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Lee Miller Photo

Lee Miller

American Photographer

Born: April 23, 1907 - Poughkeepsie, New York
Died: July 21, 1977 - Chiddingly, East Sussex, United Kingdom
"I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside."
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Lee Miller Signature
"Being a good photojournalist is a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you."
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Lee Miller Signature
"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."
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Lee Miller Signature
"I want the Utopian combination of security and freedom and emotionally I need to be completely absorbed in some work or man I love."
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Lee Miller Signature
"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"
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Lee Miller Signature
"I won't be the first woman journalist in Paris, but I'll be the first dame photographer...unless someone parachutes in."
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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."
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Lee Miller Signature

Summary of Lee Miller

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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 favor 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 Ray's jealousies of Lee's work, but more particularly, her relationships.

Biography of Lee Miller

Lee Miller Photo

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.



Progression of Art

Untitled (Rat Tails) (c. 1930)
c. 1930

Untitled (Rat Tails)

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.

Gelatin silver print - Lee Miller Archives

Lilian Harvey, Solarized Portrait (1933)
1933

Lilian Harvey, Solarized Portrait

Anglo-German film star Lilian Harvey posed in Miller's New York studio. Elegantly attired in a sequined, satin evening gown, the actress is seated with her (cropped) legs outstretched, leaning on her left arm. Her gaze is directed over the supporting shoulder. However, this conventionally glamorous pose is made strange by the process of solarization. By deliberately over-exposing the film during development the resulting images are partially negative, with blacks and whites reversed.

The materiality of the figure is completely out of balance: her supporting hand fades in to a fog, while the definition between the ruffled sleeve of her dress and the background space is clearly defined with a black outline. Stark contrasts in her hair create a topographical surface, while her outstretched lower body is completely flattened, appearing almost graphic. This treatment of the figure recalls her son's statement that as a fashion model, "Lee was used to people looking at her as a thing rather than as a person". The technique of solarization here visualizes that feeling, breaking down the coherence of the whole figure and dissolving the barrier between model and surrounding space. Aside from the technique apparent here, the confident gaze and slight smirk of the subject illustrate Miller's definition of a good portrait: Catching the subject "not when he is aware but when he is his most natural self" was her goal. Like the best of Miller's work, this seemingly straightforward portrait turns something simple on its head, infusing a glamour shot of an actress in a pretty dress with a disorienting blur of unreality.

Gelatin silver print - Lee Miller Archive

Portrait of Space (1937)
1937

Portrait of Space

Taken from inside a tent near Siwa, Egypt, Portrait of Space looks out onto a desert landscape, through a torn mosquito net "window." A dark wood picture frame in portrait orientation hangs from the net above the tear. The landscape outside the window begins with a flattened, manicured foreground, surrounded with a border of stone. Beyond, a natural desert scape stretches to the horizon, marked by a discursive path, stones, and small hills. The sky above, occupying about 2/3 of the image, is punctuated with a few wispy, elongated clouds.

Miller's Egypt photos, this example in particular, embody the Surrealist impulses Miller developed early in her career while working with Man Ray in Paris in the late 1920s. The ideas associated with the movement, though, appear in Miller's work in subtle ways. Here a play on ambiguity and the permeability of boundaries are the most prominent. The title itself sets up an intellectual exercise. This "portrait" lacks the conventionally required subject and provides multiple "frames" - the dark frame around the whole image, the net, the tear in the net, the actual small frame dangling at the top and the stone border around the campsite. This sets up the viewer to determine what space is the subject of this subject-less portrait. Portrait of Space can be viewed as a "mise en abyme" or an image-within-an-image, "in which notions of inside and outside, are endlessly placed and displaced", as described by Patricia Allmer. Like her dematerializing portraits, Portrait of Space confronts and challenges the viewer with its details, made possible by the artist's unique vision and honed sense for presenting a slice of dislocated reality.

Lee Miller Archives

From the top of the Great Pyramid (1938)
1938

From the top of the Great Pyramid

This image, taken by Miller whilst living in Egypt with her first husband, shows the huge triangular shadow of the Great Pyramid at Giza on the village of Nazlet El-Samman below. It is an inversion of the classic touristic image of the pyramid, where the focus would be the monumental structure against the open sky to emphasize its size and imposition on the horizon. Miller's image, by contrast, places the viewer looking down on the everyday lives of Egyptians, living and working in the shadow of history. The focus on an unusual detail and its idiosyncratic perspective reveals Miller's debt to other Surrealist photography that isolates or foregrounds a particular close detail for effect (in this case the immense shadow).

Miller's inversion of perspective raises questions about the weight of history and its looming presence on the everyday, and perhaps also of colonial narratives. Egypt was under British control at the time of Miller's residence, and the picture could be read as an attempt to look beyond the internationally recognized symbols of a country to the realities of life for the majority of its citizens. Miller never really felt at home in Egypt as an American and bohemian free spirit in a conservative Arab country, and the image echoes both her remoteness as an observer and the distance between the Egypt of myth and reality.

Lee Miller Archives

Remington Silent (1940)
1940

Remington Silent

A crushed typewriter sits on a carved architectural detail. Its keys form a tangled cascade with the ribbon, which then streams over the edge of the carved stone block. The focus fades quickly away from the viewer, but other sorrowful-looking detritus lies on the same stone behind the shattered typewriter. The in-focus objects are out of place - the bit of a building should not be horizontal on the ground. The mangled typewriter is rendered useless.

