Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2020 by Aperture (here) and Documentary Arts (here). Hardcover (10.6×8.5 inches), 236 pages, with 110 black and white and color image reproductions. Includes a foreward by Alan Govenar, essays by Emmanuel Iduma, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Namwali Serpell, and Yxta Maya Murray, a conversation between the artist and Janet Hill Talbert, a discussion between Arthur Jafa and Greg Tate, and a conversation between the artist and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Design by Atelier Dyakova. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many photographers, the publication of a career-spanning Aperture monograph is an important mark of artistic acceptance. Given its long history of supporting and promoting photographers, particularly the pantheon of 20th century masters, joining Aperture’s list has tacitly meant the approval of the establishment, creating an arrival moment for those striving to find (and cement) their place in photographic history. While the number of quality photobook publishers has increased exponentially over the years, thereby diluting some of Aperture’s power to dominate the conversation, an Aperture monograph still means something, especially to those with a long term view.

Our current moment finds us wanting to right some of the wrongs of the past and to create more inclusive space for those who have previously been left out of the art world. This has translated into a surge of interest in female photographers, Black photographers, photographers of color more generally, and anyone else who was marginalized, overlooked, or underappreciated during the age of white male hegemony. So an Aperture monograph dedicated to the work of Ming Smith seems particularly timely. While Smith was the first black female photographer to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and was the first female member of the Black photography collective, Kamoinge Workshop (review of the recent Whitney museum survey here), she has largely remained outside the mainstream. Steven Kasher put on a gallery retrospective of her work a handful of years ago, Karen Jenkins-Johnson has done valuable work promoting her work at major art fairs in recent years, and artist Arthur Jafa has been a vocal advocate on her behalf, but for many, Smith is still an unknown. This monograph aims to change that.

Smith’s 1978 black-and-white photograph of Sun Ra and his band is perhaps her best known image, and it’s a decent entry point for understanding the uniqueness to be found in her work. She’s captured the band performing, the Arkestra in the background washed to a jumbled white blur and Sun Ra in the front, hovering in the dark like a funky shapeshifting Egyptian god. He wears sunglasses, and a sparkly turban and cape that Smith turns into a galaxy of shimmering pinpricks of light. The whole scene is blurred and indistinct, the immersive energy and movement of the performance swooping and swirling around the composition. The photograph is expressively elusive and murky, capturing an ephemeral essence of music and a larger-than-life personality. A variant image from the same session sees Sun Ra from the back, his cape now expanded into an enveloping wall of shifting glitter, like wings.

Most of Smith’s notable photographs recombine these aesthetic elements of deliberate blur, shadowy middle tone greys, and movement, applying them to everything from street scenes and everyday moments of Black life to jazz gigs, nightclubs, and literary references. “Invisible Man, Somewhere, Everywhere” captures a single figure walking down the street at night, his solitary trudge made universal by the anonymity of the gloomy darkness. A similar approach is used in “Abhortion”, but this time the figure is a windblown woman at midday, seen under an indistinct dark mass that looms above her in an unbalanced composition. “Another Place and Time, Harlem, New York” turns its solitary subject into a silhouette, the cutout set against the peeling paint of a concrete wall and flanked above and below by darkness. In all three photographs, we see a lone Black subject struggling against the unseen forces of the surrounding world.

Smith applies versions of this modified chiaroscuro aesthetic to a mother and child huddling in a phonebooth, a Sunday morning church service, a woman walking by a sparkling Christmas tree, a Cadillac cruising the nighttime streets of the city, and a toddler in a sidewalk playpen, and in each situation, she smooths out the details into something more broadly evocative. When she turns her camera to faces of specific individuals, her technique softens their hard edges and makes them feel like fleeting glimpses – Hart Leroy Bibbs dissolves into introspective darkness, Amina and Amiri Baraka become a couple shrouded in grainy seductive gloom, and Grace Jones steps out at Studio 54 with a striped shawl and an overflowing dose of confident cool. And when Smith adds color to her photographic tool box, jazz players are transformed into electric squiggles of pink and kids locked out by a chain link fence are obscured by clouds of smoky flared light.

Smith’s efforts employing a more traditional documentary aesthetic are less distinctive. She ably sees the layered distance of a woman in a window above a man walking by, the energy of a a man jumping off a front stoop, the protective joy of a father tossing a baby in the air, and the pride of two sisters in fancy hats, but the photographs are less recognizably Smith’s. Her works made in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, inspired by August Wilson, are consistently strong, particularly the ballet-like stand off of two pool players and the searching glance of a mother deciding on her diner order. Other more straightly seen highlights include images of enveloping sunflowers and tall cornfields, and a group of images that wrestle with the American dream, from a toppled laughing Santa Claus and two kids holding flags to Smith’s iconic Black man in mirrored sunglasses standing in front of hanging American flags and the distorted reflections of a shop window, in this case, overpainted with vertical red stripes that feel like dripping blood.

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph is certainly a well made summary of her work, and its included essays and conversations add richness to her backstory as an artist. My one complaint with the survey comes in its organization – the images are ordered neither chronologically or thematically (at least that I could discern), the sequencing instead opting for a stream of consciousness flow that shuffles the images together more expressively. While this may make the photobook more visually interesting, as full bleed spreads are liberally interleaved with single and double image pairings, this structure makes it a bit maddening to use as a reference tool. It is essentially impossible to follow the arc of her career or the evolution of her photographic eye from project to project or across time – works from five decades jump back and forth, preventing a deeper understanding of any kind of sequential progression or broader art historical context, much less a grouping together of works from the same series or time period.

While this edit admirably attempts to give us the fullness of Smith’s photographic range, a tighter edit, centered on her inspired use of blur, darkness, and vibration, would probably be a more forceful argument for Smith’s durable importance as a photographer. Her vision of Black people in Black spaces is what matters, and the inventive integrity she applied to seeing those secrets and shadows. The best of her pictures simmer with an intense flush of life, especially in the in-between moments that usually fall out of the frame. There is mystery, and quiet fugitive anguish, to be found in Smith’s world, and it is that slice of the Black experience that few have shown us as memorably before.

Collector’s POV: Ming Smith is represented by Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York (here). Smith’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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