Lee Miller: Photographer & Surrealist
Lee Miller is one of the most fascinating and mysterious personalities of the twentieth century. A model of extraordinary beauty, a creative cook, a fearless war correspondent and a photographer of great skill. In the photographs that portray her, it is her deep and shining eyes that stand out; revealing a life she lived to the maximum degree of intensity, in constant search of herself.
“Lee Miller: Photographer & Surrealist” is an exhibition that traces the human and professional story of Lee Miller, focusing on the surrealist gaze of the photographer which, trained in the late 1920s in Paris, became a distinctive trait of her visual language.
Both her way of observing and the photographic lexicon she uses are Surrealist. It is characterized by the use of metaphors, antitheses and visual paradoxes aimed at revealing the unusual beauty of everyday life. Surrealist was her approach to life. It is difficult to describe a woman of this calibre: her complex intimacy, her tumultuous life, her vast work.
The exhibition develops through various thematic areas: starting from the work in the studio in Paris, where the photographer worked with technical and compositional experiments, we move on to the world of fashion and advertising, in New York, where Miller best expressed her skills as a portraitist and commercial photographer while never giving up her surrealist style.
The style also returns in the still life or landscapes that enrich the corpus of her work when she moved to Egypt; and again during the terrible years of the Second World War, when Lee immortalized the war in all its aspect: London – now home following her marriage to Roland Penrose – devastated by bombing, but where daily life still goes on; France, which resists alongside the allied troops, which Miller follows on the front line becoming correspondent at the front for Vogue; Germany, with the horror of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, photographed a few hours after their liberation.
Even in the last years of her career, although deeply scarred by the period at the front, she did not abandon her surrealist eye when, putting aside the camera, placed her creative energies in the kitchen.
Lee Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, in the State of New York, on April 23rd in 1907, to Florence and Theodore, a brilliant and creative man, from whom Lee took her enthusiasm for technology and experimentation, the stubbornness in carrying out her own projects – even the most extravagant ones – but above all her passion for photography.
A girl with an ethereal beauty and at the same time a rebellious personality, from when she was a child, Lee preferred dangerous games in the garden and playing in her small chemical laboratory to dolls. However, her childhood was not carefree: at the age of seven she was raped by a family friend who infected her with a venereal disease. Her parents, to ease their daughter’s pain, satisfied her every request at that point, making the already enterprising Lee even more brazen.
After yet another expulsion from high school, her father was forced to find an alternative for her education, deciding, in 1925, to send her to Paris, where she initially enrolled in a theater school which she soon abandoned to live as a bohemian. The family then called her back to America where she enrolled in the Art Students League of New York in 1926, where a fortuitous event drastically changed her future.
It is 1927: Lee Miller is about to cross a crowded New York street and risks being hit by a car, but Condé Nast – owner of important fashion magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair – promptly grabs and rescues her. In fright, she stammers something in French and he is immediately struck by the young girl in European clothing; so, in March of the same year the face of Lee Miller is used to illustrate a now historic cover of Vogue designed by Georges Lepape.
Lee soon becomes one of the most sought-after models, the new face of modern society, the incarnation of the new woman: elegant features, blonde garçonne hair, refined gestures, confident gaze and impassive attitude. There are many photographers who want to portray her – Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, Nickolas Muray, Horst P. Horst, Arnold Genthe – and countless photo shoots in which she is the protagonist, including the first advertisement for sanitary towels with a real living woman, which caused no small scandal at the time.
Although Lee is in love with the socialites of New York, she misses life in Paris a lot and so, armed with a letter of introduction to Man Ray signed by Steichen, and one from Condé Nast to the photographer Hoyningen-Huene, the young model sets off for Europe.
Our exhibition itinerary starts right from this point in Lee Miller’s life, when she lands in Marseilles and, after a short period spent in Italy, finally reaches Paris to fulfill her dream of becoming a photographer.
The French capital at the end of the 1920s was in full artistic ferment: cosmopolitan, free from bourgeois moralism, sexually open and welcoming. It was possible to bump into the artists Max Ernst, André Breton and Paul Éluard, but also fashion designers such as Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel and Lucien Lelong.
As soon as Lee Miller arrives in the city, she goes to the studio of Man Ray, the most important photographer of the time, because it is from him that she wanted to learn the art of photography.
Upon reaching the entrance to the building, the concierge informs her that the artist has just left for Biarritz and will only return in a month. Shocked by the news, Lee goes to a nearby cafe to drink a Pernod, when suddenly Man Ray appears.
