Lee Miller - Muses & the Beau Monde
Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, Lady Penrose, born April 23, 1907, was an American photographer and photojournalist.
Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her parents were Theodore and Florence Miller. Her father was of German descent, and her mother of Scottish and Irish descent. She had a younger brother named Erik and her older brother was the aviator Johnny Miller. Theodore always favored Lee, and he often used her as a model for his amateur photography.
In her childhood, Miller experienced issues in her formal education, being expelled from almost every school she attended whilst living in the Poughkeepsie area. In 1925, at the age of eighteen, Miller moved to Paris where she studied lighting, costume and design at the Ladislas Medgyes' School of Stagecraft. She returned to New York in 1926 and joined an experimental drama programme at Vassar College, taught by Hallie Flanagan, a pioneer of "experimental theatre". Soon after, Miller left home at the age of 19 to enroll in the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan to study life drawing and painting.
Aged 19 she nearly stepped in front of a car on a Manhattan street but was prevented by Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue. This incident helped launch her modeling career; she appeared in a blue hat and pearls in a drawing by George Lepape on the cover of Vogue on March 15, 1927. Miller's look was exactly what Vogue's then editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase was looking for to represent the emerging idea of the "modern girl."
For the next two years, Miller was one of the most sought-after models in New York, photographed by leading fashion photographers including Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, Nickolas Muray and George Hoyningen-Huene. A photograph of Miller by Steichen was used to advertise Kotex, without her consent, effectively ending her career as a fashion model. She was hired by a fashion designer in 1929 to make drawings of fashion details in Renaissance paintings but in time grew tired of this and found photography more efficient.
In 1929, 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 model and collaborator (announcing to him, "I'm your new student"), as well as his lover and muse. While she was in Paris, she began her own photographic studio, often taking over Ray's fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. So closely did they collaborate that photographs taken by Miller during this period are credited to Ray.
Together with Ray, she rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation, through an accident variously described; one of Miller's accounts involved a mouse running over her foot, causing her to switch on the light in mid-development. The couple made the technique a distinctive visual signature, with examples being Ray's solarised portrait of Miller taken in Paris circa 1930, and Miller's portraits of fellow Surrealist Meret Oppenheim, Miller's friend Dorothy Hill, and the silent film star Lilian Harvey.
Not only does solarisation fit the Surrealist principle of unconscious accident being integral to art, it evokes the style's appeal to the irrational or paradoxical in combining polar opposites of positive and negative; Mark Haworth-Booth describes solarisation as "a perfect Surrealist medium in which positive and negative occur simultaneously, as if in a dream".
Amongst Miller's circle of friends were Pablo Picasso and fellow Surrealists Paul Éluard and Jean Cocteau, the latter of whom was so mesmerised by Miller's beauty that in 1930 she featured in his film The Blood of a Poet. He also created a plaster cast of her as a classical statue for the film.
After leaving Ray and Paris in 1932, she returned to New York City and established a portrait and commercial photography studio (with $10,000 worth of backing from Christian Holmes II and Cliff Smith) with her brother Erik (who had been working for the fashion photographer Toni von Horn) as her darkroom assistant. Miller rented two apartments in a building one block from Radio City Music Hall. One of the apartments became her home while the other became the Lee Miller Studio. Clients of the Lee Miller Studio included BBDO, Henry Sell, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Saks Fifth Avenue, I. Magnin and Co., and Jay Thorpe. 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).
During 1932 Miller was included in the Modern European Photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and in the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition International Photographers with László Moholy-Nagy, Cecil Beaton, Margaret Bourke-White, Tina Modotti, Charles Sheeler, Ray, and Edward Weston.
In response to the exhibition, Katherine Grant Sterne wrote a review in Parnassus in March 1932, noting that Miller "has retained more of her American character in the Paris milieu. The very beautiful Bird Cages at Brooklyn; the study of a pink-nailed hand embedded in curly blond hair which is included in both the Brooklyn and the Julien Levy show; and the brilliant print of a white statue against a black drop, illumine the fact rather than distort it." In 1933, Julien Levy gave Miller the only solo exhibition of her life.
In 1934, Miller abandoned her studio to marry the Egyptian businessman and engineer Aziz Eloui Bey, who had come to New York City to buy equipment for the Egyptian National 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. In Cairo, Miller took a photograph of the desert near Siwa that Magritte saw and used as inspiration for his 1938 painting "Le Baiser." Miller also contributed an object to the Surrealist Objects and Poems exhibition at the London Gallery in 1934.
By 1937, Miller had grown bored with her life in Cairo. She returned to Paris, where she met the British surrealist painter, historian, poet and curator Sir Roland Penrose.
Four of her photographs (Egypt, Roumania, Libya, and Sinai) were displayed at the 1940 exhibition Surrealism To-Day at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. More of her work was included in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Britain at War in New York City in 1941. Her photographs would not be included in another exhibition until 1955, when she was included in the renowned The Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, director of the MoMA Department of Photography.
