New York

Ming Smith, Sun Ra Space II (New York), 1978, ink-jet print, 40 × 60".

Ming Smith, Sun Ra Space II (New York), 1978, ink-jet print, 40 × 60".

Ming Smith

Nicola Vassell

In 1979, Ming Smith dropped off a portfolio of eighteen photographs in response to an open call at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A few days later, the institution bought two images: a hand-colored print of her husband, jazz musician David Murray, holding a saxophone, and a black-and-white photo of a woman walking in front of a lighted Christmas tree at night. The sale, as she remembers it, wasn’t enough to cover her printing costs.

Smith had been living in New York for six years when she quietly became the first Black female photographer in MoMA’s collection. Modeling to pay the bills, she immersed herself in Katherine Dunham’s African dance technique and attended crits as the first female member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of New York photographers convened under the guiding vision of Roy DeCarava and committed to the representation of Black dignity and humanity. The caliginous atmospheres and low tonalities of DeCarava’s pictures resounded in a pair of male and female nudes from 1977 in “Ming Smith: Evidence,” Nicola Vassell’s inaugural exhibition. Both of Smith’s subjects appear against palm-patterned wallpaper: The woman reclines on crinkled, darkly shimmering satin sheets, her head slipping into shadow, while the man stands with his back to the camera, head cast downward. As artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa, a longtime advocate of Smith’s work, observes in the photographer’s 2020 monograph, the values of both model and background are “pressed together,” resulting in a lush, oceanic eroticism radically different from Robert Mapplethorpe’s slick and notoriously fetishistic treatment of Black male nudity in the following decade.

This solo presentation came at a moment of belated recognition for Smith, who was recently featured in a spate of institutional surveys recovering African American art history. The show’s title was peculiar, given that the most noted attributes of Smith’s photographs—the blurred subject, the ambiguated figure-ground relationship, the abstract theater of shade and iridescence—are prized for their purported rejection of the medium’s probative burden, voiding, in Jafa’s words, “the ability of the photograph to function as evidence.” Smith, he writes, “is very invested in Black fugitivity, in the fugitivity of Black people. . . . You can’t fuck with what you can’t see.”

Indeed, images such as August Blues (Harlem, New York), 1991, with its spectral traces of a body in motion vibrating against a babel of wheat-pasted flyers, and Prelude to Middle Passage (Île de Gorée, Senegal), 1972, with its silhouetted figures hidden in the threshold of the Maison des Esclaves—a former jail for enslaved Africans overlooking the Port of Dakar—lend themselves to an apophatic criticism keyed to what writer Namwali Serpell in Smith’s monograph calls “the negative theology of Black identity.” Yet Serpell’s essay, trained on two images of Sun Ra taken in long exposure, his person undisguised and undeniable even as it vaporizes in a canopy of shimmering light, suggests a more dialectical reading of Smith’s work, in which fugitivity is just one aspect.

Such an interpretation is also supported by the visual superabundance that was on display here: from the working-class Grand Guignol of Coney Island to the quotidian pageantry of Black woman Freemasons and churchgoers in their Sunday best; from the industrious precisionism of a Pittsburgh steel mill to the swooning Impressionism of Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens, as if refracted through the mirror in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882; from the incongruous tropicalia of West Berlin flamingos to the American gothic of domestic interiors in Smith’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio; from the ghoulish intensity of an octogenarian Brassaï, nattily attired in a pied-de-poule jacket, to the magnificent éclat of Grace Jones at Studio 54, draped in a Lurex mantle like a glittering disco Madonna. What emerged was less a programmatic evasion of racialized surveillance or a refusal of photography’s evidentiary status than a dance between slippage and capture, dematerialization and embodiment, the poetics of opacity and the constructive project of representation.