TWO POWERFUL, TRAILBLAZING WOMEN are joining forces. Nicola Vassell Gallery in New York announced the representation of Ming Smith on Friday. Smith joins the Black-owned gallery having established a groundbreaking photography practice over the last 50 years.

In May, Vassell inaugurated her gallery with a solo exhibition of the Harlem-based artist. “Ming Smith: Evidence” surveyed her career. The introduction to the show described the works on view and also reflected the scope of her broader output: “The assembled pictures exemplify the artist’s keen, enduring eye and her use of the photographic medium to depict charged atmospheres and surreal states with a cast of evocative landscapes, blurred silhouettes, dynamic street scenes and revered cultural figures…”


MING SMITH, “America Seen Through Stars and Stripes (New York),” 1976 (archival pigment print, 40 x 60 inches). | © Ming Smith


Smith was born in Detroit, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has spent her career in New York City. She is best known for being the first female member of the Kamoinge Workshop. Louis Draper helped start the New York City collective of Black photographers in 1963 and Roy DeCarava served as the first director of the group. Smith joined Kamoinge in 1972. In 1979, she became the first Black woman to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

What sets Smith apart in the field are the experimental techniques she employs with her camera and hand to achieve painterly and artfully blurred images, including slow shutter speeds, double exposure, painting, tinting, and collage.

Two major traveling museum exhibitions recently showcased her work. Smith was among the artists featured in “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop” and “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

A few years ago, Arthur Jafa included Smith in “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions,” his exhibition at Serpentine Galleries in London. Speaking about the show, he praised Smith’s singular talent.

“Ming Smith is in my opinion the greatest African American photographer ever,” Jafa said. “What she’s been able to do in her ability to both create blur and precision and definition at the same time is unparalleled.”

“Ming Smith is in my opinion the greatest African American photographer ever.” — Arthur Jafa

MING SMITH, “Self-Portrait,” 1972, collaged circa 1990s, reprinted 2019, painted 2019 (archival pigment print and oil, Edition of 10, each hand-painted and unique, 24 x 18 inches). | © Ming Smith


Smith’s first-ever monograph was published last fall by Aperture. The much-anticipated volume provides a full account of her life and practice through essays and images. Plus two conversations with Smith conducted by Janet Hill Talbert and Hans Ulrich Obrist, and a dialogue between Arthur Jafa and Greg Tate about the “presence of music and sound” in Smith’s work, shed further light on the artist.

A major retrospective of Smith is forthcoming from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. In June, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts announced recipients of its spring 2021 grants, including CAM Houston. The institution received $40,000 to help support “Ming Smith: Feeling the Future.”

The spring 2021 edition of Gagosian Quarterly featured a conversation between Smith and Vassell. The artist and gallerist covered a lot of terrain, including the fact that Smith’s father was a photographer and that she took her first photographs with her mother’s camera. She borrowed it for a school trip in fifth grade.

They also discussed Kamoinge, jazz, energy and silence, the relationship between dance and photography, and “August Moon,” her 1991 series that pays tribute to playwright August Wilson (1945-2005). Asked about the artists who have inspired her, Smith named Katherine Dunham, Brassaï (“He’s my favorite,” she said.), Imogen Cunningham (Diane Arbus’s teacher), Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Gordon Parks.

During the course of the conversation, Vassell also asked Smith about how she has characterized her work as photographing like a painter and using light to paint.

“I’m aware of how things look in light, but it all happens in one moment. That’s the gift, the photographer’s talent: the capacity to compose by following one’s instincts,” Smith said.

“Also, the power of anticipation and the patience to wait for what’s coming. It’s like a basketball player hitting three-pointers: practice, repeat, practice, repeat. You get better, and still you’ll miss a few. In photography, you have to nail it the moment it’s in the lens. Take the shot when you see it.” CT


FIND MORE The exhibition “Jordan x Ming Smith: Here For A Reason” featuring Michael Jordan and members of his Jordan Brand’s WNBA roster opened at Nicola Vassell Gallery at the end of June


“Ming Smith,” the photographer’s first monograph was published last November by Aperture. Ming Smith is also represented in the exhibition catalogs “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop” and “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”


Installation view of “Ming Smith: Evidence,” Nicola Vassell Gallery, New York, N.Y., 2021. | Courtesy Nicola Vassell Gallery

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