Elizabeth 'Lee' Miller, Lady Penrose (April 23, 1907 – July 21, 1977) was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907, she was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer. During the Second World War, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue magazine covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Early life Lee Miller was born on April 23, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her parents were Theodore and Florence Miller (née MacDonald). Her father was of German descent, and her mother a Canadian of Scottish and Irish descent. She had a younger brother named Erik, and older brother named John. Theodore always favored Lee, and he often used her as a model for his amateur photography. When she was eight years old, she was raped while staying with a family friend in Brooklyn. Soon after, it was realized that Lee had contracted gonorrhea. The rape (which she almost never discussed), had a life-long traumatizing effect upon her. Modelling Her father, Theodore Miller, an engineer, inventor and businessman, introduced Lee and her brothers, John and Erik, to photography from an early age. She was his model — with many stereoscopic photographs taken of a teenage Lee in the nude — and he also showed her technical aspects of the art. At age 19, she was stopped from walking in front of a car on a Manhattan street by the founder of Vogue magazine, Condé Nast, thus launching her modeling career when she appeared on the cover of the March 1927 edition in an illustration by George Lepape. For the next two years, she was one of the most sought after models in New York, photographed by the likes of Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, and Nickolas Murray. A photograph of Lee by Steichen was used to advertise a female hygienic product (Kotex) causing a scandal, effectively ending her career as a fashion model.
Photography In 1929, Lee Miller traveled to Paris with the intention of apprenticing herself to the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Although, at first, he insisted that he did not take students, Miller soon became his photographic assistant, as well as his lover and muse. While she was in Paris, she began her own photographic studio, often taking over Man Ray's fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. In fact, many of the photographs taken during this period and credited to Man Ray were actually taken by Lee. Together with Man Ray, she rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation. She was an active participant in the surrealist movement, with her witty and humorous images. Amongst her circle of friends were Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard, and Jean Cocteau. She even appeared as a statue that comes to life in Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930).
After leaving Man Ray and Paris in 1932, she returned to New York and established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. During this year she was included in the Modern European Photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. In 1933 Levy gave Miller the only solo exhibition of her life. Among her portrait clients were the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, actresses Lilian Harvey and Gertrude Lawrence, and the African-American cast of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).
In 1934, she abandoned her studio to marry Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey, who had come to New York to buy equipment for the Egyptian Railways. Although she did not work as a professional photographer during this period, the photographs she took while living in Egypt with Eloui, including Portrait of Space, are regarded as some of her most striking surrealist images. By 1937, Lee had grown bored with her life in Cairo and she returned to Paris, where she met her future husband, the British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose. Her photographs were not included in another exhibition until 1955, when her work was displayed with The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
World War II At the outbreak of the Second World War, Miller was living in Hampstead, London with Roland Penrose when the bombing of the city began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the US, Miller embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue documenting the Blitz. Lee was accredited into the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from December 1942. She teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a Life Magazine correspondent on many assignments. Miller travelled to France less than a month after D-Day and recorded the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. One photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler's apartment in Munich is one of the most iconic images from the Miller-Scherman partnership.
During this time, Miller photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary and finally the execution of Prime Minister László Bárdossy. After the war she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.
England After returning to Britain from eastern Europe, Lee started to suffer from severe episodes of clinical depression and what later became known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. She began to drink heavily, and became uncertain about her future. In 1946, she traveled with Roland to the United States where she visited Man Ray in California. After she discovered she was pregnant with her only son, Antony, she divorced Bey and, on May 3, 1947 married Roland. Antony was born in September 1947. In 1949, they bought Farley Farm House in Sussex. During the 1950s and 1960s, Farley Farm became a sort of artistic Mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. While Miller continued to do the occasional photo shoot for Vogue, she soon discarded the darkroom for the kitchen becoming a successful gourmet cook. She also photographed for biographies Roland wrote about Picasso and Antoni Tapies. However, images from the war, especially the concentration camps, continued to haunt her and she started on what Antony describes as a "downward spiral". Her depression may have been accelerated by her husband's long affair with the trapeze artist Diane Deriaz. Lee rarely talked about her war experiences but it inevitably had harsh effects on her health and her relationship with her family.
Miller died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated, and her ashes spread through her herb garden at Farley Farm House. Her son Antony Penrose, known as Tony, owns the house and offers tours of the amazing work of Miller and of Roland Penrose. The garden exhibits art items such as Fallen Giant, Sea Creature, and Kneeling Woman, and the house is home to the private collections of Miller-Penrose, their own work and some of their favourite pieces of art. In the dining room, the fireplace was decorated in vivid colours by Roland Penrose.
