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Lee Miller: a story of passion, dedication, and strength



From model and muse to the main character as photographer and war reporter: a story of passion, dedication, and strength


At Femme Lead we believe in the importance of role models and the impact they can have in our lives, seeing another woman achieving a goal can make you think “If she did that, so can I”. Lee Miller’s story is so inspiring and fascinating (to me, at least!), I read her story many times and it always surprises me, I discover a new, inspiring detail every time. By briefly introducing the incredible life of Lee Miller (or better: lives - her son wrote her biography, and the title is “The Many Lives of Lee Miller”, which I think is very appropriate, as she truly lived many lives during her lifetime), I hope you can feel inspired and empowered to go for what you really want in life.



Early life and career


Elizabeth "Lee" Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907, to Theodore and Florence Miller. From an early age, she modeled for her father, who was an amateur photographer. She was introduced to art and photography when she was a child, developing an early interest in the arts and Europe, moving to Paris at age 18 to study lighting, costume, and design at a theatre school. A year later, she moved back to New York City, joining an experimental drama program at Vassar College. Her interest in photography and art was clear and left no room for doubts, yet she ended up on the other side of the camera. This may sound like a movie, but you’ll get used to it, all her life does!


Lee Miller “accidentally” became one of the most sought-after models in New York, “accidentally” as in: she was almost run over by a car while crossing the street in NY! She was saved by Conde Montrose Nast, the publisher of Vogue magazine at the time, who immediately noticed her beauty and potential and made her into a real model: Conde Nast looked at her and said, “Gosh, you've got the makings of a great model.” And before anybody knew it, she was on the cover of Vogue.


Paris and Man Ray


After years of modeling, she gets the photography call again: her place is not in front of the lens but behind it. She goes against societal rules, which would have locked her in the model/muse role for life; she had all she could possibly ask for in the eyes of the 20s-30s society, but she wanted more, and she knew she could get more. Her modeling career was endangered by Kotex: the menstrual hygiene brand used her photos – without her consent – to advertise their menstrual pads. At the time, having her face on a menstrual pads campaign meant nobody could have used her photos to advertise anything else, she became a persona non grata in the fashion industry.


She then jumped on the opportunity and in 1929, Miller returned to Paris with a clear idea: she wanted to learn about photography from Man Ray, the famous surrealist photographer. Even though the famous photographer was not really convinced of the idea at first (rumor has it that she needed to literally hunt him down), Lee becomes Man Ray’s student, and later on muse, lover, and collaborator: Surrealism had its golden couple.


Man Ray created some of his most-recognized works while he was involved with and collaborating with Miller, including Observatory Time—the Lovers (c. 1931), which features Miller’s lips.



"When Lee arrived in Paris she had, in a way, been a Surrealist for some time — before the movement even had a name — because she had that determination to pursue her life free of the constraints of society which the Surrealists were already rebelling against. They wanted to create a new world that was not governed by religion or law or whatever. ... The Surrealist movement was going in tremendous force, and she was ready-made for it, and it for her."


While in Paris, Lee Miller began her own photographic studio, often taking over Man Ray's fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. They collaborated so closely in this period that some photographs taken by Miller are credited to Man Ray. Together with Man Ray, she rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation through an accident variously described; one of Miller's accounts involved a mouse running over her foot, causing her to switch on the light in mid-development. The couple made the technique a distinctive visual signature.


NY and Cairo


Surrealism golden couple burst, due to many factors: infidelity and jealousy (Miller was becoming so famous, that she was almost eclipsing Man Ray, which the great Surrealist artist couldn’t absolutely take). Maybe a “Surrealist couple” was too close to societal rules, which is an oxymoron for Surrealism itself. Therefore, Miller left Man Ray and Paris in 1932, to return to New York, where she established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. In NY, Miller mainly worked on portraits, marked by her unique style. She also continued to model for and began photographing for Vogue.


It's in NY that Miller meets the Egyptian railroad magnate Aziz Eloui Bey, and the spark of love catches fire. Miller decides to marry him and move to Cairo. Although she did not work as a professional photographer during this period, the photographs she took while living in Egypt, are regarded as some of her most striking surrealist images. In Cairo, Miller took a photograph of the desert near Siwa that Magritte saw and used as inspiration for his 1938 painting Le Baiser. In Egypt, she spends her time organizing excursions in the desert and capturing those wild, exotic landscapes through her camera lenses.


