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.