Legacy Throughout her life, Miller did very little to promote her own photographic work. That Miller's work is known today is mainly due to the efforts of her son, Antony Penrose, who has been studying, conserving, and promoting his mother's work since the early 1980s. Her pictures are accessible at the Lee Miller Archive.
In 1985, the first biography of Miller entitled The Lives of Lee Miller was written by Antony Penrose. Since then, a number of books, mostly accompanying exhibitions of Miller's photographs, have been written by art historians and writers such as Jane Livingstone, Richard Calvocoressi, and Mark Haworth-Booth. In 2005 her life story was turned into a musical Six Pictures Of Lee Miller with music and lyrics by British composer Jason Carr. It premiered at The Chichester Festival Theatre (also in Sussex). Also in 2005 Carolyn Burke's substantial biography, Lee Miller, A Life, was published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf and in the U.K. by Bloomsbury. In 2007, Traces of Lee Miller: Echoes from St Malo, an interactive CD and DVD about Miller's war photography in St Malo was released with the support of Hand Productions and Sussex University.
Lee Miller: on the front line Review of the V&A Exhibition by Drusilla Beyfus 08 Sep 2007 in The Telegraph
While working as the only woman photo-reporter in combat areas during the Second World War, the model and Surrealist muse Lee Miller used her creative talents to the full. Drusilla Beyfus discusses her war photographs, part of a retrospective at the V&A
As adroit behind the camera as in front of it, the life of American-born Lee Miller is up for reassessment. As a beauty, Surrealist muse, Man Ray's collaborator, fashion model, sitter to Picasso, Vogue fashion photographer, Second World War correspondent and centre of an influential circle of artists and writers, she is to be the subject of a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The event marks the 100th anniversary of her birth - she died aged 70 in 1977.
Fashion and war reportage, portraits and landscape, still life and documentary stories will each have a place in the exhibition, curated by Mark Haworth-Booth, who wrote The Art of Lee Miller, the accompanying book.
In terms of pictorial coverage, it is as if Don McCullin, the Vietnam war photographer, had been assigned to cover the Paris collections, Mario Testino dispatched to Helmand province instead of a fashion shoot or Snowdon restored to documentaries. Few will deny that Miller's war years used her creative talents to the utmost - and also arguably used them up. In 1942 she became one of six accredited war correspondents, and the only woman photo-reporter active in combat areas.
McCullin says of her, 'When you think that she came from the art world, with the background of being one of May Ray's beautiful nude models, to the ugly world of death and destruction, the transition was extraordinary. One has to admire that more than other things about her.
'To have gone from being idolised and loved and turned into a beauty icon and to turn her back on being creative and indulgent to live in a trench, be shelled and live on tinned food with the fear of dying at any moment - that shows real credibility and courage.
'She got into the death camps. If even a tough guy, like I thought I was, had gone to such a place it might well have ruined my life.'
Far from the shift in worlds being a gimmick - as it might be with contemporary celebrities trying to get on to the next level of experience - McCullin said it led to a serious commitment to photography in Miller's case.
'Lee Miller was a woman the 20th century needed to create. She was her own remarkable invention,' Haworth-Booth says. To do her proud he has gathered the best vintage prints together for the first time - many previously unseen. He and Antony Penrose, Miller's son and biographer, travelled to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and Palm Springs for the purpose. A fruitful source turned out to be the Julian Levy collection in New York - Levy had been Miller's gallerist and lover in the 1930s, who had shown her work in 1933 but, Haworth-Booth told me, 'nothing sold and he kept the prints, selling some of them in the 1960s'. In 1998 a Miller print sold at Phillips in New York for $130,000.
Of special interest are the pictures that breached the code of acceptability at the time and were unpublished or unseen by the public. Such is Women with Fire Masks, shot in London in 1941. 'It's a black comedy, not a normal journalistic shot,' Haworth-Booth says. 'One subject confidently brandishes a whistle as if you could stop the Blitz with it. It's nicely styled, the hair is done and there's a nice little cardigan. They are goodlooking young women as far as we can see. It's a mixture of documentary photography, fashion and war reportage.'
What also emerges in this field of unwritten censorship is the difference in judgement between American and British Vogue on what their respective readerships would take and who drew which limits when.
Copies of the original issues of the magazines in which Miller's photojournalism either appeared in full or in an emasculated form will be included alongside the original prints. The pictures and text take you on a see-saw journey that mixes glamour, gore and guns. One photo essay titled Night Life Now published in British Vogue in 1943 portrays WRNS on a maintenance job, the WAAF with an emergency field kitchen, women in a mixed gun team, and women bedding down a barrage balloon. As is customary with Miller, a fashion note is sounded, even in the most unlikely circumstances. One shot depicts 'big-bear coats for the ATS searchlight crew'.
