Lee Miller - Biography and Legacy
Poughkeepsie, New York
Chiddingly, East Sussex, United Kingdom
Biography of Lee Miller
Elizabeth "Lee" Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the middle child of Florence and Theodore Miller, a mechanical engineer and avid amateur photographer. Theodore introduced his daughter to the craft of photography, teaching her the basics using his Kodak Brownie camera. Theodore also took regular portraits of Miller throughout her early life. Along with taking photographs, she and her brothers enjoyed tinkering with machines to learn how things worked, and she had a mostly pleasant and privileged childhood in an upper-middle-class and progressive household. Her youth was marred, however, when she was raped by the guest of a family friend when she was seven. Scholars have frequently viewed her later photography through a lens tinted by this early trauma.
Early Training and Work
Described as "an idle student and an active rebel", as a teenager Lee was expelled from several private schools in Poughkeepsie. An interest in theater led to her attendance at L'Ecole Medgyes pour la Technique du Theatre in Paris for seven months, where she studied lighting and set design. In an interview many years later she said of this first sojourn abroad, "One look at Paris and I said, 'This is mine - this is my home'".
Miller returned to New York though, going on to participate in the Experimental Theater at Vassar College in her hometown - which she had begun unflatteringly referring to as "Pokey". Here she found that theater was not the right medium for her ambition. In one of her notebooks she wrote that she felt "Void-yet full of yearning," and that her "fingers feel empty with longing to create." In 1926, at age 19, she enrolled at the Art Students' League in New York to study life drawing and painting.
That year, she literally stumbled in to her professional modelling career when the major magazine publisher Condé Montrose Nast prevented her from stepping into oncoming traffic. Impressed by her beauty, he hired her to model for Vogue, where Miller posed for notable fashion photographers Arnold Genthe, Nikolas Muray, and Edward Steichen. For Steichen, it was said, "Lee was the ideal model for the mid-twenties mode. She was tall, carried herself well, and her strong profile and fine blonde hair exactly suited his clear, elegant style." Steichen also encouraged her to take up photography seriously, and provided her with a letter of introduction to Surrealist photographer Man Ray.
In 1929, Miller left New York for Paris to seek out Ray. She arrived "fed up to the teeth with painting. All the paintings had been painted as far as I was concerned and I became a photographer". According to Miller's later account, she'd tracked Man Ray down at a Paris nightclub, and announced to him "My name is Lee Miller and I'm your new student. He said he didn't take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris for his holiday. I said, I know, I'm going with you - and I did. We lived together for three years". Whether this beginning is embellished or accurate, she became his model and collaborator, as well as romantic partner. During this time, by accidentally turning on a light while working with Man Ray in his darkroom developing film, Miller's discovered the technique of solarization, which Man Ray would begin to use as a deliberate formal technique in his photography.
While in Paris, Miller also worked with French Vogue, on both sides of the camera. She assisted famed fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, working alongside his protégé Horst P. Horst. She recalled that she and Horst "worked like galley slaves", both of them modelling as well as undertaking whatever tasks the magazine required. Though she learned a great deal about photography from Heune, she owes more to Man Ray for her developing style, adopting Ray's use of smaller cameras and relying on cropping to reveal the composition.
Miller's role as muse and model was an important part of her youthful Paris experience. Man Ray photographed Miller, or parts of Miller, on numerous occasions. Their relationship introduced her to a circle of like-minded artists and art world contacts that would remain in her life over many years. She appeared in several film projects, most notably Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), in the role of a classical statue. Fellow surrealist Eileen Agar said Miller was "a remarkable woman, completely unsentimental and sometimes ruthless". Her ambition and drive to produce her own work - as well as her relationships with other men, including an affair with Aziz Eloui Bey (whom she later married) - eventually led to her break with Ray and depart from Paris.
Miller returned to New York in 1932, setting up a photography studio with her brother Erik. Her Surrealist influences surface in the studio's specialty of celebrity portraits. She also did advertising work, and continued to model and photograph for Vogue.
In 1934, Miller married Bey, and moved with him to Cairo in his native Egypt. She turned her eye to the desert landscape and the country's iconic ruins and architecture, creating some of her most complex and challenging photographs to date. Miller did not find life in Egypt particularly satisfying, though. Despite her photography and side projects that included snake charming lessons, she described her state of mind as "a water soaked jigsaw puzzle, drunken bits that don't match in shape or design", describing both her restless discontent and her gift for evocative language, later used to great effect in her photo essays.
In 1937 she travelled without her husband to Paris. This journey brought her back in to the Surrealist orbit, renewing her friendship with Man Ray, and introducing her to British artist and art collector Roland Penrose, who was also associated with the Surrealist movement and whom she would eventually marry. The rest of that summer, the group of artists - Penrose, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Ray and his partner Ady Fidelin - travelled around Europe, enjoying a stream of hedonistic retreats. Miller's biographer said "it would be hard to overstate the group's delight in playing at life rather than having to take it seriously, at a time when war seemed imminent". Though no doubt enjoyable, this period did little for the women's careers (although Miller's reputation as an artist's muse was further strengthened by posing for Picasso). Carrington later reflected that the Surrealist women artists functioned "like talking dogs - we adored the master and did tricks for him".
