Ming Smith Brings Studio 54 Nostalgia to Nicola Vassell Gallery

by Isiah Magsino

Self-Portrait by Ming Smith as Josephine with a tiger on a leash
Self-Portrait as Josephine (New York), 1986. Photo by Ming Smith; Courtesy of Nicola Vassell Gallery.

Studio 54 was a beacon of decadence and—ultimately—a star-studded fiasco whose vintage, romantic allure still permeates pop culture today. (Take one look at the recently released Netflix biopic Halston for proof.) Many have attempted to replicate the club’s aura over the years—and while its former location in Midtown Manhattan has now been repurposed as a Broadway theatre, a relic from the time can now be seen in Chelsea within the newly opened Nicola Vassell Gallery.

The Nicola Vassell Gallery’s debut exhibition by famed photographer Ming Smith, “Evidence,” offers a nostalgic visual treat for any art aficionado—or any person who missed attending parties during the pandemic, for that matter. Amid the white walls of Nicola Vassell, which stands in stark contrast from its red-brick neighbors, are relics from the 1970s. And then there’s a photograph of Grace Jones. She’s immortalized in black and white, donning incognito sunglasses with a not-so-incognito sparkling halter top and a matching wrap that goes around the back of her head and extends to her sides like angel wings. To the average onlooker, the image of the legendary artist conjures awe and delight. But for Smith, who shot the photograph, it’s simply a piece of her normal. “[Jones] had phoned me earlier that day asking if I’d take her picture since she was performing at Studio 54. I said yes because I knew it’d be fun” Smith says. “I never did celebrities, I did my world, my reality.”

Smith’s reality entails an illustrious, decades-long career. From being the first Black woman to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1975 to now, gallery owner Vassell feels Smith’s legacy served as a perfect tableau for the space’s inaugural exhibition. “Ming is the sum total of life and contradictions,” Vassell tells W. “She embodies so many realities. This show, really, is a meditation on collective humanity.” While the image of Grace Jones dancing the night away at Studio 54 is a nod to the optimistic near-future, it’s the magical collection of both opulence and mundanity that truly causes an inner spark of wanting to live life.

Man Strolling(Coney Island), 1976. Photo by Ming Smith; Courtesy of Nicola Vassell Gallery.

An image of Coney Island in the summertime brings me back to the summer of 2019—the most liberated and elated I’ve ever felt in my personal life. In Dakar Roadside with Figures, an ethereal figure dons a dress whose fabric wafts behind them—an image reminiscent of sails on a boat. Miss Star of Hope, the glamorous Amen corner sisters in Harlem, and even an image of a mother and a child using a phone booth touch not just one aspect of reality, but every moving part of it. “These aren’t just hanging photographs,” Smith says. “They’re spiritual and truthful. They reflect the Black consciousness and it’s empowering to be reflected.”

Grace Jones, Studio 54 (New York), 1970s. Photo by Ming Smith; Courtesy of Nicola Vassell Gallery.

Since she was first shown in the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1972, Smith continues to have an eye for dreamlike moments that occur in day-to-day life. When put into context of the past year, Smith’s work is nothing short of an antidote. “I hope people have fun with it. Especially after this pandemic. People need to be entertained!,” she says.

Nicola Vassell photographed by Ming Smith. Photo by Ming Smith; Courtesy of Nicola Vassell Gallery.

While “Evidence” may be the first time Smith and Vassell have come together on a solo project, their friendship spans over a decade. “I will never forget the day I saw Ming,” Vassell says. “I had no idea who she was. But I sensed that she was otherworldly and something extraordinary. I had no idea she was a legendary photographer.” As it turns out, Vassell and Smith share backgrounds that echo one another. Both started in front of the camera as models. Vassell signed with Next Model Management, Smith with Wilhelmina. Smith’s famous Self Portrait as Josephine, which also sits within Vassell’s gallery walls, is a nod to that period in her life. “Beauty and modeling took us to a different realm,” Smith says. “When you’re around beautiful things all the time... It becomes a part of your DNA and psyche.”

Star of Hope, 1978. Photo by Ming Smith; Courtesy of Nicola Vassell Gallery.

But this love for beauty is not limited to a select few—it’s not unattainable, nor a myth. As bits and pieces of Smith’s world adorn the walls of Evidence, one thing is apparent: beauty is found in everything and every moment. “Anyone who encounters her work can relate to it in some way,” says Vassell. “Her work picks up on a multitude of angles.” This is not the overly glamorous beauty that’s found in luxury ads, or big billboards (although there are certainly a few images referencing commercialism.) Instead, they are relatable hidden gems found in Smith’s world, nudging at viewer to remind them that escapism means finding the magic right here, and nowhere else.