Ming Smith on jazz, spirituality and how photography saved it

This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Darker Issue, no. 365, Winter 2021. Order your copy here.

Ming Smith is the first African-American female photographer to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She graduated from Howard University with a major in microbiology and came to New York City to be an artist and model as a means of supporting herself. In his photography, Smith draws his inspiration from jazz, spirituality and the daily creativity of black life. She is known for her images of Sun Ra, Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, Betty Carter and other jazz musicians who were the main founders of Afro-Futurism and the New York jazz scene.

Ming Smith photographed by Mario Sorrenti

Ming, it’s great to talk to you. I wonder if we can start by talking about the beginnings of your artistic practice and your childhood in Columbus, Ohio.
I felt isolated in Columbus in many ways, even though people said my house was magical when they came. We had a lot of paintings. I had magazines. I had visual material around me. My father made sculptures and my mother did embroidery. It was just a way of life for me to look and see. I was mostly influenced by painting. I started looking at paintings at a young age, not so much at photographers. I didn’t think I would consider photography an art form. But I have always been aware of the pain that people go through within my family and even with my friends. I have always been, from an early age, an observer as an artist.

Do you think there is a relationship between your early interest in painting and some of your works in which you paint on the photographs themselves?
I think my best work is when the photography itself looks like a painting, when the photography becomes like a painting with light.

Were you interested in painting as an artistic practice? Or work in other mediums like cinema? Your photographs have such a movement for them.
Quite honestly, I think I mostly learned how to shoot in black and white while watching movies. I was going to every movie theater when I came to New York in the 1970s. I was going to movie theaters one after the other.

I am also a dancer. I spend as much time dancing as I do photographing. I have always been inspired by Katherine Dunham and have traveled to different parts of the African Diaspora. I was inspired by the placement of weapons in different African dances, rhythms, spirituality, ceremonies, folklore.

When I first saw ballet dancers in Ohio growing up, I didn’t even have the right words to describe it. Even when I arrived in New York City, one of the reasons I wanted to come was to take dance lessons. I ran away so I could take dance lessons in New York.

Did you run away?
Yes. The act of running away from conventional life to live the life of an artist was an act of commitment for me because I ran away from something that was meant to be safe for something that was beyond my imagination.

Portrait of Ming Smith wearing a black trench coat and hoops.

Ming Smith photographed by Mario Sorrenti

Once you moved to New York, what were the major advancements in your job?
When I first moved to New York City, I wasn’t photographing as much because I was visiting different dance studios. I walked in and saw something new. There was a whole world around dance and jazz that I was a part of. For me, jazz is America. It is the first major form of musical art to originate in America. It is the music of black Americans. It is an invention and a serious concept that encompasses the struggle of black Americans from blues to gospel, spiritual and Afro-Futurism. For me, it’s alpha-omega. An enigma and omniscient.

But I knew I had to find my own voice in photography. I think my breakthrough came when I started to perfect my presence by breathing. I do circular breathing, a system of breathing patterns that allows a musician to maintain notes without interruption. It allowed me to find my voice, which I call artistic blur and Arthur Jafa called blur. It allows me to capture more than what we know to be present in the physical world.

Spirituality also comes up often in your work.
Arthur Jafa also talks about the spirit all the time. In his films, people take the spirit. I had a friend who attended the Catholic Church and I went with her sometimes. I thought it was so mysterious. They have incense, lights, smoke, windows; you have to get down on your knees, get up, open your mouth and take the flesh. Everything is very dramatic. It was another sense of beauty.

When I was young, my grandfather took me to church, and I saw people ‘acquire the spirit’. I was terrified because I was so shy. I was afraid that if I had the mind everyone would look at me and I would be totally out of control. Now even with my photography I can feel the spirit but it allows me to control it. Photography is like an intermediary. You have to be able to enter into yourself, to be with yourself while looking at something outside yourself.

It reminds me of what you said before photography saved you.
I would say photography saved me in that it gave me a life of honesty. I was such a shy person but photography allowed me to be present while hiding myself. I probably wouldn’t have come out anywhere in New York if I hadn’t filmed.

Do you think photography allows you, or helps you, to believe in a certain way?
Seeing is believing. Everything is intuition, connection to the higher power. I think it’s in the natural disposition of blacks to be creators.

I agree with you but what do you mean by that? Can you say more?
We had to create ways to survive and it becomes a daily act of creation. Even for me, there is still a conflict. To take the back seat or not to take the back seat? How can I pay the bills? How can I juggle this? How do I get my baby to the babysitter and be at work at 10 a.m.? How do I stretch that five dollar bill? You have to do it and you have to be creative. There is no other way.

Before you let go, can you tell me what are you currently working on?
Right now I have a museum exhibit in Texas. I am focusing on this. I’m also working on a book called August Moon. I started in the ’90s when I hopped on the Greyhound Bus to visit August Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburg, PA, to photograph some of the sites featured in his plays. I am in the process of editing it and it should be released next year.

Anok Yai wears a sequined bodysuit, boots and guitar next to makeup table and mirror

Anok Yai photographed by Ming Smith

Anok Yai wears a sequined bodysuit next to a make-up table and a mirror

Anok Yai photographed by Ming Smith

Anok Yai wears black hoodie and cat ears next to garage door

Anok Yai photographed by Ming Smith

Anok Yai wears a white dress as she stands in front of a wall

Anok Yai photographed by Ming Smith

Anok Yai wears a white dress as she stands in a parking lot

Anok Yai photographed by Ming Smith

anok Yai wears a quilted coat and gladiator heels as she walks the road

Anok Yai photographed by Ming Smith

Credits


Photographs by Ming Smith

Photography Mario Sorrenti
Fashion Alastair McKimm
Bob Hair Recine
Kanako Takase make-up at Streeters with Addiction Beauty
Nail Technician Honey at Exposure NY with Smith & Cult
Photo assistance Kotaro Kawashima and Javier Villegas
Digital Technician Chad Meyer
Fashion Aid Milton Dixon III and Casey Conrad
Martin Keehn suit
Kazuhide Katahira hair aid
Kuma makeup aid
Production Katie Fash, Layla Néméjanski and Steve Sutton
Production assistance William Cipos
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING

Photographs of Anok Yai

Ming Smith Photography
Fashion Sydney Rose Thomas
Nikki Nelms hair using Bronner Bros Pump It Up Gold
Make-up Marcelo Gutierrez with Chanel Beauty
Nail Technician Krysty Williams at Exposure NY with Zoya
Photography assistance Paula-Andrea Poulsen and Nuvany David
Digital technician Michel Oscar Monegro
Fashion Aid Sofia Amaral
ProductionJessica Tjeng
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING
Model Anok Yai at Next


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