Lee Miller, In Brief

There seems to be a Lee Miller revival of late, which makes me very happy as she is one of my favourite photographers. The Imperial War Museum London is hosting an exhibition of Miller's work, A Woman’s Hour, focusing on the impact of World War II on women. And according to Variety, Kate Winslet will be playing Miller in a film which has yet to be written.

It wasn't until 2003 that I came across Lee Miller. At Christmas I had been given a diary that had the theme‘Daring!’.  I was flipping through it when I stumbled on a peculiar photo, that of a woman having a bath. The caption read: ‘War correspondent at work: Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub at Prinzengentenplatz 27, Munich 1945’. I was unaware of the precise context in which this picture was taken - was Hitler there? Were they friends? – but I was amazed at the originality of the photo and of that woman. A little later I made the connection between her name and a poster of Man Ray I had in my room. It was called ‘Lee’s Eye’. It showed a picture of an eye with short poem by Man Ray underneath it (in reality it was written on the back of the photograph). The eye on the poster belonged to the woman in Hitler’s bathtub. My curiosity was piqued, I had to know more.

Lee Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1907. She was the daughter of an engineer who was also a keen amateur photographer. At the age of eighteen, Miller was sent to Paris to travel and study. She hardly focused on her studies during that time, preferring instead to experience the city's buzzing art scene. It was at this time that Lee came in contact with some of the most influential Dada and Surrealist artists of the period, such as Man Ray.

Miller was eventually whisked back to the US by her family, but the life of upstate New York was no substitute for Paris, so when she wasn't modelling for her father, Miller spent a vast amount of time in New York City training as a dancer. It was there that Lee nearly stepped in front of an approaching car had it not been for a kind stranger by the name of Condé Nast. Some time later, she would grace the cover of Vogue.

By 1929 Miller had made her way back to Paris in order to carry out a research assignment for the French Vogue studio. It was there that she forced Man Ray to take her on as an apprentice: ‘He said he didn’t take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris for his holiday. I said […] I’m going with you' [1].

Ray turned out to be a very influential teacher to Miller. The kind of photography she took at the time successfully portrayed a simple, yet touching beauty. Whether her photographs were of nudes, bridges, roads, or fashion models, the essence of the Surrealist movement were gracefully present.

Miller was difficult to be with and to live with, especially since her sense of ‘free love’ made it hard for her to be committed to just one person. Man Ray was aware of Miller's numerous affairs while they were together, but he put up with them. In 1932, Miller fell in love with Aziz Eloui Bey, who was to later marry her and take her to Egypt. This marked the end of her relationship with Man Ray. He proved to be inconsolable, but then ‘his mad despair found an outlet’ [2] in the form of emotive Surrealist art.

After Miller's marriage to Bey, she returned to Europe with Roland Penrose, whom she would later marry. They went to London as the Second World War was starting, and although Miller was strongly advised by the American Embassy to leave Europe, she chose to remain and endeavour to re-enter the world of professional photography through her contacts at Vogue. Miller wished to communicate to those not yet involved in the war the atrocities of the many blitz attacks on London. During that time she took a series of extremely powerful pictures, all of which made a statement in one way or another. An example is an image of the shattered roof of the University College London reflected through a puddle of water on the floor. Another sees a broken statue of a girl ‘whose throat is cut by a bar of iron and whose breast is bruised by a brick’ [3]. Miller titled the picture ‘Revenge on Culture’.

By 1942, Miller had become an official war correspondent and took advantage of that position to go to mainland Europe and document the atrocities of the war. One night in 1945, Miller and a colleague found their way into a less than impressive building in Munich. It was not until they had properly inspected the flat that they realised it was Hitler’s. The first thing Miller did was to take a bath in Hitler’s bathroom, a scene which has been immortalised by photographer Dave Scherman. The image is surreal, almost ridiculous: Lee Miller enjoying a wash in an enormous bathtub, with her muddy ‘combat boots parked on the bathmat’ [6], and in the corner a picture of Hitler watching her with a stern expression, his hands placed powerfully on his sides.

The visual idleness of post-war Europe left many photographers, including Miller, disillusioned. Boredom and depression took over rather swiftly. By the late 1940s, after taking a few trips to Eastern Europe, Miller decided to abandon photography. She struggled with PTSD, but did not seek help for it. Instead, ‘it was food that saved her life’ [7]. Until her death in 1977, Miller took up the art of cooking in a most successful way, and enjoyed inventing and perfecting recipes in her unique and creative manner.

Lee Miller had this unique ability to achieve success and perfection in everything she tried, from modelling to gourmet cooking. Her style of photography did not lose aesthetic quality, whether she took pictures of dead soldiers, or surrealist shapes and images. In every one of her shots, even simple family snapshots, one can detect a unique way of looking at objects or situations with beauty, emotion, and a sense of duty to document.             

Sources:
Penrose, Antony (1985) The Lives of Lee Miller, London: Thames & Hudson, [1] p.22, [2] p.41, [3] p.104, [4] p.134, [5] p.135, [6] p.142, [7] p.196.