London and the Blitz - WWII


By 1937, Miller had grown bored with her life in Cairo, she thus decided to return to Paris, and quickly after to London, to follow Roland Penrose, British surrealist painter, and curator, a.k.a. the third and last lover of her story. She was in London when the Second World War outbreaks. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the US, Miller embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the Blitz. She was accredited with the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from December 1942. Miller's first article for British Vogue was on nurses at an army base in Oxford, for this work of hers, she took portraits of nurses across Europe, including those on the front lines and prisoners of war. During her time as a work photographer, Miller teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a Life correspondent, on many assignments.


Miller lived in first person (but always as a war reporter) some of the most crucial events of WWII: she traveled to France less than a month after D-Day and recorded the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, as well as the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace. Miller was one of the first reporters to enter and document the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Her photographs, some of the first photographic evidence of the Holocaust, were a horrifying glimpse of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the camps.


Scherman's photograph of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler's apartment in Munich, with its shower hose looped in the center behind her head and the dust of Dachau on her boots deliberately dirtying Hitler's bathroom, is one of the most iconic images from the Miller–Scherman partnership (and personally, my favorite picture of her) and occurred on April 30, 1945, coincidentally the same day as Hitler's suicide. Being one of the first to arrive at Hitler's apartments, Miller admits, "I had his address in my pocket for years." After taking the bathtub picture, Miller took a bath in the tub and slept in Hitler's bed.



In 1945 Miller travelled throughout eastern Europe to see and photograph the devastating aftermath of the war. Despite a struggle with depression, alcoholism, and what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder following the war, she returned to London and continued to take photographs, especially of artists and writers. She married Penrose in 1947 and at age 40 became pregnant and gave birth to her son, Antony.


Two years later Miller and Penrose bought Farley Farmhouse in East Sussex, where they hosted artists and writers, many of whom she photographed in casual and intimate settings, in particular Picasso. Miller’s final piece for Vogue (July 1953) was titled “Working Guests,” and it showed such art world figures as the director of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art Alfred H. Barr, Jr., feeding the pigs on their farm. In the early 1950s Miller finished with photography and reinvented herself as a gourmet cook, hosting Surrealist dinner parties at Farley Farm, and making wildly experimental dishes, serving her guests foods such as green chicken or blue fish, the latter said to have been inspired by Miró.


After Miller died of cancer, her son and his wife discovered some 60,000 negatives, 20,000 prints and contact sheets, documents, and writings boxed up in the attic of Farley Farmhouse. From the 1980s Antony Penrose, who had known nothing of his mother’s photography career, worked to archive and promote her work, which had been largely forgotten by the art world. Through his efforts, she became the subject of several exhibitions, biographies, and monographs. Finally, and as proof that I cannot be the only one being this obsessed with Lee Miller and her life: in 2023 Lee, a film about Lee Miller’s life starring Kate Winslet, was released.


Lee Miller’s story is timeless to me: model, photographer, artist, war reporter, traveler. Miller was a liberated and emancipated woman in a time in which being liberated and emancipated was not allowed. A life lived at the very center of history and art history in its making.


A story of dedication and commitment that knows no social constraint. From a critical point of view, it is evident that Miller lived a privileged life. But money and network are important just to a certain part when you’re a woman in the first half of the 20th century; doubtlessly, the great majority of women who lived in her years had a far less fortunate fate. Even acknowledging the privilege, Miller remains a great role model. She could have called herself happy with her modeling career, or when she married the Egyptian businessman and engineer and had the “wife life”, having a husband who could provide with everything she possibly needed. Miller decided not to settle, but to follow the fire burning inside of her. Going for her passions, moving cities, and looking for more. Looking for “something greater” something “more real”, she became one of the first war reporters entering the concentration camps to document the atrocities committed there.


Miller’s story, in my opinion, speaks to millions of women and girls and has the potential to push them to follow their very own fire.

Now, tell us, who is your main role model? And why? Let’s inspire each other in the comments!


Giulia


SOURCES:

- Lee Miller; American photographer, artist, and model; Naomi Blumberg for Britannica (Lee Miller | Biography, Photography, & Facts | Britannica)

- Anthony Penrose, Le molte vite di Lee Miller, 2022

- Victoria and Albert Museum, Lee Miller (Lee Miller - Victoria and Albert Museum (vam.ac.uk))



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