Thus began the surrealist adventure of Lee Miller, who not only became Man Ray’s model and muse – as well as lover – but also established a profound artistic relationship with him, which led them to create together some of the most beautiful photographs of the era and make important technical discoveries such as solarization. The relationship between the two was always stormy and tested by Man’s jealousy and controlling behavior, which influenced the couple’s emotional and professional life. Man Ray often even appropriated many ideas and works originally created by Lee.
Miller’s style quickly became technically mature and conceptually sophisticated thanks to the many influences she received in this extraordinary period of her life. She never stopped learning, not even when she was on set as a model, an activity she continued to carry out collaborating mainly with the Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene – severe and uncompromising – who established a lasting friendship with her.
In 1930, just a year after her arrival in Paris, Lee acquired the right professional confidence to open a studio in Montparnasse, immediately frequented by a rich international clientele, as well as artists, fashion designers and magazine editors. Everyone made use of her collaboration to create commercial photographs, even if the most important nucleus of works in this period was certainly that represented by surrealist images.
Lee Miller interprets the visual language of the surrealist objet trouvé in her photographic version, the image trouvé. Thanks to the skillful use of framing, she managed to select particular aspects of everyday life to create photographs that are mysterious, disturbing and alluring at the same time, the spirit of which is also reflected in the titles, often playful and ambivalent. Her gaze, in full surrealist style, elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Lee’s life in this period is hectic, but in November 1932 she decides that the time has come to return to New York to start a new adventure.
It was November 1932 when Lee Miller returned to New York to open a new photographic studio, despite the difficulties for the American economy due to the Wall Street crash of 1929. In fact, her return to her homeland, at least in a figurative sense, dates back to a few months earlier, when the Julien Levy Gallery – a mecca for surrealist and avant-garde art in general – organized his first exhibition, followed by a second one in December of that same year.
At this time, surrealist photography was struggling to achieve critical artistic recognition and photographers, to make ends meet, were forced to turn to advertising, a field from which Lee Miller obtained her first commissions, given to her by photographer and friend Nickolas Muray. However, thanks to her sharp eye, the studio gradually met with great success and together with her brother Erik – who in the meantime had become her assistant – Lee worked at a rapid pace, first dedicating herself to commercial work, arriving only later at portraiture.
The extreme technical perfection, the stylistic refinement, the different levels of reading hidden in the images and, no less important, the attention given to the context, allowed her to sensitively interpret the feelings and needs of the time. Soon being photographed by Lee Miller became something to boast about in the city’s elite circles.
Lee Miller, true to her restless and extremely exuberant nature, however, soon lost interest in New York life. The trigger came when the Egyptian entrepreneur Aziz Eloui Bey, who she had met some time earlier in Paris thanks to her friend Tanja Regret, arrived in the city.
Lee and Aziz spent intense days together, with her introducing him to her whole family. However, the fact that Lee’s parents know a friend of her is hardly extraordinary, which is why no one expected the photographer to call her mother a few days later to tell her: “this morning we got married!”.
It was July 19th of 1934 when Lee, unpredictable as always, decided to close the New York photography studio to set out on a new trip to Egypt with her husband. For Lee Miller the journey was always more important than the destination. What really motivated her was beginning a new project, and once successful, moving on to the next one.
In Egypt, a new adventure began for Lee Miller who moved to Cairo to live her idyll of love. Lee spent her days studying Arabic, attending university classes in chemistry, playing poker, taking short trips with her husband, and temporarily abandoning photography. Only in 1936, she picked up the camera again to document the long journeys in the desert with which she began to spend time in order to escape, after just a year after her arrival, that feeling of restlessness and personal dissatisfaction that she knew well.
In 1937 she decided to return briefly to Paris and, on the very evening of her arrival, she went to a Surrealist ball where she met old friends who, as soon as they saw her, run up to her, scolding her for having disappeared for five long years. During that party she also sees Julian Levy again who introduced her to Roland Penrose, art collector and critic, with whom she immediately struck the fateful coup de foudre.
After a few weeks away from Roland, Lee joined him in Lamb Creek, Cornwall, where Penrose’s brother had an estate. Time passed leisurely with friends: they dedicated themselves to hedonism, discussed art and spent their days immersed in nature, deciding to leave a month later to join Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins, in the south of France.
These were happy days for Lee, but too many months had passed since her departure from Egypt and, urged by her husband, she returned home. However, something had changed in her and Aziz realized it too: desert excursions became an excellent distraction, but they didn’t last long enough to satisfy the feeling of freedom that the woman craves so much. Together with an expert guide and some friends, she decided to embark on ever longer and more dangerous journeys, during which the desire to photograph resurfaces in her after a long time. Her surrealist eye is no longer bound by commercial requests to be satisfied and can now express herself freely: the villages, the ruins, the shadows of the monumental pyramids, the momentary and fleeting appearance of lights and shadows inspire and amaze her.
