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Important Art by Lee Miller
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.
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.
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.