Elizabeth “Lee” Miller started her career in the fashion industry. Having been model and assistant to surrealist artist and photographer Emmanuel Radnitzky, better known as Man Ray, she had the drive and talent to pursue her own professional ambition. During the Second World War, she was one of five accredited female photo-journalists accompanying American troops.
In a turbulent life traumatic events in her youth and maturity took their toll and may have hampered the appreciation of her contribution. Full recognition of the artistic value of her work is long overdue.
Youth & Abuse
Miller was born in April 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The only girl in the family, she was her bohemian father’s favorite. An amateur photographer, he used her as his model. When she was seven years old, Lee was raped while staying with a family friend in Brooklyn. The crime resulted in a case of gonorrhea that required painful treatment. Rebellious from a young age, she was expelled from almost every school she attended whilst living in the Poughkeepsie area.
At the age of eighteen, Miller moved to Paris for a year to study at the School of Stagecraft. Back in New York in 1926, she left home and joined Manhattan’s Art Students League of New York to study life drawing and painting.
Her modelling career started when the publisher Condé Montrose Nast witnessed her crossing a New York street. Struck by her appearance, he invited her to join Vogue magazine. She appeared in a blue hat and pearls in a drawing by George Lepape on the cover of the magazine’s issue of March 15th, 1927. To the editors she represented the free spirit of the “modern” girl.
Conflict & Rivalry
At Vogue she worked with a number of top photographers, including Edward Steichen. In 1929, he insisted that she should travel to Paris and apprentice herself to Man Ray, a pioneering American artist who spent most of his life in Paris denying his Jewish Russian background. Although reluctant to take on a trainee, Miller became his muse, assistant, and lover.
She soon set up her own photographic studio, often taking over Ray’s fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. Many of her photographs of that period were (are) credited to him.
Together with Ray, she explored the process of photographic solarisation. The couple made the technique a visual signature that was exemplified by Ray’s profile portrait of Miller. Taken circa 1930, the image was created at a time that she was separating from him to star in Jean Cocteau’s movie Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet).
Her move for independence infuriated him. During a dispute regarding the attribution of their co-produced work, Ray is said to have slashed a photographic image of Miller’s neck with a razor. Surrealism and sexist behavior were difficult to disconnect.
Modernist artists were spellbound by the ‘wickedness’ of women. Time and again the classic idols of perversity, Salomé, Cleopatra, Medusa, and Judith, appear in poetry and painting. Male imagination dreaded that female “perversity” would endanger his creative challenges. Like Orpheus, he was dragged towards the abyss. Anxiety froze into misogyny.
In 1924 André Breton published his surrealist manifesto and a new grouping was born – a movement of males. Max Ernst, Man Ray, René Magritte, and Salvador Dalí strove to revolutionize both eye and mind, but gender awareness was their blind spot. Women were portrayed with fragmented and dismembered bodies as objects of masculine desire and fantasy. Food for Freudians.
As a former fashion model, Lee was used to people looking at her as a thing rather than a person. Having grown into a free and fearless artist herself, Miller was unhappy with the way women were treated by surrealist painters.
In 1929, while on a commission at a Parisian hospital, she transported a breast that had been removed in a mastectomy. She carried it through the city streets on a plate covered by a cloth. She then immortalized it as a dinner table still life. The raw image served as a rebuke to painters who commodified women by presenting detached body parts.
New York & Cairo
After leaving Ray in 1932, she returned to New York City where she established a photographic studio. In 1933, the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan gave Miller her only solo exhibition. Restless as ever, she abandoned the studio in 1934 to marry Egyptian engineer Aziz Eloui Bey.
Living in Cairo she did not work professionally, but some shots of that period are now regarded as particularly striking, including the stunning Portrait of Space (taken in 1937 in the Siwa Oasis). In Egypt, Lee mastered snake charming and camel riding and met the British curator Roland Penrose.
Bored with life in Cairo, she returned to Paris to meet up with her new lover. At the outbreak of World War II she was living with Penrose in Hampstead, London. With the Blitz in full destructive flow, she accepted an offer from the editors of Vogue to act as a photo-journalist on their behalf. Two years later she was an accredited war correspondent for Condé Nast publications.
Having teamed up with Life photographer David Scherman, she traveled to France shortly after D-Day. Lee recorded the destruction of Saint-Malo (and the American use of “Jellied Gasoline,” later known as napalm), witnessed the liberation of Paris, and shot images at the Battle of Alsace.
