A New York fashion model, a partner and muse to Man Ray, a fashion photographer, one of the first (and one of very few) photojournalists during the second world war, and a gourmet cook. To call Lee Miller a free spirit is an understatement. Her life was a composite of one adventure after another. “Being a great photojournalist,” she said, “is a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you.” This seemed to be her philosophy of life as well, not just photography. Never one to sit still for long, she was always looking for the next thing and that next thing was never simple, but it was definitely always exciting.
“I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside.” – Lee Miller
Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, NY in 1907. She suffered the horrific trauma of being raped at age seven by a family friend, which left her with gonorrhea and years of treatment which was painful and invasive. This experience, as well as being photographed nude by her father from the age of eight all the way through her teens, had a tremendous effect on her and dramatically shaped who she was to become. Thankfully, she was able to escape her dysfunctional family life and move to New York City when she was just 20. It was there that she had a chance encounter which was to change her life.
While attempting to cross a street in midtown Manhattan, she was abruptly pulled out of the way of an oncoming truck by publisher Condé Nast. Nast was struck by her classic beauty and immediately took her on as a model for Vogue and, before she realized it, she was on the cover. This began a 30 year relationship with the magazine, although modeling for Miller did not last long. In 1929 she posed for the first photographic ad for Kotex. This caused such a controversy that the modeling calls quickly stopped coming. It was actually fairly good timing, however, because, typical of Miller, she was becoming bored with having to stand still all day while the camera was pointed at her. She decided she wanted to try her hand at being the one taking the pictures instead, so she packed her bags and moved to Paris.
Paris during the 20s was the place to be for an artist; it was the epicenter of the art world. Miller was enthralled with Surrealism and wanted to learn from the best, and that was Man Ray. Man Ray was pushing the boundaries of photography at the time and so she went straight to his studio, knocked and introduced herself as his new student. He promptly responded that he did not take students. She ended up following him on holiday and eventually wore him down. She soon not only became his assistant, but his muse, his lover, and his partner. She eventually became known in Paris as Madame Man Ray.
Miller and Ray had an extremely turbulent relationship. She learned a lot from him, and he from her. Together they developed the technique of solarization. She became a fantastic photographer in her own right, with a great eye for spotting juxtapositions and visual jokes. She always seemed to see the world through the eyes of a Surrealist and her images garnered as much attention as Man Ray’s did. She was too independent to be tied down to one man, however. Although Man Ray believed that men should be allowed to have as many partners as they wanted, he did not believe it should be the same for women. He expected Miller to be faithful and loyal to him, whereas she saw her sexuality as separate from love (something encouraged by her therapists as she was growing up). She had many lovers which drove Ray mad with jealousy.
It was in 1932 that she met Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey. Bey, who was married, fell in love with her almost immediately and they began an affair. This new love interest, along with her boredom in Paris and worrying about losing her independence by her association with Man Ray, led to her moving back to New York. She opened up her own studio and began doing portrait and fashion work and gained a reputation as one of the best photographers in the city. Bey, who had gone back to Egypt, had not gotten over Miller. He left his wife and moved to New York to be with her. Miller, who was getting bored yet again with her routine life, gave up her studio, married Bey, and moved to Cairo. This was another phase which did not last long, however. Although she took her camera and photographed the pyramids, the people, and the desert; the day-to-day requirements of being a housewife did not appeal to her. She tried hard, but she thoroughly missed the art world she had been so accustomed to. She lasted for only a year before she grew restless and left, once again, for Paris. It was there where she met and fell in love with British Surrealist Roland Penrose. They began traveling together throughout Europe, eventually settling in London in 1939.
Some would say this was not the best of timing, given this was the start of World War II. It was, however, the adventure and excitement Miller craved. With Penrose working on his art and Miller shooting for Vogue, their studio remained open everyday during the Blitz. “It became a matter of pride that work went on,” Miller wrote in her journals. “The studio never missed a day, bombed once and fired twice. Working with the neighboring building still smoldering. The horrid smell of wet, charred wood; the stink of cordite. The firehoses still up the staircases and we had to wade barefoot to get in…. and whoever could, taking the prints and negs home to do at night if they happened to have the sacred combination of gas, electricity, and water.”
