The big picture: Huck Finn in 1970s New Jersey

Ming Smith photographed the four boys on their backdoor rafts on a pond in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1972. She called the unlikely urban Huck Finn scene Setting Out to Sea, since that’s where one or two of the friends seemed to be aiming for, at least in their heads.

Smith was developing big plans of her own at that time. Detroit-born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she had arrived in New York a year earlier after graduating from Howard University. Her first published pictures appeared in the inaugural, renowned Black Photographers Annual in 1973. The annual, with an introduction by Toni Morrison, featured the work of artists from the Kamoinge Workshop in Harlem, which was a prime mover in the Black Arts movement. Smith had become the first female member of that group. Her biography in the annual read: “New York amateur photographer Ming Smith has been taking pictures for less than a year. She is a self-taught photographer, who was first influenced by her father. ‘My photographs,’ she says, ‘attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.’”

Part of that understanding came from wandering the Lower West Side neighbourhood in which she lived, “following the light”, as she describes it, looking for the places, as here, in which it collected and came alive. Her biography wasn’t quite accurate; she had been taking pictures with her dad since she was a girl; at Howard she photographed a young Cassius Clay and went on to take celebrated portraits of everyone from her friend Grace Jones to James Baldwin and Nina Simone. In 1979, she was the first Black female photographer to have work bought by the Museum of Modern Art (an accolade she likened to “winning an Oscar and no one knowing”). This picture is included in a retrospective of Smith’s work, On the Road, at the Nicola Vasell gallery in New York.

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The Guardian

The big picture: Huck Finn in 1970s New Jersey

Ming Smith photographed the four boys on their backdoor rafts on a pond in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1972. She called the unlikely urban Huck Finn scene Setting Out to Sea, since that’s where one or two of the friends seemed to be aiming for, at least in their heads.

Smith was developing big plans of her own at that time. Detroit-born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she had arrived in New York a year earlier after graduating from Howard University. Her first published pictures appeared in the inaugural, renowned Black Photographers Annual in 1973. The annual, with an introduction by Toni Morrison, featured the work of artists from the Kamoinge Workshop in Harlem, which was a prime mover in the Black Arts movement. Smith had become the first female member of that group. Her biography in the annual read: “New York amateur photographer Ming Smith has been taking pictures for less than a year. She is a self-taught photographer, who was first influenced by her father. ‘My photographs,’ she says, ‘attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.’”

Part of that understanding came from wandering the Lower West Side neighbourhood in which she lived, “following the light”, as she describes it, looking for the places, as here, in which it collected and came alive. Her biography wasn’t quite accurate; she had been taking pictures with her dad since she was a girl; at Howard she photographed a young Cassius Clay and went on to take celebrated portraits of everyone from her friend Grace Jones to James Baldwin and Nina Simone. In 1979, she was the first Black female photographer to have work bought by the Museum of Modern Art (an accolade she likened to “winning an Oscar and no one knowing”). This picture is included in a retrospective of Smith’s work, On the Road, at the Nicola Vasell gallery in New York.

skip past newsletter promotion

The Guardian