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Life behind the lens

May 27th, 2019

Ming Smith. Alvin Ailey Revelation, Harlem, NY, printed c. 1975. Gelatin silver print, Overall: 40.6 × 50.8 cm. Purchase, with funds generously donated by the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2018.  2018/31 © Ming Smith

The Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival may be winding down, but many of the exhibitions – including the AGO’s Photography, Women in Focus: 1920s–1940s – continue after the month ends. Before we say goodbye to the Festival, the AGO is hosting an exciting talk on May 29 with two Toronto luminaries June Clark and Suzy Lake, along with African-American artist Ming Smith.

Described by artist Arthur Jafa as “the greatest African-American photographer ever”, Ming Smith is a pioneer of the medium. She’s also the first woman to be a member of the renowned African-American photography collective, Kamoinge, founded in Harlem, New York in 1963. The collective focused on celebrating Black culture and icons, as well as telling their own stories. Smith’s work pushed against the expectations of what “Black photography” was supposed to be, and instead brought her unique and sometimes surreal vision forward. Her photographs are personal and expressive, with the images sometimes slightly out-of-focus or obscured, creating an abstract effect and denying the viewer full access to the subject.

The AGO recently made an exciting acquisition of six black and white photographs by Smith, with funds generously donated by the AGO’s Photography Curatorial Committee, Ken Straiton and Shon and Cindy Barnett. Several of these works are from Smith’s most active period in the 1970s when she photographed luminaries like Nina Simone and Grace Jones, and captured a stunning image of Sun Ra followed by his bandmates. She also photographed intimate, everyday scenes in Harlem and the outer boroughs of New York, with moments catching her attention like a family outing to Coney Island or the light and shadow of an open window.

Before we prepare to say farewell to this year’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, don’t miss your chance to see Ming Smith in conversation with June Clark and Suzy Lake Wednesday, May 29 at 7 pm in Jackman Hall at the AGO. Tickets are free and available now.

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