One of the most prolific artists to emerge in the strident decade of the sixties was African American photographer, Ming Smith. Smith has produced work since the 1970s and has continuously broken boundaries throughout her life. Hers was one of the first Black families to move into a “white” neighbourhood. Smith was the first woman to join the Kamoinge Workshop, and the first African American female photographer included in MOMA’s collection. Her first solo European exhibition is currently featured online at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, ‘Painting With Light: The Photography of Ming Smith’. The online viewing is a collection of fifteen photographs shot by Smith from the neighbourhoods of Harlem and Coney Island, New York to the African cities of Abidjan and Gambela.
Smith’s photographic style is candid street photography, expressive rather than direct documentation. Embedded within her photographs is emotion, feeling, and life enhanced by the precise colour and light that forms each composition. Smith frequently works with double exposure creating an overlap of light and movement. ‘First Sunday I’ (1980) captures a grandmother in her best attire, ‘Sunday Morning Service, Harlem’ (1990) is a hazy and whimsical interior of a church service. Both black and white compositions are surreal and transfixing. Smith captured the daily wanderings of Black residents in their neighbourhoods and the cultural events that responded to life circumstances. Smith’s practice was an exchange between her camera’s lens and the citizens of an era where there were too few, truthful and raw representations of Black citizens in popular culture. Photographs such as ‘Homeboy With a Snack’ (1976) depicts this mutual exchange. A sharply dressed Black man wears a suit, one hand in his pocket and the other holds a hot dog as he breezes past a ‘Sabrett’ stand.
Ming not only photographed New York street culture but also travelled and photographed the children of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. ‘Abidjan Children’ (1972, 2003) pictures two young girls in traditional clothing. The photograph is double-exposed and overlaid with streaks of warm paint hues. Smith applies the same technique in ‘Trio in Gambela, Ethiopia’ (1973, 2003) but instead cold paint hues streak over three young boys. One of Smith’s most prominent photographs included in the showing, perhaps because it resonates so acutely with current events is ‘America Seen through Stars and Stripes’ (1976). Red and white contrast electrically with three American flags that drape over a Black man who strides fearlessly and relentlessly outward. His hands remain crossed behind his back as he breaks through the crimson streaks of flags.
It is indisputable that the politics of racism continues to radically shape the world around us. News headlines continue to bleed a racist truth with the painful misconception that Black lives don’t matter. However, the mass protests for justice happening in many places around the globe seem to foreshadow the mutual exchange witnessed in Smith’s photographs. ‘Painting with Light’ brightens a dark reality. Smith’s photographs represent a beacon of truth and hope for the future through a timelapse of communal neighbourhoods and authentic historicity of Black lives.