Ming Smith

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani contemplates the ways in which Ming Smith’s self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – constitute a practice of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world.

Several years ago, in the hope of discovering early photographs by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, I opened, for the first time, the pages of The Black Photographers Annual (1973). While Moutoussamy-Ashe’s work does not appear in the first volume – but only from the second – starting my reading with the first issue meant I came across the name of Ming Smith and what was apparently her very first publication. Launched in 1973, on the initiative of the Kamoinge Workshop, the periodical operated as a unique space for African-American photographers to determine independently both the content and conditions of publication and give them control over words and images: something that had been denied to the vast majority of them up until then. In her Aperture monograph (2020), Smith – who was the first female member of the collective – recalled: “this group of Black male photographers wanted to take control of their own images – their humanity.” The empowering agency necessary for the implementation of such an editorial project is an effective way for photographers to come into existence as authors of their images. In the introduction to the first volume, Clayton Riley suggested that The Black Photographers Annual enabled an “awareness of self”. At the time, I understood this phrase in line with consciousness-raising practices in the broader political context of 1970s America and its possible links with the affirmation of the African-American photographers’ “photographic identity”.

Of the forty-nine photographers published in The Black Photographers Annual, I remember being struck by Smith’s portfolio. More specifically, the second photograph piqued my interest when I realised that the silhouette in the lower left corner could be the reflection of the photographer holding her camera with both hands. Through a game of reflections, that can sometimes make us lose our spatial cues, the figure of – what I still hope is – Smith comes into being. The relationship between the photographic process and that of the construction of an identity was asserted by Smith as early as 1973 as quoted in her bio from The Black Photographers Annual: “My photographs attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.” A passage Smith would take throughout her career, making her self-portraits some of the most interesting aspects of her work. Seeing herself, beyond imposed images.

As Neelika Jayawardane wrote: “When Smith picks up her camera and photographs the intimacy of her face and body in a multitude of situations and places, it is a response to her own beautiful aliveness, her situatedness within a moving world.” Framing herself at the bottom of the picture is something she would do again in the 1989 self-portrait with her Canon camera, where, against the backdrop of a floral wallpaper, she contorts her torso in order to aim at a mirror, the reflected image revealing the upper part of her face, the skin of her back and her hand, once again, holding her camera. This image ought to be considered in line with the long and popular tradition of women photographers’ self-portraits-with-their-cameras, as exemplified by one of Smith’s friends and influences, Lisette Model – from the 1955 half-naked bathroom picture to the 1982 Paris hotel room photograph.

In one of the interviews published in her monograph, Smith stated: “being a photographer was a journey that was about my conversation with my camera.” Smith’s photographic practice is undoubtedly marked by experimentation, offering several departures and different arrivals around her identity as a photographer, a woman, an African-American, a dancer, a music-lover, etc. – an idea echoed by Trinh T. Minh-ha in When the Moon Waxes Red (1991): “Since identity can very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity, heterologies of knowledge give all practices of the self a festively vertiginous dimension.” Time and time again, Smith dared to turn her lens towards herself because of the urgency of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world. For being the first African-American female photographer to be collected by MoMA did not, according to her, make much of a difference in her life, and certainly did not interrupt the process of her own recognition and self-affirmation as a photographer.

As a model, dancer and jazz-enthusiast, performativity played a central role in Smith’s self-portraits, as exemplified in Me as Marilyn (1991) or Self-Portrait as Josephine (1986), the latter serving as a clear homage to Josephine Baker but perhaps also to Katherine Dunham, whose “Technique” Smith learnt when she arrived in New York from Ohio. In his book In the Break (2003), Fred Moten pointed out that “black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus – invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation.” A quality we can also easily find in Smith’s 1990s Ellen Gallagher-esque collage of a 1972 self-portrait. The multitude of her self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – work as an emancipatory practice. Not published in the book, and yet essential in the construction of the self through the image, is her 1986 self-portrait as she is breast-feeding her son – an image taken ten years after Deborah Willis’ triptych, I Made Space for a Good Man (1975-76), entitled after a Philadelphia College of Art professor told then-art student Willis that “a good man could have been in [her] seat.” Performing maternity for their cameras states something about female photographic experiences, disobeying traditional considerations about the constructed image of The Photographer as male and White. As bell hooks wrote in Art on My Mind (1995): “to transgress we must return to the body.” We could also mention Diane Arbus’ 1945 self-portrait with her daughter, Doon, where, once again, the maternal body is at the centre of an experimentation with the photographic medium and still asserts desire and reflexivity.

I could write many more words on Smith’s self-portraits; I could also write about Smith’s photographic walks into the night, her spirituality, the blurs, the paint, the poetic titles, the light and the darkness, the phonic substance and the auratic nature of her photographs – and a lot of people have been very good at doing just that. But when reading the interviews Smith gave about her practice, I am struck by the lexicon of sensuality used by the photographer to describe her relationship to image-making. The inexpressible in the expressed. Smith often states that she “follow[s] [her] impulses”, or that photographic discovery is “a turn-on for [her]”. Yxta Maya Murray even wrote that “she picked up her Canon and held it to her face as if it were a lover.”

