In the 1920s, modernism met its equal when surrealism entered the scene. Favoring experimentation, surrealism seduced the most avant-garde artists of modern art, Salvador Dalí and André Breton in the lead. While most of these pioneering figures would continue to push the boundaries of movement throughout their careers, model-turned-photographer Lee Miller made history when she put her previous experiences to good use in a new professional activity: war documentation.
As a war correspondent, Miller saw – and expertly filmed – the realities of World War II, from the horrors of Nazi concentration camps to the liberation of Paris. While one might wonder how an American with an experimental art background ended up on the front line in Europe, Miller’s journey has been marked by twists and turns, culminating in a one-of-a-kind career worthy of a surrealist.
Get into fashion
On April 23, 1907, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. With an amateur photographer father, Miller was exposed to creativity at an early age, which prompted her to pursue studies in lighting, costume and design in Paris at age 18 and to study fine art in Manhattan a year later.
While Miller had apparently moved to New York to hone her craft, her plans changed when she ran into a new opportunity, literally. According to Phillip Prodger in rayman | Lee Miller: Partners of Surrealism, the hustle and bustle of city life unexpectedly made Miller a supermodel, as she was “discovered when Condé Nast saved her from being run over on the street”.
A vogue covergirl before the age of 20, Miller had quickly hijacked her artistic aspirations. However, after two years as the city’s most wanted model, her fashion career came to an abrupt halt when her famous face was used to advertise feminine hygiene products. Following a sex scandal that saw Miller ostracized, she quit the fashion world and shifted gears again, this time focusing on photography.
In 1929, Miller returned to art, continuing her education as a student at the Art Students League in New York. While studying Renaissance art – a genre the 22-year-old had quickly grown weary of – in Italy, she made the momentous decision to pursue a more modern art form: photography. Taking advantage of her proximity to Paris – the hub of modernism and the homeland of the surrealists – she took a train to the capital and went to the studio of Man Ray, who she hoped would agree to guide her.
Unfortunately, no one answered the door. Defeated, Miller headed for the Drunken Boat, a nearby bar and the site of another life-changing encounter. In a 1975 interview, she explained that she was “drowning [her] heartbreaks” when Man Ray appeared at the local haunt. “He came over and said hello. And then the boss said, “It’s Man Ray.” The man said, ‘I don’t have any students.’ He said he was leaving for Biarritz the next day, and I said, “Me too.”
The ensuing relationship between Miller and Man Ray was both professional and romantic. They worked on photographic projects together, with Miller often modeling the avant-garde compositions they planned together. Although her starring role in these pictures led to a legacy largely focused on her role as a “muse,” she put her weight behind their partnership.
In fact, many of the commercial shots attributed to Man Ray (from 1920 to 1940 he produced haute couture photographs for vanity lounge, French vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar) were in fact Miller’s work, and the use of solarization – a tonal technique central to Man Ray’s work – is said to have been his idea. Of course, as a teacher, Man Ray helped Miller improve his technique and perfect his processes. “Although Ray was approximately seventeen years older than Miller,” Prodger says, “during the critical years of their partnership, their influence was mutual.”
By 1930, Miller had set up a studio in Paris, where she designed her own surrealist portfolio characterized by an interest in the absurdity of the real world. Two years later, however, she and Man Ray separated. After their relationship ended, Miller returned to New York. Man Ray, meanwhile, remained in Paris, where he mourned the relationship through symbolic sculptures and poignant paintings for years to come.
Back in New York, Miller found his place. Although she soon established a successful commercial photography studio and her work was featured in exhibitions, including her first solo exhibition, she did not stay in the Big Apple for long. In 1934, she moved to Egypt, where she married businessman and engineer Aziz Eloui Bey. In 1937, however, she returned to Paris, where she met Roland Penrose, the man she would marry a decade later.
At the start of World War II, Miller was living with Penrose in London. “Defying the orders of the United States Embassy to return to America,” explains the artist’s estate, “she took up work as a freelance photographer on vogue,becoming the magazine’s official war correspondent.
Her work as a war photographer began with the Blitz and for years, with US Army accreditation, she captured key events like the first use of napalm and the Battle of Alsace. She also documented the atrocities of the Holocaust, including a graphic overview of Bergen-Belsen, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, as a means of revealing the realities of war to the outside world. “It would have been incredibly easy for her to disappear in America and not go to war.” Penrose explained. “But she didn’t. I think she wanted to stay and try to do something. And nobody was going to give her a gun or a plane or anything useful like that, so she used her camera.
Her best-known work as a war correspondent, however, came in 1945. Hours after Adolf Hitler’s suicide, she and Life correspondent David E. Scherman entered her apartment and staged a heartbreaking photoshoot in her bathtub. “I had his address in my pocket for years,” she explained nonchalantly.
Life after the war
After the war, Miller returned to England. Unfortunately, like countless others on the front line during World War II, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which likely contributed to her decision to give up photography for a career in gourmet cooking.
In 1949, she and Penrose bought Farley Farmhouse, a house in East Sussex, England. Today, this site serves as a museum dedicated to its important inhabitants, their work and the modernist collection they amassed over 35 years. Featuring pieces by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and even Man Ray, these collections are sure to impress. However, it is Miller’s legacy that makes this farm a particularly special site for lovers of fashion, art and photojournalism. In fact, Miller’s Sussex home is normally open to the public.
Lee Miller Archives: Website | Facebook | instagram
My Modern Met has granted permission to feature photos from the Lee Miller Archives.
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