Miller arrived at Dachau in April 1945, becoming one of the first photographers to record the devastating scenes. By the end of that month, she moved on to Munich where the American 179th Regiment had established its headquarters in Hitler’s apartment after liberating 32,000 captives from the camp.
In company of Scherman, she took some iconic pictures at the apartment. They photographed each other bathing in Hitler’s pristine tub. In her shot, Miller positioned a photo of the Führer as well as her boots with Dachau dirt staining the bathmat. The photos were taken on the same day that Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in Berlin. Miller then slept in Hitler’s bed.
At the end of war, Lee continued her work as a photo-journalist. She was in ravaged Vienna where she photographed starving children. The city’s demolition was highlighted by the image of opera singer Irmgard Seefried performing an aria from Madame Butterfly in the ruined Opera House. She was also present at the execution in January 1946 of the Hungarian Prime Minister László Bárdossy for collaboration with the Nazis.
She stayed with Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities. The work did not appeal anymore, it all seemed irrelevant. Lee Miller had found her creative self during wartime activities. At the same time the trauma of Dachau was an emotional burden from which she never recovered. By the mid-1950s she had abandoned photography altogether.
Having returned to Britain, Miller began to suffer from episodes of depression (most likely PTSD), seeking refuge in drink. Having found out that she was pregnant, she married Penrose in May 1947. Their son and only child was born in September. The family settled at Farley Farm in East Sussex.
In her own mind Lee Miller was not meant to marry, have children, or live in the country. She did all three becoming a depressive and alcoholic mother with an unfaithful husband (she lost interest in sex; he had a “modernist” affair with the trapeze artist Diane Deriaz). During their tenure in East Sussex, the Penrose home was a focal point for the artistic elite. Miserable as Miller felt, she became a celebrated chef of extravagant dishes. Picasso, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, and many others joined the list of dinner guests during the 1950s and 1960s.
With Lee in the kitchen, Penrose’s success continued. He had moved to London in 1936 to co-organize the International Surrealist Exhibition which led to the establishment of the English surrealist movement (twelve years after Breton’s manifesto!). With the Belgian painter E.L.T. Mesens, he opened the London Gallery in Mayfair to promote modern art. Co-founder of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1947 and a trustee of the Tate Gallery, he was the golden boy of British modernism. His knighthood in 1966 prompted Miller to mock herself as “Lady Penrose of Poughkeepsie.”
Penrose did much to introduce contemporary European art into a hostile environment. He promoted the work of modernists, published monographs on individual artists (Picasso, Miró, Man Ray, and Antoni Tàpies), and organized exhibitions. Penrose was a curator rather than an original artist. By contrast, Miller was an authentic creator and the relevance of her oeuvre endures to this day.
Lee died in 1977 at Farley Farm from the effects of alcohol, chain smoking, and neglect. Throughout her life she had done little to promote her own work. Did the horrors of the past hit her? Her stolen youth? The suffering she had witnessed at Dachau? One can only express regret that such a talent wasted away cooking meals for famous (male) artists, whilst hiding her own staggering achievements.
And what about Penrose’s curatorship? Why did a professional who took such pride in challenging the art world remain silent about his wife’s photography? Questions that raise more questions. Did the “mighty” Penrose demand the limelight? Was there an element of surrealist misogyny in his inactivity?
It was only after Lee’s death that her work was re-discovered. In an attic of the farm, hidden in cardboard boxes, her son unearthed a treasure trove of 60,000 photographs, negatives, letters and documents. That Miller’s work is known at all today is due to his conservation efforts.
Illustrations, from above: Vogue cover March 15th, 1927 (Georges Lepape) and Man Ray, portrait of Lee Miller (The Israel Museum by Avshalom Avital); Still Life with Severed Breast (c. 1930) by Lee Miller; Portrait of Space, 1937 by Lee Miller; Lee Miller in Normandy, 1944 (photographer unknown) courtesy The Penrose Collection; Lee Miller in a photograph she staged in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich in 1945 (Lee Miller Archives); Miller’s 1945 photograph of the opera singer Irmgard Seefried performing an aria from Madame Butterfly in the ruined Vienna Opera House (Lee Miller Archives); László Bardossy Facing the Firing Squad, Budapest, 1946 by Lee Miller (Lee Miller Archives); and the dining room at Farley House and Gallery.