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Harrowing images of concentration camps during WWII are not usually synonymous with the idea of an elegant, young, female American photojournalist, but the name Elizabeth Miller evokes a combination of all of these, and more. Throughout her life she journeyed from being a muse and model to one of the world’s most sought after fashion photographers, and later was a war correspondent for Vogue magazine. Here is a look at the astounding life of ‘Lee’ Miller.
Famous for apprenticing to surrealist photographer Man Ray in the late 1920s, Lee Miller began to experiment with photographic techniques like solarisation, a method that reversed the tonality of a photograph which together they co-invented, as well as toying with new ideas inspired by her new tutor and lover, and the surrealist movement in itself. It was these vital, playful conceptions — which she would later incorporate into her fashion photography, lending it uniquely intoxicating dimensions — which challenged the boundaries between art, fashion and photography. It was during this time that Lee served as a muse to various artists, who captured her in some of the most well-known works of surrealist art: like Man Ray’s nude photographs and John Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet.
Afterwards, Lee Miller returned to New York, successfully setting up her own studio for the next two years and contracting her brother Erik Miller to work as her assistant, who claimed that ‘Lee was very insistent on getting the highest quality’, an attribute which would make her work stand out through its aesthetic diligence and sharpness. It was also here where Miller begun to showcase her photography; first in a collaborative exhibition titled ‘Modern European Photographers’ and then in a joint exhibition with artist Charles Howard. Miller’s ability to represent herself as both American and European would later be invaluable in opening the door to various possibilities. Soon after Lee Miller married Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to live in Egypt, where she would create some of her most striking black and white photography. These photographs usually centred on contrast and landscape, portraying a sense of foreignness and distance, including the famous ‘Portrait of Space’ (1937). By the end of the decade Miller would have separated from Eloui Bey and moved back to Paris, where she was to meet the love of her life: Roland Penrose.
Lee Miller and Roland Penrose moved to his native London, where Miller applied to work for Vogue and was at first rejected, the magazine opting instead for male photographer Cecil Beaton. Through her perseverance, as well as the progressive lack of male competition due to the war, Miller was reluctantly contracted. Fashion photography at the time had to be stark and simple due to the demands of textile and resource rationing, and elegant yet modest. Miller was able to astutely combine these demands with the derelict destruction of the Blitz, cementing her work as a poetic and iconic product of its time, and a credit to her innate eye for beauty as well as her love for experimentation and perfection. Her work for Vogue went on to become a huge success, astonishing the editors, and often featured on the cover.
Progressively more politically involved, and now the new official war correspondent for Vogue, Miller begun to write and photograph wartime life and conflict — in particular travelling to and documenting what was taking place in Normandy. She covered not only the front lines but also behind, in the medical tents and hospitals, something almost unheard of for a woman at the time. However, being a female photojournalist would prove to be incredibly useful, having access to intimate feminine aspects of the war, giving her a unique insight into the untold story of women’s lives during wartime. Miller was said to have cut her hair short in order to represent women’s new working roles, seeing as many were not allowed to have long hair due to health and safety regulations, and it was this look which would become both fashionable and iconic.
Putting aside her hypochondria Miller set off to Alsace, facing the bitter conditions at the time, and witnessed the real side of the liberation as the US Army made its way through towns and villages. It was during this time that she met Dave Sherman, reporter for Life magazine who would be pivotal in helping her develop more journalistic and coherent writing, giving her a more mature and professional style. Here, her photographs and articles are not only informative and set to portray the reality and starkness of the situation, but they astoundingly retain the beauty and elegance of her contrived commercial photography, at once romantic and poetic, with her ability to capture light and shadow. In other words, the exceptional work Lee Miller produced throughout this time is a culmination of her life-long experimentation and proves an astonishing mastery of the photographic medium, especially considering the adverse conditions and deficiency of materials war photographers had access to.
After witnessing the traumatic events of the Second World War, Miller suffered the consequences of her visits to the front lines and concentration camps, which manifested themselves in depressive episodes and long-term post-traumatic stress. However, she had a child with Roland Penrose and continued to create vivid, clear and poignant works of art, many of which were never showcased and later discovered by her son Antony Penrose in the book ‘The Lives of Lee Miller’.
Currently there is a exhibition of her photography on display at the Imperial War Museum, which encompasses a robust section of her work as well as an insight into her enthralling life, humanising her work through the knowledge of her own personal struggles, and exposing her indisputable achievements.
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Rd, London, 020 7416 5000