About us
Artists Lee Miller
Lee Miller Photo

Lee Miller

American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Photojournalism

Born: April 23, 1907 - Poughkeepsie, New York

Died: July 21, 1977 - Chiddingly, East Sussex, United Kingdom

Lee Miller Timeline

Quotes

"Being a good photojournalist is a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you."
Lee Miller
"It seems to me that women have a bigger chance at success in photography than men... Women are quicker and more adaptable than men. And I think they have an intuition that helps them understand personalities more quickly than men."
Lee Miller
"I want the Utopian combination of security and freedom and emotionally I need to be completely absorbed in some work or man I love."
Lee Miller
"Something crawled across my foot in the darkroom and I let out a yell and turned on the light. I never did find out that it was, a mouse or what. Then, I quickly realized that the film was totally exposed...Man [Ray] grabbed them, put them in hypo and looked at them later. He didn't even bother to bawl me out, since I was so sunk. When he looked at them, the unexposed parts of the negative, which had been the black background, had been exposed by this sharp light that had been turned on and they had developed and came right up to the edge of the white, nude body. But the background and the image couldn't heal together, so there was a line left which he called a "solarization." -Miller on the "rediscovery" of solarization
Lee Miller
"I won't be the first woman journalist in Paris, but I'll be the first dame photographer...unless someone parachutes in."
Miller at the liberation of Paris
"Paris had gone mad. The long, graceful, dignified avenues were crowded with flags and filled with screaming, cheering, pretty people. Girls, bicycles, kisses and wine, and around the corner sniping, a bursting grenade and a burning tank. The bullet holes in the windows were like jewels, the barbed wire in the boulevards a new decoration."
Lee Miller

"I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside."

Synopsis

Lee Miller was a female American artist who refused to be defined by her gender, beauty or age. Not content to be limited in her personal life or artistic practice, she was a model and muse to several of the great Surrealists, a photographer, actor and one of the only female war correspondents to be credentialed during WWII. Miller was a fiercely independent and bohemian woman when society was still deeply restricted by traditional gender roles, and her life and work is a staggeringly varied, innovative, and extraordinary story.

Miller's artistic practice was grounded in the medium of photography, and her unique visual style documented the sights and landscapes she encountered on her travels around the world in a manner influenced by a Surrealist eye for the uncanny or strange. She also maintained a close relationship with many other artists, particularly those resident in pre-war Paris. She performed in films by Jean Cocteau, was painted by Picasso and was muse to Man Ray during their time living together. After her experiences as a war correspondent she retired to her farm in Sussex (England) and was largely unremembered as an artist until after her death, when her son Antony Penrose rediscovered her archive. Through his establishment of the Lee Miller Archive she then began to be acknowledged as an important artist in relation to both the Surrealist movement and the development of photography as an art form.

Key Ideas

Millers photographic style combines techniques and formal qualities of Surrealism, such as the recontextualisation of the everyday, carefully manipulated framing to force new perspectives, and the unusual juxtaposition of objects and concepts. Her portrait of the Great Pyramid at Giza (Egypt), for example, is taken from the summit and consists only of its huge triangular shadow across the town below. It is undoubtedly a landscape dominated by the pyramid, but we do not see it - a decidedly surreal prospect.
This Surrealist-influenced and irreverent photographic style, particularly as it began to be deployed by Miller in her coverage of the Blitz in London, had a lasting impact on the world of fashion photography. Miller's work that appeared in British Vogue during the war often included models wearing finery amongst the destruction and dilapidation caused by bombing, a juxtaposition that has now become a familiar high-fashion trope. The commonplace image of beautiful models wearing high fashion in ruins, junkyards or against other incongruous backdrops derives significantly from Miller's pioneering work.
Miller's life and work are almost inseparable - like many Surrealists her mode of living was as much a rejection of convention as her artistic work. Miller's bohemian circle, particularly in Paris, was hedonistic and free in its attitudes to money, sex, marriage and respectability. This was doubly significant for the women who were part of the group, for whom this rejection of conventional society was made even more complete by the rigid expectations of their gender. Miller's life revolved around her artistic practice, and her artistic practice documented and reflected her extraordinary life in great detail.
The ease with which Miller's own artistic practice was forgotten until its rediscovery by her son raises questions about pervasive narratives of (male) genius, and the minimization of female contributions to the development of key artistic movements like Surrealism. Miller was both muse and artist in her own right, yet was largely overlooked in favour of her male mentors and collaborators. Her collaborations with Man Ray were often credited to him alone, for example, and their eventual break stemmed from arguments about authorship and her autonomy as an artist.

Most Important Art

Lee Miller Famous Art

Untitled (Rat Tails) (c. 1930)

Ordinary things, framed to detach them from context to dreamlike or humorous effect recur in Miller's early photographs of Paris. Here, four white rats perch side-by-side in an ambiguous space. Their little white rumps are brightly illuminated, and leafy shadows dapple the vague space around them. The rats were most likely living in a market stand amongst other domestic animals for sale, but their positioning, dramatic lighting and close cropping give the scene a fairytale ambiance.