In the early days of the war Miller's standing at Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, wasn't all that secure, as can be read into the bleat of protests in a communication addressed to Audrey Withers, the editor of British Vogue. 'Saw the Night Life spread in NY Vogue and thought I might have had more than the usual hidden signature - after all it was me who a) thought it up b) stayed up all nite [sic] doing it c) didn't kick up when my London credit was so small d) would appreciate the NY office knowing that their little War Correspondent did a story - on acc't of which they might even like to assign me similar jobs.'
Times changed and by 1945 she is headlined in US Vogue like this, 'Lee Miller has been with the American armies almost since D-Day last June: she has seen the freeing of France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Alsace, crossed the Rhine into Cologne, Frankfurt to Munich, saw Dachau prison camp.' Earlier, British Vogue had billed her as, 'Lee Miller, of Vogue's staff, first woman photographer to visit Normandy, brought back these pictures and this account of medical wonders behind the battle front.'
Miller writes of a casualty in a surgical tent, 'I didn't know he was asleep with sodium pentathol when they started on his arm. I had turned away for fear my face would betray what I had seen.' She filed 10,000 words, used 35 rolls of film and it established her as a correspondent in the European theatre of war.
The jump from Home Front photographer to official war correspondent is marked by the presence of David E Scherman, the Life magazine photographer who was her intimate buddy throughout the war.
Like many creative opportunities in the artist's life, her break came about partly through the intervention of a lover. It was Scherman who had suggested that as a US citizen she was eligible to apply to become an accredited war correspondent with the American army; who photographed her in her service uniform; and who shot a picture - unpublished at the time, but was widely shown later - of Miller taking a bath in Hitler's tub at Berchtesgaden. As it happened, Scherman was to make Miller's relationship with Roland Penrose, the painter and collector who became her husband, into a threesome during the war years.
Miller's portrait David E Scherman Equipped for War is acknowledged as one of her strongest and draws on her understanding of Surrealism's strange juxtapositions. An American critic analysed it like this: 'Not only does Scherman's helmet brim mimic the curve of the umbrella above, but Scherman's camera is as central a part of his "uniform" as is a soldier's gas mask or gun.
'It is his weapon, when faced with a front-line drama or danger he will shoot but it cannot protect him; by allowing the gaily striped umbrella to dominate the composition, Miller presents this risky proposition as a bit of a lark.' Unlike the shot of Miller in uniform, it was not published at the time.
Miller's accreditation gave her access to military transport for herself and her film to and from the theatre of war. Accommodation and essential supplies were secured as well. For the record, Miller had approached the British army but unlike the position today in which women work alongside soldiers at the front line in Afghanistan, for instance, the Brits did not permit women soldiers to work close to the combat zones.
At the liberation of Paris in 1944 Miller takes the temperature of the cultural scene and the fashion news. Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich pop up in the dispatches doing GI shows; the actress in Schiaparelli, the dance star in a serviceman's cap. One of the self-portraits shows her in conversation with Picasso, whom she called on. The story goes that they fell into each other's arms, Picasso declaring, 'This is the first Allied soldier I have seen and it's you!'
Reporting on the first fascist-free Paris collections since 1940, Miller observes a trend for clumsy, thick-soled wedge shoes. 'The entire gait of the Frenchwoman has changed with her footwear,' Miller reports. 'Instead of the bouncing buttocks and mincing steps of "pre-war" there is a long hot-foot stride, picking up the whole foot at once.' After the collections she thumbed a lift to the siege of Saint Malo, where the action was and where the German army was holding out. British Vogue billed her as 'the only photographer and reporter there, under fire throughout'.
Miller cabled that she was given a grandstand view of fortress warfare. 'I had thought that watching a battle from a hillside had gone out with the glamorous paintings of Napoleon.' They printed her dispatch at length, running Saint Malo, the most dramatic picture of the bombing in 1944, in which heaving clouds of black smoke rise above the fortress, as a full-page lead.
Her camera was a Rolleiflex. It is worth saying that the model came without a telephoto lens, auto-wind or built-in light meter - all standard equipment in the 21st century. To guard against error, she alternated her shots on two cameras.
As she moves into the heart of Germany her reports are suffused with anger. 'I entered a kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead, detached hand and I cursed the Germans for the sordid, ugly destruction they had conjured up in this once beautiful town.'
Her dispatches on Buchenwald and Dachau are printed at length in American Vogue under the banner headline 'Believe It'. She cabled, 'No question that German civilians knew what went on.' Haward-Booth notes that British Vogue ran Miller's text in full but declined to publish the most searing images. Audrey Withers held the view that for British readers - so close to recently liberated Europe - the editorial mood called for jubilation. One small picture of the prison camps was published, which is not in the show.
It is hard to look at this wartime material without speculating on Miller's character and psychology. A colleague, John G Morris, the picture editor of Life magazine in London and Paris and Robert Capa's editor, was once asked what Miller was like. He replied, 'Unpretentious, funny and smart.' From all accounts she had an appetite for personal risk, or at least a seeming indifference to her safety. For instance, after the surrender of the Saint Malo fortress, Miller was picked up by US army public relations personnel and put under temporary arrest for violating the terms of her accreditation by getting too close to the firing line. One picture she took during this episode is said to show the use of napalm, a secret weapon at the time.
Haworth-Booth has a theory that because of Miller's experience of being raped as a sevenyear-old she was able to draw on 'a kind of transferred pain. There was a motivation in confronting the most painful things you can think about'. This showed to some extent in her approach as a photographer; Margaret Bourke-White, the American photographer and correspondent, and Miller pitched up at the same location in Leipzig at which they found the subject of a shoot that was to become well known: the Burgermeister and his family dead from the poison they had taken after the defeat of their homeland. Bourke-White kept her distance from the tragedy, staying in the gallery above the scene, but as Miller's pictures show, she moved right in close. Perhaps it was this sort of action that led Miller's contemporary, the artist Eileen Agar, to observe that she was remarkable but 'completely unsentimental and ruthless'.
Similarly, the playwright David Hare has argued in print that 'you could not understand Miller's deep feminist need to get herself at the centre of events unless you understood that other deep conviction that those events could not possibly damage her.'
'Agar and Hare are correct,' Antony Penrose told me, 'their observations borne out by David Scherman who described her response to Dachau as "coldly professional". But they were referring to the pre-1948 Lee Miller, and I am as certain as I can be that after the war she suffered from post-traumatic stress that was compounded by her childhood traumas, which were never articulated or resolved.'
Her rape had led to years of intrusive medical treatment. Penrose says she kept it to herself for life. His comments help to explain why the artist fell apart after the war years, not helped by her fondness for the booze that had no doubt sustained her in many a tough spot. Another source of frustration was that Vogue had not found a channel whereby she could continue to contribute regularly to its pages.
Any reassessment of the artist as a photo-journalist is likely to ignite the debate as to whether creatively she could catch the ugliness of war. Mary Blume, the American critic, wrote in the Herald Tribune a while back that she was 'shielded by aestheticism'. She quoted Miller's report from Saint Malo: 'A company was filing out, ready to go into action, grenades hanging on their lapels like Cartier clips, menacing bunches of death.'
In my opinion, there's a distinction to be drawn between her straightforward written reports from the front and her images. In photography it's arguable that shots such as Burgermeister of Leipzig's Daughter Suicided, from 1945, in which the close-up of the waxen figure of the dead young woman is almost styled, and Dead SS Guard in Canal, 1945, in which the drowned German soldier looks as if he is dreaming beneath rippling waters, are cases in which the lighting, composition and pictorial qualities serve to soften the blow.
As Lee Miller shows it, no matter how dark the scene, surely the picture is always a beautiful experience.
'The Art of Lee Miller' is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from September 15 to January 5. The accompanying title that takes its name from the exhibition is by Mark Haworth-Booth, and is published by the Victoria and Albert Museum
"Part memoir, part photo essay, part search for the real woman behind an unconventional mother....Should ensure Miller the place she deserves in future histories of the period."—Art in America
• Lee Miller: 1927: New York. Classically beautiful, she is discovered by Condé Nast and immortalized by Steichen, Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, and other famous photographers. • Lee Miller: 1929: Paris. Protégé and lover of Man Ray, she invents with him the solarization technique of photography and develops into a brilliant Surrealist photographer. • Lee Miller: 1939-1945: Europe. She becomes a U.S. war correspondent and covers the liberation of Paris. Her photographs of the Dachau concentration camp shock the world.
These are but three of the many lives of Lee Miller, intimately recorded here by her son, Antony Penrose, whose years of work on her photographic archives unearthed a rich selection of her finest work, including portraits of her friends Picasso, Braque, Ernst, Eluard, and Miró. To these are added many other photos that complement Penrose's highly readable biography of this uniquely talented artist. 171 duotone illustrations
Lee Miller: A Life,' by Carolyn Burke Look at Me Review by ELISSA SCHAPPELL Published: January 8, 2006 in The New York Times IT seems fitting that Carolyn Burke, whose first biography corrected history's error of undervaluing the avant-garde poet and artist Mina Loy, has written "Lee Miller: A Life." Fitting, also, that she begins the tale of a forgotten visionary photographer who was muse and lover to some of the most influential artists of the early 20th century, as well as one of the few women able to transcend this role and become an artistic force in her own right, with Miller's birth as a muse. At the age of 7, the year Miller was raped by a family friend in Brooklyn and subsequently contracted gonorrhea, she began posing naked for her father, Theodore - the only man she was ever faithful to, an amateur photographer and gadget geek who, Burke posits, might have imagined these "art studies" as "treatment" for her trauma. This practice continued into Miller's 20's and eventually culminated in group shots with several of her compliant gal pals. What it did do was create a bond that would remain the strongest and most secure in Miller's life, as well as create in her - out of necessity or desire - the ability to dissociate, which, Burke argues, "would become her way of dealing with those who sought to capture her image, her body and her trust."