It was during the Blitz that Miller became friends with the photojournalists who were there. When America eventually entered the war, her photojournalist friends were immediately put into uniform as official war correspondents, which gave them perks of getting into the PX to buy things like cigarettes, whiskey, and Kleenex. Miller was complaining about the unfairness of this to a friend who suggested she get accredited to the army and get a uniform herself, fully expecting her just to use the uniform to get the things she was missing out on and still go on shooting fashion. Miller took the uniform very seriously, however. She immediately talked her editors at Vogue into allowing her to be their war correspondent.
At first she was assigned to women’s units, far from any fighting, but she was soon dissatisfied with that. Three weeks after D-Day, she was able to get herself assigned to a field hospital battalion in Normandy. Even being that close to the fighting wasn’t good enough for Miller, however. She went AWOL and left her assigned post to do her own thing at the frontline. Not at all afraid to get her hands dirty, she did everything with the soldiers she was with – eating, drinking, and sleeping. Her images took on a gradual change as the war went on. In the beginning, there was a touch of Surrealist humor to them, always adding something a bit unexpected. But, as things escalated and she saw more and more atrocities, her images began to reflect the horror that was around her. They were never propaganda, though. They were simple records of what she saw. Her editors were amazed at the images she came back with. Up until then, Vogue had only done fashion, so they were thrilled with the opportunity to publish photographs, as well as her stories, from the heart of the battle.
When Paris was liberated and the Germans defeated, Miller was one of the first photographers at Dachau, as well as Buchenwald. She was horrified at what she saw and sent her images straight off to Vogue with a cable reading “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE.” Although Miller was an extremely sympathetic person who loved humanity, she absolutely despised the Germans. The very same day she was at Dachau, she and another journalist, David Scherman, were given the run of Hitler’s apartment where they both slept and bathed. “I took some pictures of the place [Hitler’s residence],” Miller said, “and I also got a good night’s sleep in Hitler’s bed. I even washed the dirt of Dachau in his tub.”
When the war was officially over, Vogue assigned her to cover the post-war recovery effort in Eastern Europe. It was here that made her realize her adventures were over. She could no longer be a soldier, dodging bombs and bullets; and what she was doing was not fun. Seeing the after-effects of a war-torn Europe, children starving, people dying of disease; it was too much to wrap her head around. She was told to come back to London or she would be out of a job, so she grudgingly made the trip home. She tried getting back into fashion, but it didn’t give her the excitement she craved. She married Roland Penrose a few months before their son was born in 1947 and they bought a farm in Sussex together, which they turned into an artist’s conclave, hosting people like Picasso, Henry Moore, and Max Ernst. This did nothing to help Miller’s emotional state, however.
She seemed to get more and more depressed as time went on. It was like she had given up. Her looks were gone and her work was gone. She felt defeated. Rather than rolling over, however, she, instead, put down her camera and started to cook for all of the guests they were hosting at the farm. Miller did not just become a cook, she became a Surrealist chef – cooking foods like blue spaghetti, pink cauliflower, and gold meatloaf. She would spend hours in the kitchen, trying to get every detail just right, setting up the table as she would a photograph. She was now in control of the creation from start to finish with no editors to get in her way.
During those years, it was almost as if she wanted to forget about her previous life as a photographer. Her son, Antony Penrose, had known his mother was a photographer, but had no idea of her importance until after her death in 1977 when his wife found that Miller had left an impressive legacy in the attic. She found boxes of Miller’s journals, prints, and negatives hidden away in a corner. Since finding them, Penrose has made a career out of preserving, archiving, cataloging and sharing his mother’s work through books and a website, which, so far, only shows a fraction of what Miller accomplished in her life. She was an amazing woman who seemed to jump from one adventure to the next with great success, from model to photographer, from fashion to war, and from art to chef. She once wrote, “I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’t waste a minute all my life’ – but I know myself, now, that if I had it over again I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body, and my affection.”
All images copyright Lee Miller Archives, Roland Penrose Estate & The Penrose Collection and used with permission.