French photographer and noted flâneur Eugene Atget won the admiration of the Surrealists for his idiosyncratic, atmospheric views of Paris, and his influence can be discerned in Miller's early street photography. Untitled (Rat Tails) shows technique inspired by Atget's work - lighting that creates atmosphere rather than detail, cropping that eliminates any sense of context - to create a mysterious, intriguing image from a common scene. In addition to an eye for the uncanny, Miller also displays a talent for grasping what Henri Cartier-Bresson later defined as the "decisive moment", foreshadowing her later success as a photojournalist.
Read More ...

Lee Miller Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Lee Miller Biography Continues

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.

<i>Miss Lee Miller (Coiffure by Dimitry)</i> (1933). During her early years as a photographer, Miller continued to model for Vogue, here modelling a <i>coiffure</i> that mirrors the dense pleats of her dress
Miss Lee Miller (Coiffure by Dimitry) (1933). During her early years as a photographer, Miller continued to model for Vogue, here modelling a coiffure that mirrors the dense pleats of her dress

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.

Later Career

<i>Lee Miller Holding her Rolleiflex Camera</i> (1935) Miller pursued photography while living in Egypt
Lee Miller Holding her Rolleiflex Camera (1935) Miller pursued photography while living in Egypt

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.

<i>Picnic at Mougins</i>. A group Miller's friends (left to right, clockwise: Nusch Eluard, Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray, Ady Fidelin) pose in imitation of Manet's <i>Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe</i> during a “Surrealist picnic” in the summer of 1937. Lee Miller Archives
Picnic at Mougins. A group Miller's friends (left to right, clockwise: Nusch Eluard, Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray, Ady Fidelin) pose in imitation of Manet's Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe during a “Surrealist picnic” in the summer of 1937. Lee Miller Archives

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".

<i>Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub</i> (1945). Miller and LIFE photographer David Scherman were practically inseparable during the War. They staged this photograph while staying in Eva Braun's house, purposefully setting her boots - covered in mud from their recent assignments at concentration camps - on the fluffy white bathmat. LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images, by David E. Scherman
Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub (1945). Miller and LIFE photographer David Scherman were practically inseparable during the War. They staged this photograph while staying in Eva Braun's house, purposefully setting her boots - covered in mud from their recent assignments at concentration camps - on the fluffy white bathmat. LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images, by David E. Scherman

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, Farley Farm 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 photograph <i>Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, Farley Farm</i> (1953). For her final photo essay published in <i>Vogue</i>, Miller put her art world friends to work around her farm. Surrealist artist Max Ernst, here, planting petunias, introduced Miller to her second husband, Roland Penrose, in 1937
Miller's photograph Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, Farley Farm (1953). For her final photo essay published in Vogue, Miller put her art world friends to work around her farm. Surrealist artist Max Ernst, here, planting petunias, introduced Miller to her second husband, Roland Penrose, in 1937

Miller's time at Farley Farm 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, and any requests for access to her old work were denied. 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 Archive, enabling the rediscovery of Miller's impressive oeuvre in the 1980s.


Legacy

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 Hidreth 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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Lee Miller
Interactive chart with Lee Miller's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Theodore Miller
Edward SteichenEdward Steichen
George Hoyningen-Huene

Personal Contacts

Man RayMan Ray
Max ErnstMax Ernst
Paul Elouard
Dorothea TanningDorothea Tanning
Jean CocteauJean Cocteau

Movements

Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography
Straight PhotographyStraight Photography
Dada and Surrealist PhotographyDada and Surrealist Photography

Influences on Artist
Lee Miller
Lee Miller
Years Worked: 1929 - 1953
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Martha RoslerMartha Rosler
Holly Davey
Michael Herz
Graeme Fidler

Personal Contacts

Man RayMan Ray
Max ErnstMax Ernst
Dorothea TanningDorothea Tanning
Joseph CornellJoseph Cornell
Leonora CarringtonLeonora Carrington

Movements

Straight PhotographyStraight Photography
Dada and Surrealist PhotographyDada and Surrealist Photography
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Felicia Wivchar

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Lewis Church

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Felicia Wivchar
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Lewis Church
Available from:
[Accessed ]



By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

Useful Resources on Lee Miller

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Lee Miller: A Life Recomended resource

By Carolyn Burke

artworks

Lee Miller in Fashion Recomended resource

By Becky Conekin

The Art of Lee Miller

By Mark Haworth-Booth

More Interesting Books about Lee Miller
Lee Miller Archive Recomended resource

The Indestructible Lee Miller

NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Apertures onto Egypt: Lee Miller's Nomadic Surrealism

By Patricia Allmer
Dada/Surrealism
No.19 Article 6, Number 1, 2013

Don't Let History Forget This Incredible Female World War II Photographer Recomended resource

By Alex Beggs
Vanity Fair
September 30, 2015

Lee Miller's Photographs Frame the Women of World War II

By Chloe Pantazi
Hyperallergic
April 13, 2016

Lee Miller / Surrealist Photography Recomended resource

Albertina Museum, August 6, 2015 -Curator discusses Lee Miller's work in context of the Paris Surrealist artist

Lee Miller/In Hitler's Bathtub

Albertina Museum, August 6, 2015 - Curator discusses Lee Miller's photo journalism during World War II

Reuters: Lee Miller's Women at War

An interview with the curator of the 2016 exhibition of Miller's work at the Imperial War Museum in London

Did we succeed in explaining the art to you?
If Yes, please tell others about us: