Lee Miller
Photo Journalist & Fashion Photographer

Lee Miller
 

  • Born:  April 23, 1907, in Poughkeepsie, New York

  • Died: 1977, aged 70

  • Photo Journalist & Fashion Photographer

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 (1930), Miller's friend Dorothy Hill (1933), and the silent film star Lilian Harvey (1933).

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 mesmerized by Miller's beauty that he coated her in butter and transformed her into a plaster cast of a classical statue for his film, The Blood of a Poet (1930). During a dispute with Ray, regarding the attribution of their co-produced work, Ray is said to have slashed an image of Miller's neck with a razor.

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. 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-NagyCecil BeatonMargaret Bourke-WhiteTina ModottiCharles 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. Among her portrait clients were the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, actresses Lilian Harvey and Gertrude Lawrence, and the African-American cast of the Virgil ThomsonGertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).

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 and curator Roland Penrose. Four of her photographs ("Egypt" (1939), "Roumania" (1938), "Libya" (1939), and "Sinai" (1939)) 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.

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.

Miller's first article for British Vogue was on nurses at an army base in Oxford.Miller took portraits of nurses across Europe, including those on the front lines and prisoners of war.

She teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a Life correspondent on many assignments. She travelled 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 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. Being one of the first to arrive at Hitler's secret apartments, Miller admits "I had his address in my pocket for years." After taking the bathtub picture, Miller took a bath in the tub and slept in Hitler's bed.

During this period, Miller photographed dying children in a Vienna hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary, corpses of Nazi officers and their families, 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.

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.[40] 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.During World War II, Miller's work was used predominantly to "provide an eye-witness account" of the casualties of war.