years ago. I was thinking as a woman, how beautiful to be so free. But after I had taken a few photographs, she went and picked her cloth up and covered herself. She did that with other people when they came but she didn’t do that with me at first. You’re right, she was very trusting of me. When you talk about trust, that’s the bottom line with my photography. Somehow we connected even as strangers, even if it was just for that moment.

 

In my neighbourhood in New York now, people have become much more defensive about you taking their photographs. With a lot of my early photographs of Harlem, they used to see me with the camera and they would come and say ‘Won’t you take my photograph?’ And I loved that. Now everyone’s photographing, they have selfies. Now I’m ‘a photographer’, I don’t want to use people in any kind of way. Before I was doing it out of pure love. It wasn’t even like creating art, but now there’s a sense of, this could be used in the magazine, or I could sell this image, or whatever. So it’s much more emotionally difficult for me than before. There are all kinds of introspective questions. Where are my photographs going to go, what am I trying to say?

Q

The White Review

—  I’ve read somewhere that you have known some of your photographic influences – Diane Arbus, for instance. At what stage in your development and self-teaching and self-discovery did you come to know other photographers’ work?
A

Ming Smith

—  I knew Lisette Model who was Diane Arbus’s teacher, and she used to live in the Village. And we would go to these cheap diners with her and her husband, Evsa Model, who was a painter. And we would have conversations. For years she kept on saying ‘I’m worried about my student Dionne’. I didn’t realise that Dionne was Diane.

 

When I was going through some of my photographs last night, I saw one of {civil rights activist} Dorothy Height. I looked her up, and found this quote of hers, which is exactly how I feel about everything: ‘I am the product of many lives that have touched mine, from famous, distinguished and powerful to the little known and the poor.’

 

I’ve met a lot of people, from the modelling world, the music world, the art world, to people in my neighbourhood. When I was at Howard, I worked at a little record store on 14th and U Street, it was the hood of the hood back then. I must have been 18 years old. Everybody would come in to buy this one latest hit, Tell It Like It Is by Aaron Neville (1966). The hustlers would come in, everybody. I would phone my mother, and she would say, ‘I just saw on television that someone got shot right on your corner’. And there would be this blood bath on the street half a block from where I lived. There was this one family, the Stanbacks, who had a little grocery store, a mom and pop grocery store, and they would always feed me. They would give me a sandwich and bring me food. I didn’t have much money then at all, unlike a lot of the Howardites whose parents had money. Because I went to Howard and not to Ohio State my father didn’t help me, so I was on my own. I had a scholarship but I still had to work, which was different from most of the Howardites. I think about the Stanbacks often. This is going back years and years, but I stayed in one of those brownstones in the attic. One of the other women staying there was working for the airlines and sometimes she’d bring me food. I never asked, but people knew I was struggling. It was a real sense of community for me.

 

I’d like to conclude by reading you an excerpt from Albert Murray’s book The Omni-americans: Black Experience And American Culture (1990): ‘Human nature is no less complex and fascinating for being encased in dark skin. Blacks have produced the most complicated culture, and therefore the most complicated sensibilities in the Western world.’ That’s the main thing that I feel about our culture. Sometimes, writers can get all your feelings and your knowledge in two lines, right there for you.

 

 

A series of works by Ming Smith appears in The White Review No. 30.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Ming Smith is a photographer from the United States of America.

Zoe Whitley is the director of the Chisenhale Gallery, London.

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