Those seeking to capture her image were legion. In the 1920's, Miller's cool, sexually liberated flapper visage was everywhere. On the cover of Vogue and in other publications, her blond bob gleamed like the golden helmet of a gin-alley goddess. It was while modeling for Edward Steichen that Miller began to learn the basics of photography, and found herself inspired to move behind the camera. In the 30's, Miller plunged into the Montparnasse art scene, appearing in Jean Cocteau's film "The Blood of a Poet," sitting for Pablo Picasso's portraits of Provençal wenches and, most fortunately, after presenting herself to Man Ray as his protégée, becoming his lover, muse and eventual collaborator.
The extraordinary power Miller had over Man Ray is obvious in such works as "Observatory Time - The Lovers," in which an enormous pair of Miller's painted lips loom and undulate over the landscape like a giant vaginal dirigible, and in one famous self-portrait (shot after Miller left him to marry an Egyptian businessman) in which a despondent Man Ray sits in a chair with a noose around his neck and a gun to his head.
So entwined were Man Ray's and Miller's visions, and so close their collaboration in taking photographs, that it was often hard to tell who had shot what. It seems a cruel joke that the inspiration Miller so famously provided others is what prevents us from recalling her as an artist in her own right.
In the 40's, during World War II, Miller's wanderlust carried her into the trenches, where, surrounded by the violence and danger of the London blitz, the Normandy aftermath, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, Miller found her muse: war. Her photojournalism for Vogue - including images of atrocities in the concentration camps as well as more intimate horrors, as in a family portrait of the Hitler-loving treasurer of Leipzig surrounded by his wife and daughter, all dead from suicide - created a sensation.
But the thing that proved to be Miller's own muse would be the thing that destroyed her. After returning home from the war, Miller suffered not only from post-traumatic stress disorder but also from withdrawal. Her physician informed her rather coldly, "We cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with entertainment."
It is unfortunate that when Miller cracks up under the strain of depression and alcoholism, her character doesn't crack open. Thus, the last chapters of Miller's life - her failures as a mother; her marriage to Roland Penrose, a curator and lesser painter who was jealous of her success; and her re-creation of herself as a chef - seem lackluster. Miller's rubbing shoulders with James Beard simply isn't as riveting as Miller's rubbing noses with Charlie Chaplin; a trip to Norway to accept its tourist board's award for the best open-faced sandwich can't stand up to a Surrealist orgy in the country where artists swapped wives and lovers like paintbrushes.
To be fair to Burke, the enigmatic Miller was by all accounts aloof and unreachable, keeping everyone at a distance. (That includes Burke, who met Miller in 1977, shortly before her death at the age of 70.) Miller didn't leave any particularly revealing letters or diaries, so her inner life never really comes alive.
The photograph that may give the truest glimpse into Miller's nature is a portrait shot in Hitler's bathtub after the Allies had taken over his house: a picture of the Führer balances on the lip of the tub; a classical statue of a woman sits opposite it on a dressing table; Lee, in the tub, inscrutable as ever, scrubs her shoulder. A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.
Given that the real story of Lee Miller can be gleaned only from her work, the scant 24 glossy photographs included here feel like a tease, a mere pinhole view into Miller's work and psyche, which forces the reader to do what people have always done to Lee Miller - project their own desires onto her, seeing what they want to see.
Burke writes, "Mesmerized by her features, we look at Lee Miller but not into her." Which is true, but sadly a flaw of this otherwise compelling book ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Troubled witness Dec 1st 2005 | from the print edition in The Economist
..LEE MILLER was a bold, 22-year-old beauty from Poughkeepsie, New York, when she tracked down Man Ray in 1920s Paris and told him she was his new student. The American-born surrealist painter and photographer replied that he did not take pupils. But, as Miller explained decades later, “I guess he fell for me. We lived together for three years and I learned a lot about photography.”
Miller became a master of the surrealist image who then came into her own as a photojournalist during the second world war. Her photographs—of the liberation of Paris, of bombed-out Aachen and Cologne, the suicide of a prominent Leipzig family in 1945 or a Dachau prison guard floating dead in a canal—are hard to forget.