In 1939 Miller began a relationship with Penrose. He was a major promoter and collector of modern art and an associate of the surrealists in the United Kingdom. During the Second World War he put his artistic skills to practical use as a teacher of camouflage. During his lectures, he used to startle his audiences by inserting a colour photograph of his partner Lee Miller, lying on a lawn naked but for a camouflage net; when challenged, he argued "if camouflage can hide Lee's charms, it can hide anything".
At the outbreak of World War II, Miller was living in Hampstead in London with 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. She was accredited with 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 correspondent on many assignments.
She traveled to France less than a month after D-Day and recorded the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, as well as the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Scherman's photograph of Miller lying in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler's apartment in Munich, with its shower hose looped in the center behind her head and the dust of Dachau on her boots deliberately dirtying Hitler's bathroom, is one of the most iconic images from the Miller–Scherman partnership, and occurred on April 30, 1945, coincidentally the same day as Hitler's suicide.
After the war, she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities. During Miller's work with Vogue in World War II, it became her goal to “document war as historical evidence.” The effect of her work was to provide “context for events.” Her work was very specific and, like her previous publications and modelling with Vogue, Surrealist. She spent time composing her photographs, famously framing them from inside the cattle trains. Miller's work with Vogue during wartime was often a combination of journalism and art, often manipulated to evoke emotion.
At the end of the war, Miller's work as a wartime photojournalist continued as she sent telegrams back to the British Vogue editor, Audrey Withers, urging her to publish photographs from the camps. She did this following a CBS broadcast from Buchenwald by Edward R. Murrow and Richard Dimbleby’s BBC broadcast from inside Bergen-Belsen. This was a consequence of people's disbelief at such atrocities. These broadcasters used photographers to do what they could to show the public what they saw. Miller's World War II work was used predominantly to “provide an eye-witness account” of the casualties of war.
After returning to Britain from central Europe, Miller started to suffer from severe episodes of clinical depression and what later became known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She began to drink heavily, and became uncertain about her future. In 1946, she traveled with Penrose to the United States, where she visited Man Ray in California. After she discovered she was pregnant by Penrose with her only son, she divorced Bey and, on May 3, 1947, married Penrose. Their son, Antony Penrose, was born in September 1947. In 1949, the couple bought Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex. Yet the war wasn't behind her as Miller was investigated by the British security service MI5 repeatedly during the 1940s and 1950s, on suspicion of being a Soviet spy.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Farley Farm became a sort of artistic Mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, 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 gourmet cook. According to her housekeeper Patsy, she specialised in "historical food" like roast suckling pig as well as treats such as marshmallows in a cola sauce (especially made to annoy English critic Cyril Connolly who told her Americans didn't know how to cook).
She also provided photographs for her husband's biographies on Picasso and Antoni Tàpies. However, images from the war, especially the concentration camps, continued to haunt her and she started on what her son later described as a "downward spiral". Her depression may have been accelerated by her husband's long affair with the trapeze artist Diane Deriaz.
In October 1969, Miller was asked in an interview with a New York Times reporter what it was that drew her to photography. Her response was that it was "a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you."
Miller died of cancer at Farley Farm House in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread through her herb garden at Farley.
Miller's work has served as inspiration for Gucci's Frida Giannini, Ann Demeulemeester and Alexander McQueen. Playwright David Hare comments, "Today, when the mark of a successful iconographer is to offer craven worship of wealth, or yet more craven worship of power and celebrity, it is impossible to imagine an artist of Lee's subtlety and humanity commanding the resources of a mass-market magazine." Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of The Art of Lee Miller, has said "her photographs shocked people out of their comfort zone" and that "she had a chip of ice in her heart...she got very close to things...Margaret Bourke-White was far away from the fighting, but Lee was close. That's what makes the difference--Lee was prepared to shock."
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. He discovered sixty thousand or so photographs, negatives, documents, journals, cameras, love letters and souvenirs in cardboard boxes and trunks in Farley Farm's attic after his mother's death. He owns the house and offers tours of the works of Miller and Penrose. The house is home to the private collections of Miller and Penrose, their own work and some of their favourite pieces of art. In the dining room, the fireplace was decorated in vivid colours by Penrose. Her pictures are accessible at the Lee Miller Archive.
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
Antony Penrose Becky E. Conekin
In 1985, Penrose published the first biography of Miller, entitled The Lives of Lee Miller. Since then, a number of books, mostly accompanying exhibitions of her photographs, have been written by art historians and writers such as Jane Livingstone, Richard Calvocoressi, and Haworth-Booth. Penrose and David Scherman collaborated on the book Lee Miller's War: Photographer and Correspondent With the Allies in Europe 1944–45, in 1992. Interviews with Penrose form the core of the 1995 documentary Lee Miller: Through the Mirror, made with Scherman and writer-director Sylvain Roumette. The audiobook Surrealism Reviewed was published in 2002, and a 1946 radio interview with Miller can be heard on it.