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What We're Reading: The Incredible Life and Art of Lee Miller

By David Schonauer   Wednesday April 7, 2021


She modeled for Vogue.

She posed for Man Ray.

And, working with American photojournalist David E. Scherman, she took some of the most famous images of World War II–era atrocities. (She also took a bath in Adolf Hitler’s tub.) But, as Art in America noted recently, when Lee Miller died at the age of 70 in 1977, her name was known to a select few experts in the art world.

“That all changed when Miller’s son, Anthony Penrose, uncovered a vast archive of his late mother’s work in an attic,” added AIA, “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.”

This July, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida will stage a show focused on her contributions to the Surrealist art movement — just part of the legacy of one of the most intriguing people in the history of photography.

“Miller once spoke of a ‘restlessness’ that defined her career, and that may account for the variety of roles she occupied,” noted AIA. Her freewheeling sensibility was perhaps most evident when she posed for Scherman in Hitler’s tub in Berlin, as the Third Reich fell. (Just hours after the photograph was taken, Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide in Hitler's bunker in Berlin.)

“The image can be read in more ways than one—as both a moment of victory over a dictator and a reclamation of power by a long-objectified muse,” noted AIA.

Before she became  one of the very few female combat photographers embedded with Allied troops in World War II — her dispatches appeared in Vogue — Miller led a very different life. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907,  Miller’s childhood was marked by trauma. Her mother became ill when Miller was seven, and, according to a 2019 Artspace article, she was sent to live with family friends in Brooklyn. There she was raped by the family’s son and left with a venereal disease. Her father, an amateur photographer, began taking pictures of her.

“While this may have primed her for her career as a muse, the fact that her father asked her to pose nude from the ages of eight through twenty, was suspicious to say the least,” noted Artspace.

It was in 1927 that Miller met publisher Condé Nast, who discovered her on the street in Manhattan. That same year her face appeared on the cover of Vogue in an illustration. In 1928 Edward Steichen photographed her for the magazine. Wanting to become a photographer herself, she moved to Paris, at age 24, and became Man Ray’s assistant. The professional relationship also led to a romantic one. “Under the Surrealist’s apprenticeship, she was instrumental in inventing Man Ray’s “solarization” photographic technique,” noted AIA.

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

Miller’s later exploits as a war correspondent helped "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,” noted AIA.

Lee Miller, Normandy, France, 1944.

“I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town and every area isn’t rich with them,” Miller once wrote to an editor. After documenting the horrors of the Nazi’s Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, she wrote, “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE!” In June 1945, American Vogue printed Miller’s death camp photos, along with a direct message: “Believe It.”

Her images, noted AIA, “acted as cold, hard evidence for disbelieving American and British audiences, who saw many written accounts of the war as propaganda.”

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