So I wonder, should we not start considering Smith through the prism of the erotic? Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (1966) and Trinh (1991) argued for “an erotics of art”; Moten too, speaking of Duke Ellington’s music (2003), spoke of an “erotics of the cut”. As such, should we not consider an erotics of Smith’s practice? After all, the cover of Smith’s monograph is her photograph entitled Male Nude, New York (1977). But what inspires me the most to make this point is Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, published in Sister Outsider (1984). For the African-American writer, poet, feminist and civil rights activist, the erotic needs to be understood as a creative power: “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” And she added: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Perhaps all that is left here for me is to invite you to have a look at Smith’s monograph, as an introduction to her work and an invitation to read between the lines, with Lorde’s words in mind.♦

Images courtesy the artist and Aperture © Ming Smith

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

One Wall a Web

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

The photograph on the cover of One Wall a Web is a close up of a brick wall. If it seems to block access, as an attempt to establish a border, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s book quickly turns out to be an invitation to deconstruct, brick by brick. He invites us to observe the physical and mental dismantling of racial and gendered violence as it is expressed and experienced in United States society today. Driven by the author’s impulse to tear down this wall so that, once the book is finished and closed, we find ourselves facing two abandoned bricks. Taking the metaphoric nature of these bricks as a point of departure, we might explore the forms of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s discourse through the prism of the poetics and politics of a renewed and contemporary western tradition of scrapbooking.

At first glance unsettling as a result of the multiplicity of narrative strata, leafing through One Wall a Web makes it possible to understand that the story is told both through the photographic image and by the text. Though designed in collaboration with graphic designer Roger Willems, the reader is clearly invited into Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s thoughts and state of mind. Professor in the English department of New Jersey City University and historian of the scrapbook, Ellen Gruber Garvey wrote in her 2015 article Homemade Archives: ‘Each scrapbook is a window into the life and thoughts of its maker — and into his or her reading habits.’ Reflections, judgments, positions, observations, speculations and imagination form a complex stream of consciousness. The narrative is constructed using associative jumps and analogies. Various chapters punctuate the work but do not break the flow of reverberations and resonances. Such a juxtaposition of sequences of images and texts recalls the rhythm of the films by American film maker Arthur Jafa and in particular his video APEX.

As such, Wolukau-Wanambwa orchestrates an erudite back and forth between quotes from the fascist website breitbart.com, excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s poems Howl and America, quotations from a Donald Trump interview published in The New York Times and stanzas from Breaking Open and The Speed of Darkness by poet Muriel Rukeyser. These authors, alongside the original and appropriated photographs, are mobilised by the photographer as a network of collaborators and evoke the Rhizome theory as developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (1980), 1987. Texts and images being put on the same level, the work then becomes an evolutionary device that can extend in all directions. Arborescent thinking is opposed to the line of subordination, rooted and taking form, in this case, in the history of structural racism and sexism in the United States. Polymorphic, the rhizome is thus sometimes chaotic, not in its negative sense, but for its capacity of interconnectedness, as Édouard Glissant had it. Linearity and continuum are discarded in favor of fragmentary power.

Successor to commonplace books, popular during Early Modern Europe, where authors could compile their knowledge, usually by writing information in existing books, the scrapbook is a method of textual and visual conservation, presentation and classification that usually offers a meeting point between history and personal narrative. In One Wall a Web, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa plays around with the possible interweaving between history and current events, in particular by linking his own photographs taken in recent years in Virginia, Alabama, New Jersey and New York, and appropriated archival negatives collected online, printed as positive and displayed as equals to his own images. The range of references used by the photographer-author shows his acute awareness of how history is written and told; regularly shaped by popular culture, journalists, experts, politicians and of course the Internet.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s publication aligns with Pero Gaglo Dagbovie’s statement in Reclaiming the Black Past: ‘Black history is a vital part of contemporary black culture.’ Once he had arrived in the United States, British-born Wolukau-Wanambwa lived and observed the brutality of a society against the black body and inherited the deep scar that is the violent history of African-Americans. Free, radical and sometimes brutal, the verdict proposed by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is irrevocable.

Mobilising the tradition of scrapbooks has allowed me to include the photographer in North American storytelling dating back to the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance. Many pioneering figures must be mentioned: L.S. Alexander Gumby, a queer African-American man, who kept scrapbooks on a wide range of subjects, focusing on black history and black-run newspapers whose critical muscle against the white press is groundbreaking. In his close circle, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African and German descent, also made scrapbooks which would become, among other things, the basis for the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Another seminal person, Frederick Douglass, known to be the most photographed American man of the 19th century, also kept scrapbooks in order to create a corrective image of race representation. If today this practice seems extremely gendered and depoliticised, for the African-American community, and for these three men, scrapbooks were spaces of the expression of their liberties and their opinions, notably made with cut out newspaper photographs or family albums. Scrapbooks then became volumes that told stories, allowed sharing knowledge widely and as such became a kind of handcrafted archive, validating Jacques Derrida’s statement: ‘There is no political power without the control of the archive.’

Whether in history, or in contemporary proposals, such as that of Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s or Clarissa Sligh’s photobook entitled It Wasn’t Little Rock, the meaning of the scrapbook, its poetic range and its political force is thus, in the act of montage and juxtaposition. The cut-up technique, developed by dada artists, and popularised by William S. Burroughs, is based on the idea of making a text from fragments of all kinds. This technique was also used by Burroughs in his scrapbooks, which were visual and textual collages, and tools for prefiguring new ideas for future work. If for Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Roger Willems the scrapbook was not a direct source of inspiration for the design of the book, Wolukau-Wanambwa has confided to me the fact that he had been keeping red-fabric scrapbooks for many years. Definitively not a work in progress but a finished object, One Wall a Web, by the combination of his own texts, borrowed words and phrases, his photographs and found images is Wolukau-Wanambwa’s way of recomposing American and African-American history.

All images courtesy the artist and Roma Publications. © Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.