Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career Took Her from Vogue to War-Torn Germany

When war photographer, fashion model and Surrealist muse Lee Miller died at the age of 70 in 1977, her name was known to a select few experts in the art world. Her career was not without its milestones: working with American photojournalist David E. Scherman, she took some of the most famous images of World War II–era atrocities, and she posed for Man Ray and Vogue. Still, her reputation lagged behind her art-historical significance.

That all changed when Miller’s son, Anthony Penrose, uncovered a vast archive of his late mother’s work in an attic. In 2013, a foundation in Miller’s name was formed in England, and more than 80,000 negatives were given a proper site where experts and institutions could access them. Since then, interest in Miller’s art has grown vastly, and this July, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida will stage a show focused on her contributions to the Surrealist art movement.

Miller once described spoke of a “restlessness” that defined her career, and that may account for the variety of roles she occupied. She was a model, a muse, a fashion photographer, and a war correspondent, and she seemed to gracefully from one version of herself to the next. Her freewheeling sensibility is evident in one of the most famous pictures of her, a 1945 image of her in a bath taken by Scherman. That tub was not just any tub, however—it belonged to Adolf Hitler, and Miller had shed her clothes not long after photographing the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. The image can be read in more ways than one—a moment of victory over a dictator, a subversion of the classical nude, or a reclamation of power by a long-objectified muse. It is this image,which perhaps most embodies Surrealist painter Eileen Agar description of Miller as “a remarkable woman, completely unsentimental, and sometimes ruthless.”

Lee Miller, 'Normandy, France', 1944.

Lee Miller, Normandy, France, 1944.

A Young Muse

By many accounts, Miller’s childhood was a complicated one. She was born in 1937 in Poughkeepsie, New York to Theodore and Florence Miller. At age seven, she was raped by a family acquaintance during a trip to Brooklyn and contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Some scholars, including curator Mark Haworth-Booth, have suggested that her assault may have made her more susceptible to the traumas she would endure later in life as a result of her war reporting.

From an early age, photography had always been present in her life. Her modeling career began first, and she posed nude for her father, an amateur stereoscopic photographer, throughout her adolescence. These images have been controversial, and many have viewed them as sexualizing Miller, who was still a minor when some of these pictures were taken. “He took pictures of her that to our eyes are very dubious,” fashion editor Marion Hume says in Capturing Lee Miller, a 2020 documentary directed by Teresa Griffiths. Penrose, the artist’s son, called the works “a transgression of a relationship.” Others have staked a claim for them as a kind of artistic collaboration. (Miller never created any documentation of her accounts of posing for her father’s photographs, leaving her feelings on the topic largely a mystery for scholars.)

In 1927, by coincidence, Miller met publisher Condé Nast, who discovered her on the street in Manhattan. The encounter led to Miller’s first major break in the fashion world. That same year, her face would grace the cover of Vogue in an Art Deco–style illustration by George Lepape. By 1928, Edward Steichen photographed her for the magazine as well; according to Miller’s biographer, Carolyn Burke, he was the one to suggest she go study with Man Ray if she was serious about becoming a photographer herself. When asked in an American radio interview in 1946 about how she became a photographer, Miller responded rather simply: “I thought the best way was to start out studying with one of the great masters in the field, Man Ray.”

Lee Miller, 'Corsetry, Solarised Photograph, Vogue Studio, London, England', 1942.

Lee Miller, Corsetry, Solarised Photograph, Vogue Studio, London, England, 1942.

Surrealist Muse and Collaborator

By 1929, at the age of 24, Miller had moved to Paris and begun working as Man Ray’s studio assistant. Eventually, their professional relationship also led to a romantic one. Under the Surrealist’s apprenticeship, she was instrumental in inventing Man Ray’s “solarization” photographic technique, through which black and white hues are reversed, creating a halo-like effect. By Miller’s account, she happened upon the method during an accident in the dark room—she had accidentally turned on the lights while developing a photograph.

Beyond the photographs taken of her, Miller is also immortalized in one of Man Ray’s most recognizable works, a metronome adorned with a picture of her eye at the end of the ticker. In Paris, Miller also ran her own portrait studio, taking on commissions for the French edition of Vogue with George Hoyningen-Huene and other couture ateliers.

Miller fell in with a circle of modernists that included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí. While the group of artists, known for boasting philosophies around intellectual and sexual liberation, welcomed women as both models and collaborators, many of the male artists made work with misogynistic overtones. Man Ray was not exempt from these attitudes. “He also wanted to control her,” Burke remarks in the film. After three years, their relationship ended.

By the mid-1930s, she had married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo. The period was a formative one for Miller, who began taking pictures of the empty Egyptian desert. Portrait of Space (1937), an image of the arid landscape of the Siwa Oasis shot through a torn fly screen, exemplifies her Surrealist bent. Although she experienced a sense of escapism in Egypt, she was left pining for Paris, and the disjunction she felt would later inform her war imagery’s off-putting aesthetic. “[Miller’s] Surrealist imagination meets a shattered reality head-on,” according to Burke.