In 1939 Roland Penrose arrives in Alexandria: the two lovers, accompanied by Mafy, Lee’s sister-in-law, and the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, make a long journey to Siwa, but after their departure from Egypt, Lee’s restlessness grows bigger and bigger and in June of the same year she decides to leave Egypt for an indefinite period.
Lee escaped from Egypt setting off with Roland Penrose for Europe, but the situation quickly deteriorated due to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Together they returned to London, where Roland was assigned to give lessons on camouflage techniques, while Lee worked as a photographer for the fashion magazine Vogue. She was initially turned down by the director of the time, photographer Cecil Beaton, but she was later accepted as most photographers had been forced to enlist following the outbreak of war.
Lee Miller during her first year at the magazine shot only commercial photographs, despite the fact that bombs continue to fall incessantly on the city and the paper for publishing fashion magazines was rationed.
To escape the boredom of commercial commissions and the circumstances imposed by the blitzes on the city, Lee embarked on a new project, the publication of a photographic book entitled “Grim Glory: pictures of Britain under fire”. The book was aimed at the American public with the intention of showing the reality of Great Britain under bombing and coincided with Lee Miller’s most creative period since the Paris years. Her approach was fully surrealist and each image lends itself to multiple levels of interpretation. The book was a huge success and some of the photos in it were reproduced in newspapers around the world.
When American troops arrive in London in the winter of 1941-1942 to prepare for the liberation of continental Europe, Lee applied for accreditation to the American military as a war correspondent, which would open many doors and possibilities. Lee Miller had now been an expatriate for twenty years but the thought of being able to exploit her citizenship had not crossed her mind until some of her compatriots who emigrated to London suggested the idea. Among them was also the photographer of the magazine Life, David E. Scherman, who would become her great friend, lover and traveling companion for all the tragic events she was to witness.
Armed with her new accreditation, Lee Miller became a photojournalist. Her first assignments were dedicated to the silent protagonists of the war – women – and to the role they played during the conflict: the nurses of the US Army, the WRENS (the female branch of the Royal Navy) and the anti-aircraft searchlight operators. This project, created in collaboration with David E. Scherman, was a real success: while Lee and David were working, an air raid hit the projectionist’s station. The resulting photos were published in both the American and English editions of Vogue.
However, Lee continued to alternate these assignments with those created for fashion, but, being no longer able to hide from the tragic nature of the events, she decided to shoot among the rubble of London, inaugurating a new photographic style that would also be very successful in the United States.
In 1944, Vogue illustrated at least five or six articles per issue with photographs by Lee Miller. However, she was unsatisfied with the texts that accompanied her images and as a result asked to write them herself. She did so in a hard, emotional and shrewd style, thus beginning to work in a way that would be more solitary than expected for her. Ironically, the subject of the first article entirely written and illustrated by Miller is Ed Murrow, a famous American journalist.
The first color photographs by Lee Miller also date back to 1944 and Vogue uses one of these for the cover of the June issue. If the publication forced Lee into specific formats that limited her creativity, her skills as a writer had now reached full maturity and were ready for a new chapter.
Six weeks after D-Day, Lee Miller left for Normandy to document the work of the nurses in the hospitals where the front line wounded were taken. After just five days of work, Lee put together thirty-five rolls of film and almost ten thousand words, to the amazement of the editors of Vogue.
Back in London in August, she set off again with the US Navy, assigned to Saint-Malo to photograph the end of the fighting in the city. Contrary to the news received, however, the war was still not over and the city was involved in a long and bloody siege. Lee was the only one sent to the scene.
A strong and courageous woman, she shared food rations with the military, recovered the wounded on the battlefield and photographed the first attacks with napalm bombs. But when she was discovered in the forbidden part of the war zone, her arrest was immediate. However, house arrest proved a salvation for her, because, she could finally sleep for twenty-four consecutive hours and write for the next three days.
After a period of confinement, Lee arrives in Paris on Liberation Day. As soon as she arrived in the city, she tried to track down the friends who lived there and of whom, for too many years now, she had had no news. She met Picasso, Paul Éluard and Jean Cocteau who with their her with questions and memories, transformed Miller’s reality for a few hours, offering respite from the trenches and sad images of that moment.
In those same days, she was commissioned by the editorial staff of Vogue to help Michel de Brunhoff get the French edition of the newspaper back on track, a task that Lee assumed both reluctantly and defiantly. She was well aware of the fact that she could do nothing but betray the expectations of the editorial staff in an attempt to represent the new trends in fashion in a country where the war had just ended.
