During a career spanning almost six decades, African American artist Ming Smith has probed and pushed the limits of photography as a medium. Experimenting with blur, double exposure, collage and hand tinting, Smith has forged a distinctive style which lies somewhere between documentation and dreamscape. Travelling around the world, she has captured a vivid and moving portrait of life in Africa and its global diaspora.
Both spontaneous and carefully composed, Smith’s in-action photographs record crowded scenes of pleasure-seekers on Coney Island and frenzied portraits of jazz musicians mid-performance. Deliberately blurring the images, or shooting through mist and fog, Smith imbues her compositions with an ethereal and otherworldly feel.
Smith has also experimented with radical artistic interventions into her photographs, developing techniques pioneered by the early Surrealists. A double exposed photograph shows James Baldwin’s face superimposed several times over a cloudy New York sky. A lively image of Grace Jones clubbing at New York’s Studio 54 is covered with swirls of pink paint applied with visible finger marks. In several photographs, Smith over-paints the image until it is almost completely abstracted.
Portraiture is a recurring genre in Smith’s works, with subjects ranging from notable black cultural figures like Nina Simone and Tina Turner to those living on the margins of society, such as Harlem street children. She has also produced captivating solo and group portraits in Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Senegal. Smith has often been her own subject too, for example in a series of striking photographic self-portraits taken in the mirror in her apartment. Reflecting on her career, the artist has said: “It was just me and my camera. I worked to capture black culture, the richness, the love.”