words by Faith Cummings
photos by Ackime Snow
While she's gone on to influence photography and the art world at large with her indelible vision that continues to shape how we all see the world around us, Ming Smith's first and still enduring love will always be dance. But from the beginning, that romance was riddled with complexity— making Smith aware of what her Blackness meant to others as a young girl. Her innocent watching of the "tippy-toe girls" and asking to join them in class was quickly confronted with her unvirtuous exclusion by one of the studio's teachers and Smith's subsequent sadness. But she would run up against dance again decades later, with a much more inviting and supportive encounter that would soon teach her the ways of Katherine Dunham and many other Black choreographers who were an extension of the diaspora-cultivating work she was doing herself.
Long before she became the first Black woman photographer in the MoMA's collection, Smith was a child who had borrowed her mother's Kodak Brownie, taking photos of her kindergarten classmate—almost instantly became enamored with creating images. That admiration continued through her time at Howard University, where she took an elective photography course, and during her modeling days, when she started to ponder the idea of photography as an art form while the global art industry was having that same conversation.
Where she found her home as an artist was with the Kamoinge Workshop: an influential collective of Black photographers in New York City that formed in 1963, Smith joined the group in the 70s after craving her own space in the concurrent Black arts and Civil Rights movements taking place at the time. "The collective was active in trying to move our people forward during that very special time," she says. "Roy DeCarava started the workshop to have some autonomy and say-so about the images of Black people that were out in the mainstream. Many times, there were negative stereotypes in the media, so we wanted to produce images that came from our own community and our own point of view."
And produce she did for years before MoMA came calling in 1979. "Being the first Black woman photographer in the museum gave me affirmation, but I always described it as feeling like I got an Academy Award, but no one knew about it," she says. Only a few people knew about her accomplishment at the time, and it was apparent that carving out the space she created for so many after her was challenging and lonely at the time. "There was no way of getting into the photography business because it wasn't a business then," she reveals. "The only photographers at the time were in fashion and advertising, and none of them who were Black were able to keep their studios." So Smith likens her career to that of a mixed media artist or painter—Faith Ringgold is one of the names that easily come to her mind because of her protests against art institutions to have Black artists showcased in their collections.
But as much as breaking ground and defying the odds are integral to Smith's journey, so are genuine moments of joy in capturing tender moments with some of the world's most iconic artists. When ruminating on her favorite photos, she instantly brings to mind shooting the great American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett and the "Godmother of African American Art" Dr. Samella S. Lewis. The two visionaries were also close friends, and Lewis wrote a book on Catlett's work in 1984—about twenty years into Catlett's exile from the U.S. in Mexico. "I was really new when we first met, but when I was in Los Angeles, and they were in their later years, I took photos of them together and it was a beautiful moment," she recalls. The inimitable Gordon Parks was also a dear friend of Smith's, and she spoke fondly of the photo hanging on her wall now that she had taken of his last Christmas. "Every New Year's Day, one of my best friends and I would go to my lawyer's house and Gordon Parks's home was right around the corner, so we'd walk over," she reminisces. "I remember Gordon would still have his Christmas tree up on New Year's Day."
Smith ultimately wants to leave a legacy of hope to young Black photographers and a pathway of sorts for what's possible in their careers. She's encouraged by all the insight aspiring and working artists can get from talks and interviews, and she's ecstatic that so many young people are interested in photography—enough to go to a photography school that didn't exist when she was coming up.
In the present, Smith is still capturing the world around her, with all its beauty and complexity. Her first solo exhibition, Projects: Ming Smith, is showing at the MoMA until the end of May, and she's still in a fulfilling and loving relationship with dance, moving in Sabar and Afro-Cuban dance classes as often as she can. What her future holds is entirely up to her; we're just thrilled to be along for the ride.