Until relatively recently, however, Miller's fame, as a flawless beauty, photographic collaborator and model, over-shadowed her artistic legacy. This first full-length biography, by Carolyn Burke, an Australian-born art critic, shows how Miller's complex nature contributed to this neglect. Her photographic career was sporadic, with spells of intense activity alternating with bouts of lassitude. Also, unlike many artists, she rarely promoted or even showed her photographic work to those who might help her. Miller was born in 1907, the only daughter of an engineer, inventor and keen photographer from whom she inherited a fascination with the technical intricacies of image-making. Ms Burke shows how their exceptionally close relationship is there to see in the nude photo sessions of Miller as a child and as a young woman, as well as in Man Ray's photographs of her sitting in her father's lap. She was also raped at the age of seven—an event which left the child with lingering gonorrhoea and chronic psychological difficulties, which were particularly visible in her relationships with men.
Miller's steadiest commitment was with photography. An art student and cover model for American Vogue, Miller moved to Paris in 1929, where she started her own studio, photographing still lives and portraits. Ms Burke describes Miller's affair with Ray, and her friendships with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard, all in careful detail. But the biography truly comes to life when, basing herself in a room overflowing with guns, camera equipment and crates of cognac at the Hotel Scribe in Paris, Miller became a war correspondent. This was an exhausting period that culminated in a famous image of her posing in Hitler's bath after weeks on the road with the troops.
Miller cuts a lonely figure in later life. An adventurer at heart, she was not suited to marriage, motherhood and English country life with her second husband, Roland Penrose, a connoisseur and art collector. Gourmet cooking, fashion assignments for Vogue or taking photographs for Penrose's books on Picasso and Antoni Tapies left her unfulfilled. Her delicate features marred by drink and depression, Miller was often “out of sorts”, alienating her closest friends as well as her son Antony. Penrose meanwhile enjoyed a string of open love affairs with other women. “We cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with entertainment,” Miller's doctor argued. Lack of adrenalin was only part of the problem. Miller was also haunted by flights of wartime memories: “I got in over my head,” she explained to Ms Burke when they met briefly in 1977, adding that she could never get the stench of Dachau out of her nostrils.
Miller died of cancer later that year, leaving behind 60,000 negatives and photographs carelessly stuffed in cardboard boxes in the attic, as well as a further 20,000 documents, journals, cameras, love letters and Nazi relics. As he catalogued his mother's work, Antony Penrose said he realised he had been “cheated out of knowing someone exceptional”. Carolyn Burke's sympathetic tribute sheds further light on the lives of this highly original, often misunderstood woman
A review by Elsa Dorfman Originally published in The Women's Review of Books, Vol II, No. 1, October 1989
Lee Miller was an outstanding photographer of the twenties, thirties, and forties. Her work was out of print and inaccessible until Holt, Rinehart and Winston published The Lives of Lee Miller by Antony Penrose, her son, in 1985, eight years after her death. She was left out of the two or three 1970s photography books that resurrected women photographers, probably because she refused to exhibit, discuss, or publish her work during the last twenty years of her life.
Jane Livingston discovered Lee Miller's work when she was doing the research for two major exhibitions she curated and produced catalogues for: L'Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (Abbeville Press, 1985, with Rosalind Krauss) and The Indelible Image: Photographs of War, 1846 to the Present (Harry N. Abrams, 1985, with Francis Fralin). Inevitably, Lee Miller's photographs were prominent in each exhibit and catalogue, since she created some of the most enduring images in each of these genres.
Lee Miller's work can be divided into several categories defined by place: Paris, surrealism; New York, portraits; Egypt, landscapes; Europe during World War Two, reportage; the Paris/London artistic axis, friends (most of them prominent artists and writers). A surrealist sensibility infuses all the work. It isn't hard with a camera - the ultimate surreal instrument - to select from the environment to convey a surrealist vision, but whereas often surrealist images depend on manipulation and collage, Miller's depend on astute juxtaposition, a sense of framing and camera angle. They have a certain wry humor.
Her portraits of women are sensational. The women are heroic and strong. Her portraits of Man Ray are loving and make him appear quite approachable, if not lovable (see "Man Ray Shaving," a close-up of his soapy profile). The portraits of Picasso are among the best made of Picasso - who was photographed by the best photographers of his time. He and Miller were friends for almost 50 years and their rapport is obvious. The war portraits have an especially surreal quality. The focus is isolated. The view is narrow. There is very little context.