Lee Miller’s Paris days afforded her only a temporary reprieve because, despite what one may believe, the pinnacle of her activity as a photojournalist is yet to come. Based at the Hôtel Scribe – headquarters of the Allied press – a period of incessant travel began for her and David E. Scherman that took them all the way to Germany, where the war was not over yet.
THE END OF WAR
In the spring of 1944 Lee decides to be accredited with the US Air Force to have greater freedom of movement. Having obtained permission from Vogue, she crossed France to leave with David E. Scherman for Torgau in Germany, where the American troops would join the Russian ones. Once the assignment is completed, the two, aboard a large Chevrolet purchased by Scherman and customized with the wording Life, continue south, stopping in Nuremberg, where General Patton informs them that that evening the Rainbow Company will enter the Dachau concentration camp.
The two photographers are the first to enter the area and Lee is totally and deeply incredulous at what she saw: the smell was nauseating, the piles of bodies – here as later in Buchenwald – were countless, the dying lie desperately in puddles of vomit and excrement, while some SS had been lynched by prisoners.
In the face of such horror, the truth could no longer be hidden and Lee felt the need to tell what she saw in no uncertain terms. In the cable she sent to the editors was only one sentence: “I implore you to believe that all this is true”.
That same night Lee and David went to Munich, in an anonymous building occupied by Allied troops in Prinzregentenplatz and only by chance, and with great amazement, the two discover that it houses Hitler’s apartments. It is there that, what is one of Lee Miller’s best known photographs is made: her naked in the bathtub that belonged to the Führer. Lee and David, after stealing some souvenirs, go to rest in another apartment not far away, which belonged to Eva Braun.
The following day the two leave for Salzburg to follow the attack on the Berghof, the impregnable Alpine chalet that belonged to Hitler, set on fire by the SS in an attempt to protect its secrets. The two arrive at nightfall and Lee takes a particularly symbolic shot: the funeral pyre of the Third Reich. Back at the foreign press headquarters in Rosenheim Lee and David get to work on their articles until the official news arrives: Germany has surrendered, the war is over!
Leaving Germany to return to Paris, Lee Miller suffered a serious psychological breakdown also influenced by her use of amphetamines, alcohol and sleeping pills. But she continued to travel relentlessly and arrived in Vienna, a devastated city, whose population is in an advanced state of malnutrition, food is rationed and there is a serious shortage of medicines and health supplies.
The end of the war is a moment of bitter disillusionment for Lee as she realized that peace had not brought forward the high human ideals for which it had been fought. On the contrary, the world was still dominated by the self-interest of criminals and corrupt politicians. At that moment everything seemed useless to her.
She left for Hungary and then headed to Romania, where she witnessed the new political climate, but something in her was changing: Lee Miller had managed to survive the harsh reality of war thanks to writing and photography – since they have allowed her to free herself from the terrible monsters that populate her mind – but now that it was all over, she felt deprived of new stimuli.
Lee was in an emotionally fragile state, appearing exhausted, with no apparent direction. Only a cable saying “Go home”, sent by David E. Scherman, convinced her to return to London.
THE LAST YEARS
Back in London Lee must come to terms with what she left behind. Her relationship with Roland is souring because of his long absence, and she is increasingly nervous and agitated. Her body is changing and the marks of her years in the war are now evident, but the couple happily manages to reconcile.
In the summer of 1946, they embark on a trip to America: they travel to Poughkeepsie to meet Lee’s family, to New York where Vogue holds a party in his honour, to Arizona to the home of his friend Max Ernest and the painter Dorothea Tanning, and finally to Los Angeles where they meet his brother Erik, his sister-in-law and Man Ray.
It was a very happy time: Roland buys a new house in the country, Farley Farm, which becomes a favorite destination for artists, critics and literati, as well as housing his rich collection of contemporary art; their son Antony is born; and Lee devotes more and more time to the house and garden.
Shoots for Vogue becomes sporadic, and cooking becomes Lee’s new passion, so much so that she is recognized as a cook internationally, winning numerous culinary competitions.
The only photographs she takes during this period are portraits of friends engaged in extravagant activities at Farley Farm; a rich collection of images that is published in Vogue in 1953 under the title Working Guests, the last article of Lee Miller’s career as a journalist.
In the years that followed, Lee contributed her work as a photographer to the illustrations of two important biographies written by Roland Penrose, which became milestones in art history: the one on Picasso and the one on Tapies. Her works are also included in “The Family of Man,” an exhibition at New York’s MoMA that enshrines the canons of photography.
But Lee’s days of taking penetrating photographs are long gone, and one evening while having dinner with her friend Tanja Ramm he confesses to her, “They just told me I have cancer. I don’t feel like talking about it, but I know it won’t last long.” The decline is indeed swift and Lee Miller dies on July 21st of 1977.