Ming Smith’s new retrospective explores 1970s Harlem

Ming Smith blurred the lines between documentary photography and art. Shooting the streetscape and community of Harlem in the mid-1970s, Smith made her name by producing a stark and haunting body of work and, in the process, boosted the profile of female African-American photographers.

To celebrate Smith’s work, Steven Kasher Gallery in New York is hosting an exhibition, which also serves as the photographer’s first ever retrospective. The show features 75 images covering the span of her career, from her early photographs to her recent Transcendence series.

Smith’s aim was to document the neighbourhood around her and the characters within it. The end result was a collection of images that were both grungy and dreamy. By using the urban props at her disposal, her subjects were captured in a hazy and surreal fashion. By shooting out of focus her body of work veered on the ghostly, photos of a specific time in New York that manage to be somehow timeless.

Smith often blurred the lines between art and documentary photography. Her post-production methods were unconventional to most photographers at the time, as she dabbled in double-exposed prints, collage and painting on top of her photographs.

When shooting her subjects, Smith would often position them in visual limbo, using shadows to hide turned away faces and placing them in a cloud of fog or mist. The curated scene was a metaphor for the way African-Americans were hidden and invisible in society at the time.

Smith’s aesthetic was unique and the neglected state of the community she was shooting was juxtaposed with a peppering of humour and raw elegance. This sophisticated approach challenged the negative notions surrounding African-American photographers at the time and she became the first African-American female photographer to have her work acquired by the MoMA.