Human figures appear in Ming Smith’s photographs on display in the Nicola Vassell Gallery, but we rarely see them. Subjects turn away from the camera more often, remain enveloped in shadows or take the form of silhouettes. Black cultural greats like Grace Jones and Sun Ra, pictured at the height of their power in the 1970s, wear tinted or reflective glasses as part of their regalia. Likewise, the listless man who has his back to a shop window decorated with hanging flags America seen through Stars and Stripes (New York), a spatially complex and symbolically charged image from the bicentennial year 1976. His mirrored lenses, two bright circles hovering over an array of intersecting black and white bars from the flags and a series of horizontal window markings, are the focus of Smith’s dramatically contrasting composition. Its opacity, paired with the repellent and even carcinogenic appearance of the orthogonals behind it, ironizes the patriotic vision evoked by the title of the work. It also protects its wearer from unwanted control and prevents the feeling of intersubjective encounter between viewer and subject, which photographs can simulate. The title of this exhibition – the first in the gallery – is “Evidence”, a term that is etymologically and conceptually linked to visibility and knowledge. But what exactly is given to us here? What types of visions do Smith’s poetic images and often veiled subjects embody?
What the exhibition makes effectively visible is Smith’s work itself. Neglected for decades by established art institutions – including those such as the Museum of Modern Art, which they had foresightedly collected at the time of their creation – the work of the artist of the 1970s has only recently appeared in pieces in top-class historical exhibitions such as “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”, organized by Tate Modern in 2017, and “Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop”, the Whitney Museum’s latest spotlight to the Harlem-based collective, the Smith joined in 1973 and became the only female member of the group. The exhibition at Nicola Vassell, which includes 48 photographs taken between 1971 and 1998 in locations from Brooklyn to Paris, from Japan to Senegal, gives Smith the monographic treatment it deserves. However, it avoids the chronologically or thematically segmented appearance of a museum retrospective by closely integrating many distinctive moments in the artist’s decades-long career. The gallery has also made Smith’s photographs look decidedly contemporary by leaving most of them unmatte and digitally enlarging them to a scale that probably would not have been possible at the time of their initial production: prints in the main gallery range from twenty-four by thirty-six inches to an extended forty by sixty inches. What it turns out is a very consistent artistic sensibility that has clearly invaded the larger black culture of its time, but is also shaped by a private, even subjectivist logic, regardless of the social movements and collective groupings the artist has recently identified with has been.
Like many of her colleagues in the Kamoinge group, Smith was a gifted street photographer with an eye for pregnant moments and fleeting juxtapositions. Despite the title of the present exhibition, however, her pictures are less documentary than suggestive: They belong somewhere in the symbolist and surrealist channels that were promoted by ancestors like Brassaï, whose portrait Smith took in 1979. Given these affinities, it is not surprising that many of the exhibition’s most memorable images are interiors. Works like The window overlooking Wheatland Street was my first dream place (Columbus, Ohio), 1979, a layered composition in which a winter landscape is reflected in the pane of an open window, project a calm lyric. Male Nude (New York), 1977, a compelling study of a shadowy, muscular figure surrounded by floral wallpaper, is also imbued with a mysterious, slightly melancholy mood. The latter photo also shows a principle similar to that of America seen through stars and stripes, with its reserved central subject: the model, who is facing the wall rather than the camera, seems to be looking downwards. His eyes – his sight – are left blank so that Smith’s eyes can be seen.