Among Miller's photographs of the London Blitz of 1940, published the following year in a book entitled Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, this image refers back to her Surrealist compositions in Paris. Unlike the deliberately context-free images of the 1930s, Remington Silent is visually ambiguous but contextually specific. Edward R. Murrow's introduction to Grim Glory states that "this little book offers you a glimpse of their battle. Somehow they are able to fight down their fears each night; to go to work each morning". Miller's photo encompasses the contrast between the terror of destruction and the necessity of living. The title has a whiff of humor as the Remington Silent was a popular typewriter model, although this particular typewriter has been rendered silent by the previous day's bombings. Despite this specificity, the composition's tight focus on one humble object, made unfamiliar and abstract in its destruction, displays Miller's ability to create dislocations within the everyday.

The effects of bombings created the odd juxtapositions that Surrealists labored to imagine. Cecil Beaton described this phenomenon as "the unfathomable laws of blast" that "scattered cherubs wings and stone roses...yet the lamp post [stands] erect with no pane of its lantern broken". Miller found easy inspiration in these baffling cityscapes. Anthony Penrose perhaps most clearly illuminated the uniqueness of her work in this period in The Legendary Lee Miller: "Lee's Surrealist eye was always present. Unexpectedly, among the reportage, the mud, the bullets, we find photographs where the unreality of war assumes an almost lyrical beauty. On reflection I realise that the only meaningful training of a war correspondent is to first be a Surrealist - then nothing in life is too unusual."

Gelatin silver print - Lee Miller Archives

Firemasks, Downshire Hill (1941)
1941

Firemasks, Downshire Hill

Taken while on assignment for Vogue magazine, this photo bridges Miller's work as a fashion photographer and as a war correspondent. Two models, wearing Air Raid Precautions masks sit casually on newspapers at the entrance to Miller's bomb shelter at her home in North London. The woman closest to the camera dangles a warden's whistle in her manicured fingers, held next to her face like a piece of jewelry in an advertisement. Behind her, a woman with her face fully covered appears to be grinning behind her protective mask, her crinkled eyes the only visible part of her face.

Miller's playfully dark sense of humor is evident in this image, as well as her consistent interrogation of a woman's place in the world, and the permeability of boundaries. Placing glamorous women who are customarily depicted in flawlessly aspirational settings on the ground, their faces covered with metal, reflects the dangerous days of the Blitz in London, but her approach also retains an element of fish-out-of-water humor. The truth of Miller's assertion in a 1932 interview with the New York Evening Post that it is the "personality of the photographer, his approach that is really more important than his technical genius", comes through in this image. Firemasks has an element of propaganda to it, as well. During the period, Vogue and other media outlets were obligated, according to the British Ministry of Information, to influence readers' wartime behavior. Images such as this showed women adapting to war, however cheekily, and carrying on as normal.

Gelatin Silver Print - Lee Miller Archives

The Burgermeister's Daughter in Town Hall (1945)
1945

The Burgermeister's Daughter in Town Hall

As a member of the London War Correspondents Corps, Miller joined the Allied forces during the liberation of Western Europe in 1944. She travelled to Germany in 1945 and captured this image of the suicides of the city's Nazi vice-mayor and his family in Leipzig. The closely cropped view, showing only the daughter and wife of the official, removes extraneous detail and focuses on the individuals. The women, dead for some time, lie slumped on the formal office furniture. A map lies on the ground next to the daughter, who chose to die in her starched nurse's uniform.

Vogue published the photo, and Miller's accompanying article described how the high officials "gave a great party, toasted death and Hitler and poisoned themselves". The article also remarks upon the daughter's "extraordinarily pretty teeth," and her "nurse's uniform... sprinkled with plaster from the battle for the city hall which raged outside after their deaths". While other examples of Miller's wartime photos - particularly those from Buchwald and other concentration camps - are more brutal, The Burgermeister's Daughter particularly shows her consistent and unique interrogation the role of women as perpetrators in Nazi Germany. Miller, in her uniquely provocative and unvarnished manner, questions if anyone, even a teenaged nurse with nice teeth, can be an innocent bystander in times of war. Aesthetically, this photograph and its accompanying text affirm Becky Conekin's description of how her work "broke down barriers between fashion and war reportage. Her wartime pieces overflow with rich descriptions of her sensual impressions of the scenes of war around her-sounds, smells, and especially sights. Those scenes, as well as details of clothing, bodies, and hair, were frequently described in terms of high art".

Gelatin silver print - Lee Miller Archives

Liberated Prisoners in Their Bunks (1945)
1945

Liberated Prisoners in Their Bunks

This image, taken at Dachau Concentration Camp in 1945 shortly after its liberation by the American 6th Army, shows several prisoners peering at the camera from their bunks whilst another sweeps the central aisle. It is an image that offers a poignant emotional connection with prisoners who have been treated as less than human by their captors, with their eyes the focal point of the image. Miller's images from the Nazi concentration camps like this one still show hallmarks of her visual style, including multiple layers of focus and a close attention to textural detail.

Miller arrived in Dachau very soon after its liberation with LIFE photographer Dave Scherman, and like many of the correspondents could not believe the scale of the carnage and travesty of what they saw at the camps. Miller also reported the disbelief that greeted the sight from the soldiers, some of whom even went as far as to suggest this was an elaborate propaganda stunt by their own side. Miller later cabled her editor with the message 'I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THAT THIS IS TRUE'. During her time at the camp Miller, as an attractive woman in combat uniform, fascinated the prisoners and she was invited into their bunk houses for the purposes of documenting their squalor. Miller also photographed guards who had attempted to escape the camp and been were in turn attacked by the tortured and brutalized prisoners.

Lee Miller Archives


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Content compiled and written by Felicia Wivchar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Lee Miller Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Felicia Wivchar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church
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First published on 18 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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