This sojourn marked the beginning of the end for Miller's first marriage. She left Bey in 1939 and moved to London with Penrose. The same group of artists reunited briefly before the war at Ernst and Carrington's French farmhouse for "perhaps the last Surrealist picnic" that July. Shortly after Miller and Penrose departed, Ernst was taken to a camp for aliens, ending the reality-defying idyll.
The move to London brought Miller back into the Vogue orbit, where she picked up her work as a fashion photographer. The outbreak of World War II led to her most widely-seen work as a photojournalist and war correspondent. Her photographs of the Blitz through 1941 were published in British Vogue and the book Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire (1941). By the end of that year, though, Miller expressed frustration with her work during such perilous times. In a letter to her parents she mused, "It seems pretty silly to go on working for a frivolous paper like Vogue, tho [sic] it may be good for the country's morale it's hell on mine".
Miller became an accredited war correspondent in 1943, and joined the 83rd Infantry Division of the US Army the following year. Travelling with the 83rd, she photographed the siege of Saint-Malo, the liberation of Paris, and both Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Anthony Penrose later described the disturbing contrast of the photographs and their context in Vogue: "The gore and violence of her articles feature boldly in the pages...the grim skeletal corpses of Buchenwald are separated by a few thicknesses of paper from delightful recipes to be prepared by women dressed in sumptuous gowns". The unsparing images she captured embodied the atrocities of the war, but also, at times, retained her darkly playful sensibilities. Her commitment to documenting what she witnessed can be surmised from the recollection of Ari Von Soest, a former inmate at Dachau who recalled the inmate's shock at seeing a women in uniform, and their gratitude for her interest in their stories, stating, "She was the only one of the liberators who stayed with us; she went to the prison hospital where prisoners were sprayed with DDT; she joined our celebrations".
After the War, Miller suffered from what now might be recognized as post-traumatic stress, drinking heavily and retreating into depression, both of which would recur throughout the rest of her life. She eventually returned to celebrity portraiture, but began winding down her practice as a professional photographer. She married Penrose in 1947, and they had a son, Anthony, that same year. Miller and Penrose frequently entertained art world luminaries at their home at Farleys House in Sussex, UK. Her final contribution to Vogue in July of 1953, entitled "Working Guests," featured some of their illustrious visitors laboring around the farm, including Alfred J. Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, feeding her pigs and artist Max Ernst planting petunias.
Miller's time at Farleys House was occupied by cooking food from around the world, compiling a (never completed) cookbook, and supporting Penrose as he founded and developed the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Despite this activity however, Miller often appeared bored or frustrated. She continued to drink heavily, and there were successive arguments with both her husband, son, and the old friends who visited. Although continuing to travel, she refused to take photographs she continued to take photos of family and friends but not commissioned images, and any requests for access to her old work were denied we are not aware of requests it was more that she put them away and did not talk of her previous work. It was not until near the end of her life that she made peace with her son, after he returned to live on the farm with his wife and new baby. Miller died at home of cancer in 1977, in the arms of her husband. After her death her son - largely unaware of his mother's body of work - found thousands of prints and negatives in the attic of their home. He has since created the extensive Lee Miller Archives, enabling the rediscovery of Miller's impressive oeuvre in the 1980s.
The Legacy of Lee Miller
Miller's unconventional career trajectory hampered her historical reputation. Her early association with the Paris Surrealists - particularly her role as Man Ray's "perversely enchanting muse" - frequently overshadows her own artistic accomplishments. Her abandonment of photography, and the consignment of all her work to her own attic also limited her impact during her lifetime. Her association with fashion has also colored the interpretation of Miller's work. As her biographer Carolyn Burke states, "to this day, her life inspires features in the same glossy magazines for which she posed...this approach turns the real woman in to a screen onto which beholders project their fantasies", and further perpetuates the legend of Lee Miller as an "American free spirit wrapped in the body of a Greek goddess".
The rediscovery of her remaining prints and negatives provided an opportunity for reassessment of her work. Contemporary methodologies have focused on her unique personal vision and her innovative integration of avant-garde principles and photojournalism. Recent exhibitions of her photography include a travelling retrospective in 2008, and a 2015 exhibition of her World War II photography at London's Imperial War Museum. The force of her personality and biography remain central to interpreting her work. Miller has been recognized as among the most original and ambitious photographic artists of the 20th century, and a subtly transgressive artist, who - as Lynn Hilditch asserts in Lee Miller, Photography, Surrealism and the Second World War - took off from her Surrealist background and "pushed the boundaries both of art and war photography, often using unconventional methods to comment on such multifaceted issues as sex, gender, death, and war".
This blurring of boundaries between art photography and photojournalism eventually reshaped the latter. Her photos for Vogue of London during the Blitz, and the corresponding juxtaposition of commercialism and carnage prefigure later work like Martha Rosler's "Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful" series (1967-1972), which similarly contrasts consumer prosperity and scenes of war in Vietnam. This aesthetic of blighted urbanity placed against designer wares on beautiful models became so widely adopted that it has become standard fashion editorial fare. The confrontational style of her then-innovative, close-up images from 1945 of starving children in Vienna have also become commonplace in photography, the intimate perspective a shorthand for creating a connection between a viewer and the subject.