Lee Miller was many things: a fashion model, Surrealist muse, assistant to Man Ray, Vogue photographer, war photographer, sexual bohemian whose lovers included everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Picasso – but most of all, she was a feminist long before the word became popular.
“I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside,” Lee Miller said of her early days as a model.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, her father – an amateur photographer – took many photographs of Miller, as well as her schoolgirl friends. Troublingly, many of these were nude shots. Miller was raped by a family friend at the age of seven (Miller’s son, Antony, speculated that the rapist may have been her own father) and contracted gonorrhea, the treatment for which at the time was invasive and extremely painful. The counselling afterwards cautioned the tiny girl not to confuse sex with love. Biographers have speculated that both her father’s photographing of her and the horrific rape had a profound effect on the rest of her life.
Miller went to New York to study art at the age of nineteen and a chance encounter with the owner of Vogue magazine (he stopped her from stepping out under a passing car) led to her becoming one of the most successful models in New York at that time. A photograph of her was the first ever picture of a real-life woman used in a sanitary towel advert and caused a mini-scandal. But the life of a model wasn’t enough for Miller.
She moved to Paris in 1929 with the intention of becoming a photographer. She tracked Man Ray down in a cafe: “I told him boldly that I was his 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 and I learned a lot about photography.”
Miller went on to be hailed as one of the most beautiful women in Paris. Her breasts were used by one French glass company for modelling the shape of its champagne glasses.
Miller photographed by Man Ray
She became part of the surrealist set, starring in one of Jean Cocteau’s movies, all the while taking her own photographs and honing her skills. (Indeed, many photographs attributed to Man Ray were taken by Miller.) When she began to embark on the same kind of hedonistic lifestyle – with the same laissez faire attitude to sex – as her male counterparts, however, Man Ray decided this was a step too far.
“The woman who was a shockingly good surrealist photographer shocked her daring male surrealist friends with her far-too-open attitudes to sexuality. Free love was for the boys; even the surrealists found it too surreal in a girl … her sexual independence drove [Man Ray] nearly insane with jealousy. He took to threatening suicide, walking round Paris carrying a revolver and wearing a noose, then made his famous sculpture Object to be Destroyed – a metronome whose ticking pendulum tip is, revealingly, a photograph of one of Miller’s eyes.”
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In June 1934 she married an Egyptian businessman and moved to Egypt. She may have been looking for a quiet life but she very quickly became bored and was ready to move onto the next phase of her life.
“At a costume party in Paris she met Roland Penrose, a wealthy British painter and writer who was an eager member of the Surrealist circle. After waking in his bed two mornings later, she embarked on a passionate affair with Penrose, and a wild summer of bohemian partner-swapping and exhibitionism that included a visit to Picasso at Mougins. There Lee was painted by Picasso six times and gladly loaned to him by Penrose for a night or two.”
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One of a number of paintings Picasso did of Miller
Miller moved to London with Penrose and got a job with Vogue magazine – this time on the other side of the camera. When the Second World War broke out, she wanted to go to the front but the British army had a policy of not giving accreditation to female photographers.
“You cannot understand Miller’s deep feminist need to get herself to the very centre of events unless you also understand her other, equally deep conviction that those events could not possibly damage her.”
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In 1941 she met the Life photographer Dave Scherman. He became her friend, lover and – after moving in with Miller and Penrose – a third member of a ménage à trois. He also solved her accreditation problem. If the British army wouldn’t take her, he told Miller, the Americans would.
Miller’s war photography is astonishing: from a top-secret napalm strike to corpses piled high in the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, her stark photographs shocked the readers back home. “She got very close to things,” said Mark Haworth-Booth, who has curated exhibitions of her work. “Margaret Bourke-White [famed WWII photographer] was far away from the fighting, but Lee was close. That’s what makes the difference – Lee was prepared to shock.”
One of the most famous shots of Miller (taken by Scherman) in Hitler’s bath.
“It is almost impossible today,” Scherman wrote “to conceive how difficult it was for a woman correspondent to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, in other words, to the front, where the action was.”
But the war had taken its toll on her. When she returned to England in 1946, Miller was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and drinking heavily. She gave birth to a son in 1947 and suffered from postnatal depression. Miller and Penrose moved to Farley Farm House in East Sussex in 1949 and were visited by many of their famous friends and colleagues, including Miró, Picasso, Henry Moore and others. But Miller continued to battle her demons.
“Her looks had deserted her once she got on the bottle and she was having trouble accepting Roland’s affairs,” recalled her son, Antony. “They had both always had lots of affairs, the place was very free sexually, but Lee got more and more angry watching women hurling themselves at Roland, and she drank more and argued a lot.”
Miller with her son, Antony
Theirs was a fraught relationship, although they reconciled a year before her death. She died in 1977 at the age of 70, a minor figure in the art world. It was only after her death that her son realised the depth and importance of her photographic work, something Miller had hidden away in the latter part of her life. He discovered boxes in the attic containing over 60,000 negatives, as well as her writings and letters. Since then, Antony has devoted his life to promoting his mother’s varied career. Her work is now housed in the Lee Miller Archive at her home, Farley Farm House and is on display at www.leemiller.co.uk
The reason she “buried” her work is probably best explained by Miller herself: “I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils,” she told her biographer Carolyn Burke shortly before her death.
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