Jane Livingston's monograph is the catalogue for an exhibit that is touring several American museums in 1989 and 1990. Her 25-page text relies heavily on Antony Penrose's book about his mother, and does not include any obvious original research. In fact, Penrose writes candidly about Miller's on-and-off-again depressions and heavy drinking (though avoiding the words alcoholism and manic-depression) while Livingston alludes mysteriously to why Miller stopped working in 1957. At least twenty percent of the images in Livingston's book were included in the Penrose volume and though I wish there were no overlap between the two volumes, I realize the reason is that, as the exhibit catalogue, it must include the images in the exhibit (which was curated with the help of Antony Penrose). According to Livingston, there are 40,000 images on file in the Lee Miller Archive.
Not so subtly, Livingston introduces the book (and I assume Penrose opens the exhibit) with an eighteen-page portfolio of images of Lee Miller by various men. The reader is left with two conclusions: that Lee Miller was used to being objectified by men and that she was ravishing. Androgynous in clothes and athletic and cool undressed, she is the archetypal female of the twenties and thirties. (Miller posed for the first Kotex print advertisements. They caused a stir, but it is hard to imagine the remote young woman in the image leaking blood through her napkin.) My favorite of these is of Lee at 23 but looking wise and 40, by George Hoyningen-Huene. Images by her father and brother are also included: Livingston hints that Miller's father, an ardent photographer who had Lee model for him in the nude endlessly, indulged in camerarape.
In none of these portraits is Miller older than 25. It's a pity that Livingston didn't include two other images from Penrose's book - Lee in her kitchen about 1970 by Christina Ockrent and in Arles, France, in 1976 by Marc Riboud. In each of these images, she looks worn and forthright; her gaze is direct. This is a person you want to know. But it is symbolic that these two are omitted; Miller's body showed its age despite face-lifts and though I think she looks great in these photographs, aging caused her a lot of pain.
Livingston does not speculate how much Lee Miller might have contributed as an active collaborator with the photographers, how much of each picture (especially the nine by Man Ray) was her idea, how much she directed the image. Nor does she speculate about what influence, if any, being a model had on Miller's own portraits. Miller must have learned a lot about the dynamics of a photography session, as well as the technical aspects, from these two men. My own sense is that her respect for her subjects and her lack of ego in photographing other people must relate back to her feelings about herself as a model. Portraits of her friends Dorothy Hill and Tanja Ramm and of the prison guards at Buchenwald exemplify her approach. She was able to look at her subjects with a clear eye and with no manipulation. She was not afraid to bring her camera close to her subject. She trusted her subjects to be themselves. She did not clutter up her image with extraneous details. She let the subject dominate the image and did not try to be an auteur photographer whose presence would overwhelm the image.
Born in Poughkeepsie in 1907, Lee Miller was the first child and only daughter of an engineer/inventor who was also a rabid amateur photographer. An unconventional student, she was sent to Paris at eighteen to travel and study. After a year, her alarmed father fetched her home. But not for long. She ran off to Manhattan to study theatrical lighting and design; by late 1926, she was one of the most sought-after high fashion models.
In 1929, she went back to Paris and immediately took up with Man Ray, who fell madly in love with her and with whom she lived for three years. This was the heyday of the surrealist movement and Lee Miller and Man Ray knew everyone, went everywhere, did everything. She even managed to star in Jean Cocteau's film "Blood of a Poet," which still appears on late-night TV. It was during this period that she made the switch from being the person in front of the camera, the collaborator on someone else's work, to the person behind the camera. Livingston includes 22 images from this very productive period. "Nude Bent Forward," a soft-focus study of a woman's torso, and "Walkway, Paris" are among my favorites.
In 1933, Miller left Paris for New York where she set up a portrait studio. In July 1934, she married Aziz Eloui Bey and went off to Cairo to live the life of a wealthy Egyptian woman, traveling and entertaining on a grand scale. In the summer of 1937, she went back to Paris and fell into an intense romance with English surrealist Roland Penrose. But leaving Aziz was apparently very hard to do, and she returned to Egypt for two more years.
Livingston includes eleven images from this period, noting that they "combine a distinctive quality of lush atmospherism and a pungent sense of place." One of them, called "Portrait of Space," is said to have inspired Magritte's painting "Le Baiser." It is an unforgettable image of a desert landscape seen through the torn screen of a tent. A mysterious rectangular frame which reflects nothing is pinned onto the screen at the top of the large billowing rip.
