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Every breath she takes: Ming Smith at MoMA

Her photographs are their own genre: documentary dreamscape

Ming Smith, "Womb," 1992.Courtesy of artist

NEW YORK — So many of the photographs in Ming Smith’s namesake show feel provisional, like one breath following another. That’s meant as praise. Life is provisional, and communicating a sense of that condition in art — which is all about finality (or at least its semblance) — is very hard to do.

“Projects: Ming Smith” runs at the Museum of Modern Art through May 29.

Part of this provisional quality is a function of technique. Smith is fond of blurs and double exposures and letting light loose within the frame. For most photographers blurring is a form of concealment. For Smith, it’s the pursuit of revelation or an injection of energy, as in “African Burial Ground, Sacred Space,” from1991.


Ming Smith, "African Burial Ground, Sacred Space," 1991.Courtesy of artist

Walker Evans referred to his approach as “lyric documentary.” Smith’s might be described as documentary dreamscape. These are images of specific people and specific places (especially Harlem, but also Brooklyn, Roxbury, Pittsburgh, Paris, Japan). You don’t need titles to know that actual lives in actual places are being actually led. Dailiness is a given. But that dailiness is heightened, sometimes even exalted, as Smith imbues it with a sense of drama and mystery.

Precision can be the enemy of evocation, and evoking is what Smith seeks to do. Sometimes the evocations are cultural: of August Wilson’s plays, Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man,” the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. More often, the evocation is more a matter of feeling and spirit, a kind of low-key, pensive rapture.

Ming Smith, "The Window Overlooking Wheatland Street Was My First Dreaming Place," 1979.Courtesy of artist

This striving to evoke has been true throughout Smith’s more than half a century as a photographer. She works in black and white; and in being drawn to the power of contrasting light and dark you can see — even more, you can feel — an affinity with Roy DeCarava.

DeCarava was the founding director of the Kamoinge Workshop. That influential collective of Black photographers invited Smith to join in 1972. She became its first female member, as she also became the first Black female photographer to have her work acquired for MoMA’s permanent collection.


First-ness of that sort carries an obligation as much as it conveys privilege or reward. Smith’s sense of that obligation is evident in her engagement with and celebration of Black history and culture. It’s there in the gravity of “Farewell to Alvin Ailey,” from 1989, which shows the choreographer’s funeral, or the title and activist subjects of “Lift as We Climb [Eleanor Holmes Norton and Dorothy Height],” from 1981. The dazzle of US Representative Norton’s smile is a reminder of how much an eye for detail can contribute to evocation, too.

As regards engagement and celebration, title and image combine to stunning effect in “Womb,” from 1992. It’s a vision of the Sphinx and Great Pyramid as seen through an Afrofuturist scrim. Visually, it’s wild. Conceptually, it’s even wilder. That title is about as sweeping as a monosyllable can get.

Ming Smith, "Sun Ra Space II, New York, NY," 1978.Courtesy of artist

“Womb” is an image one can well imagine Sun Ra, that most otherworldly of jazz musicians, taking to his musical heart. How could he not? Ra took his name from the Egyptian sun god. Jazz figures throughout the show — and Smith’s life. She was married to the tenor saxophonist David Murray, and their son is named after Charles Mingus. Among the musicians seen in “Projects” are Ra (twice), Randy Weston, Arthur Blythe, Pharoah Sanders, and Duke Ellington. None of the views is a conventional portrait. Ellington, in fact, is seen on a TV monitor (more blurring). Smith presents each in performance, in action, in life, not in any standard pose.


That’s less the case with a photograph of the Ailey dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison — how can someone take a picture of Jamison and not have her look glamorous? It is the case, though, with a joint portrait of the poets Amina and Amiri Baraka — and very much the case with “James Baldwin in Setting Sun Over Harlem, New York,” from 1979. In it, Smith inserts a small photo of the novelist into the upper-left-hand corner of a scene of thunderheads over the Manhattan skyline. It’s tribute. It’s admonition. It’s tour de force.

The “Projects” installation is quite striking. The show is in a single large gallery with a very high ceiling on the museum’s ground floor. (The gallery is on the near side of where visitors present their tickets. So, not that you heard this from me, but if you’re willing to skip everything else at MoMA — not that that’s a good idea — you can get into “Projects” for free.)

View of far wall of "Projects: Ming Smith."Robert Gerhardt/The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Most of the 52 photographs are hung as one might expect: matted, framed, side by side. On the far wall, 17 of varying sizes are hung, unmatted, unframed, and stacked high. That ceiling height is put to spectacular use. The hanging is less arrangement than constellation. Facing that wall is a mural-size photograph — it’s more than 12 feet by 21 feet — “Circular Breathing, Hart Leroy Bibbs, Paris,” from 1980. Circular breathing is a musical technique, so the title is another nod to music. More important, it’s a reminder, and a reminder that big is hard to miss, that even more than seeming provisional what Ming Smith’s photographs have in common is the uncanny sense that they’re as much about breathing as looking.


Installation view of Ming Smith's "Circular Breathing, Hart Leroy Bibbs, Paris," in "Projects: Ming Smith."Robert Gerhardt/The Museum of Modern Art, New York


At Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53d St., New York, through May 29. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.