Lee Miller, 'SS Guard in Canal, Dachau, Germany', 1945.

Lee Miller, SS Guard in Canal, Dachau, Germany, 1945.

‘Believe It’: Vogue’s War Images

By 1939, a new relationship with Surrealist artist and author Roland Penrose, whom she’d met years earlier in Paris, had brought Miller to London. At this point, the city was just beginning to weather the destructive effects of World War II. In the British capital, she met the editor of Vogue, Audrey Withers, whom Miller told of her desire to become a photojournalist. The two established a connection, and the magazine went on to publish several photo-essays by Miller, including 1943’s “Night Life Now,” which bore a sub-headline reading, “After dark drama of the work of the Women’s Services.” It comprised images of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, an all-female British Army artillery unit. Eventually, Miller’s images would help to transform the luxury-oriented fashion magazine, which at the time had found itself ill-equipped to meet the war-torn moment, into an outlet for serious news. As Hume explains it in Capturing Lee Miller, “Lee was seizing opportunity. So war was opportunity.”

Miller became accredited as a photographer with the American army through Condé Nast Publications in December 1942. Partnering with Scherman, a Life correspondent and an established war photographer, she embarked on her new venture.

In 1944, she was present for the battle of St. Malo, which saw the first use of napalm bombing. Later, she would also be present at the blitz, the chaos following D-Day, the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace, and the U.S. military’s entry into Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, becoming one of only a few U.S. army women photographers at the time to see combat.

In 1945, Miller wrote to Withers, “I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town and every area isn’t rich with them.” Sure enough, her images of war’s most gruesome forms of violence are among her most memorable ones from the era. In one photograph, a dead SS guard floats in sunlit water, incisively drawing contrasting the terror of carnage with the picturesque setting surrounding it.

At the time, whether willfully or not, few worldwide were aware of what took place in Nazi concentration camps. “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE!” Miller once wrote in a telegram to Withers, saying, “I hope Vogue will feel that it can publish these pictures.” Her photographs of Buchenwald and Dachau bear witness to various atrocities, and the acted as cold, hard evidence for disbelieving American and British audiences, who saw many written accounts of the war as propaganda. To the public, the American edition of Vogue from June 1945 printed Miller’s death camp photos, along with a direct message: “Believe It.”

Then as now, Vogue had a reputation for publishing glossy fashion spreads focused on women’s wear, and these images certainly rank among the most graphic ones ever printed in its pages. Miller once described the frustration of being uncomfortably lodged between the realms of fashion photography and photojournalism, writing, “I’m busy making documents, not art.”

Ironically, however, the most famous photograph from the era involving Miller in its making was not one authored by her. It was taken by Scherman on April 30, 1945, in the hours following the liberation of Dachau. Miller and Scherman found themselves in Hitler’s Munich apartment, which had just been raided by U.S. soldiers and that was where they produced their famed bathtub picture. (Unbeknownst to them at the time, that day would later go down in history as the one that Hitler committed suicide.) It was published in Vogue along with an image of similar image of Scherman in the bath that was long forgotten. For Scherman, the scene shown in the photo—a soiled bathmat flanked by a propaganda portrait of the dictator on the tub’s edge—represented “the last of the Hitler myth.”

Despite the photograph’s apparent levity, violence was taking place all around them as allied forces pressed closer into Germany. On April 18, 1945, Miller shot the scene of Nazi official deputy mayor Ernst Kurt Leizpig and his family’s suicide at Munich’s town hall. An image of Leizpig’s daughter, Regina Lisso, who died by cyanide poisoning, laying across from her parents ranks as one of Miller’s most haunting portraits. (When it was published in Vogue, it was accompanied by text remarking on the teenager’s “extraordinarily pretty teeth” and her nurse’s uniform.) It is in these images, Miller’s Surrealist education and the glamour of Vogue fashion portraits merge. “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,” Penrose has written. “On reflection I realize that the only meaningful training of a war correspondent is to first be a Surrealist—then nothing in life is too unusual.”

Man Ray, Lee Miller

Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1929.

 ‘She Wanted to Forget’

Toward the end of her life, Miller moved to the English countryside, in East Sussex, with Roland Penrose. She had her first child at the age of 40, and she suffered bouts of depression and struggled with alcoholism. “I could not believe she had been the same person that created this material,” Arthur Penrose said of his mother, whose images of WWII to Vogue portraits he’d never seen during her lifetime.

According to family and the archive’s directors, those in her circle wanted to promote her work further, but she refused. “She wanted to move on. She wanted to forget,” Ami Bouhassane, Miller’s granddaughter and co-director of the photographer’s archive, says in Capturing Lee Miller.

Miller’s transformation—from the fashion realm, to Surrealist artist, to war reporter—came full circle in many of her late-career images. On her return from Europe to New York in 1932, she remarked to a journalist for the New York World-Telegram, in response to queries on her fashion modeling career, “I’d rather take a picture than be one.”

She also acted as a muse to artist Man Ray, with whom she briefly led a relationship.Read MoreArt in America, Features, Lee Miller, Man Ray, Surrealism, Vogue, war photographyARTnews.comRead More

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