Finally, in June 1939, Miller left Egypt and Aziz for good; Roland Penrose was waiting for her in England. When World War Two broke out, she managed to get a job at the offices of British Vogue. She began a series of photographs documenting the horrors of blitz-torn London which were edited as Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, with text by Edward R. Murrow. It was a success in both England and the United States. Livingston includes nine images from Grim Glory; but she does not say how many images altogether it included, and it is impossible to find a copy of it. (Her book does not include a bibliography of Miller's publications.) Miller, she says,
was making a huge stride in her work toward the boldly expansive compositions, the increasingly eccentric-and-yet-unaffected imagery, and the transcendent fearlessness in relation to her subject, that are the hallmarks of her work throughout the war years. (p.32) Eventually, Miller became a war correspondent for American Vogue. (Yes, she actually talked Vogue into assigning her hard-core war stories for which she wrote the text to go with her images.) It was for Vogue that she made her images of war and ultimately of Dachau and Buchenwald. Her photograph of the floating body of a Dachau prison guard is an icon of that horrific genre. Livingston writes, That most difficult of balances in action photography is flawlessly struck, i.e., the balance between the visual legibility, or order, necessary to enduring images, and the charged confusion innate in traumatic events...Lee Miller takes her place easily...as one of those handful of photographers whose innate moral vision and formal approach to the medium of black and white photography created a uniquely pungent and ethically resounding body of images centering on war itself - often on nothing less than personal human cruelty and depredation in its most graphic form. (pp.65, 76) Miller had a terrible time dealing with the let-down when the war was over - typical of war photographers, many of whom were almost war junkies by 1945. Unlike most of her colleagues, though, she had had it with photography. Though she worked with Roland Penrose on his book on Picasso (and the revised edition has snapshots of Picasso that she took as late as 1970), she showed absolutely no interest in her photographs or in her place in photographic history or in the history of surrealism. She was, in fact, openly antagonistic to inquiries about her work. Instead, she became totally obsessed with cooking. (Kitchens are, in fact, just like darkrooms. They have the same feel and often the same physical layout.) She collected recipes. She collected cookbooks. She interviewed chefs. She cooked and cooked. She gave elaborate parties. It is hard for us with our 1980s mind-set to accept this career switch. The portraits from Buchenwald and Dachau are so unforgettable, her portraits of her artist friends are so amiable and on the mark, that in our greediness and curiosity we want her work to go on. We want to ask, was she depressed? was she eccentric? what role did Penrose play? did she really think her work was of no significance?
I ask these questions too. But I remind myself that lots of war photographers get careless at the end of their wars (or the beginning of the next war) and get themselves killed. That certainly is one way to close the canon. Also, there seems to be something about the nature of photography that makes it not uncommon for people to produce twenty-year bodies of work, as she did.
I have a wish list: I wish that Livingston's book had been more a scholarly monograph than a superficial exhibition catalogue. An anecdotal description of what is included in the 40,000 negatives, journals, and letters in the Miller Archive in East Sussex would have been very useful. I wish that she had included a bibliography of published images of Lee Miller and a bibliography of articles written about her over the years. An index of names would have been useful. I wish that she had reproduced one of the Vogue photo essays to give a sense of how they were laid out. (Livingston never deals with Lee Miller as a writer, although she wrote the text for all fifteen of her Vogue essays.) I wish that her book had a different layout: the 25-page essay is spread over the first 104 pages and is followed by another 56 pages of images; it is very hard to follow the thread of the essay, and the book feels bifurcated. I wish she had found out if Lee Miller knew of or ever met M.F.K. Fisher. I hope a culinary historian goes back to those archives in East Sussex and pulls out a Lee Miller cookbook.
Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub in "Iconic Photos" Lee Miller, covering WWII for Vogue teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a Life magazine correspondent on many assignments. The above photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s house in Munich is one of the most iconic images from the Miller-Scherman partnership. The New York Times had this to say: “A picture of the Führer balances on the lip of the tub; a classical statue of a woman sits opposite it on a dressing table; Lee, in the tub, inscrutable as ever, scrubs her shoulder. A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.”
The night after Miller visited Dachau, on April 30, 1945–earlier that day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin–Miller and Scherman entered Munich with the American 45th Division that was liberating the city. They happened upon a dilapidated and normal-looking apartment building on Prinzenregentplatz 27, and realized, upon entering, that it was Hitler’s Munich apartment. They billeted there for three days. Miller wrote to her Vogue editor Audrey Winters:
“I was living in Hitler’s private apartment when his death was announced, midnight of Mayday. . . Well, alright, he was dead. He’d been an evil-machine-monster all these years, until I visited the places he made famous, talked to people who knew him, dug into backstairs gossip and ate and slept in his house. He became less fabulous and therefore more terrible, along with a little evidence of his having some almost human habits; like an ape who embarrasses and humbles you with his gestures, mirroring yourself in caricature.”
When the photo came out, it was considered an extremely poor judgement. For some, Miller posing nude in the tub of one of the most repulsive men in history was nothing more than a ill-timed reflection of the adage, “To the victor goes the spoils”. For others, it represents the power of life over death, “The living do what they can and the dead suffer what they must”. Lee Miller herself shied away from the controversies but reprouding the image very rarely and noted that she was merely trying to wash the odors of Dachau away.