The life of American surrealist Lee Miller – from her traumatic childhood to the horrors she encountered as a war correspondent – was as extraordinary as her photographs. By Sophie Cunningham.
Surrealist Lee Miller
“I’d rather take a picture than be one,” Lee Miller once said, during the height of her fame as a fashion model. That line is now a well-chosen quote on display at the extraordinary survey of her photographs showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. It’s a must-see not just for lovers of photography but for anyone interested in the history of the mid-20th century – a century to which Miller had a front-row seat. The images she created, her life choices, the moments when choice was taken from her: all these seem definitive of the times. She both made them and was made by them.
Miller died in 1977. After her death, her son, Antony Penrose, discovered more than 60,000 negatives in the attic. He’d known she had worked as a photographer, but in frank interviews he did when promoting the book he wrote about Miller’s life, The Lives of Lee Miller, he admitted they had a poor relationship and he’d largely dismissed her as a drunk. It was through the photos, and when setting up the Lee Miller Archives, that he came to know her.
Miller herself seemed to encourage this diminishment of her life. When anyone asked her about her time as a war correspondent for Vogue magazine, she would say she’d done nothing of importance and change the topic to the more glamorous 1930s. She largely abandoned photography. Her creative outlet in her final years – gourmet cooking – was another skill that required high relational intelligence and an eye for detail. With hindsight it is clear that Miller, like many war correspondents and photographers, suffered from PTSD. It’s also clear she was brilliant.
Biographical facts seem crucial to a viewing of her work. Miller was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. When she was seven years old she was raped by a family acquaintance, with serious physical and emotional consequences. From the age of eight her father photographed her, often when she was naked. At 19 years old, she was crossing the street near her apartment on West 48th Street in New York when she was pulled out of the path of a car by Condé Nast, the owner of Vogue. She became a successful fashion model.
In 1929 Miller decided to pursue her own photography. She went to Paris and asked the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray to mentor her. They became lovers, though Ray was unnerved when Miller embraced the sexual libertarian lifestyle enjoyed by (male) surrealists. Their romantic relationship was relatively short-lived, though their friendship was not.
A keystone of surrealist philosophy is the importance of serendipity, yet Miller’s discovery of solarisation – the photographic technique Man Ray became famous for – is described as “accidental”. If, that is, it’s referenced by art historians at all. Several examples of Miller’s own experimentation with solarisation are included in the exhibition.
Some time during her first year in Paris, Miller created the violent, haunting work Untitled [Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 and 2]. She convinced a surgeon to give her breasts that had been removed during a mastectomy and took them to the French Vogue studio, where she took two photos “before the horrified staff told her to leave”. This single work says so much about Miller’s strength of spirit, her ability to compartmentalise and her understanding of the many ways in which she had been violated both physically and by the camera from a young age. It literally took my breath away.
By 1930 she had opened her own commercial studio. The few examples of that work that are included in this exhibition suggest just how good she was at it. In 1934 Miller married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live with him in Cairo. During this time she took many of the surrealist images she’s become known for, such as the arresting photo taken of the desert through a torn fly screen, Portrait of Space (Al Bulwayeb, Egypt, 1937).
Miller took many fine, unusual and technically breathtaking photos. She displays her political sensibility and plays with perspective in stunning ways, as you see in a photo she took of geese, barbed wire and a balloon, titled Eggceptional Achievement (London, 1940). It’s a shame the nature of the photos’ late discovery means we are looking at modern C-type (digital) prints. Seeing photos Miller had developed herself would have added even greater depth and perhaps tonal variety to a superb body of work.
In 1939 Miller left Egypt for London to be with her lover, the writer and surrealist artist Roland Penrose, who was to become her second husband. She also became a freelance photographer at Vogue. By December 1942 Miller was a correspondent accredited to the United States Army, working with Life magazine photographer David E. Scherman. In 1943 she took a photo of him wearing a gasmask and standing under an enormous umbrella. That photo, like one she took in 1940 of masked Vogue models, Fire Masks (Downshire Hill, London, 1941), captures how labelling her work as surrealism is reductive. Miller’s unique eye created works of more texture, depth, horror and humour than staged surrealist works.
However, like most surrealists, Miller provokes – most infamously in the photos she and Scherman took of each other in Hitler’s bathtub in 1945 on the day of his suicide. They used their boots, still muddy from Dachau, to defile the room further. The photo of Miller also reinforces something we notice as early as 1930, in her famous Nude bent forward: in Miller’s oeuvre, nudity is not sexy. It’s aesthetic. It makes a statement. In Scherman’s Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, the line between what is considered surrealism and reportage all but disappears. The times themselves were surreal, uncanny. Her photos were capturing day-to-day reality – something that really struck me when looking at Bad burns case at 44th Evacuation Hospital (Bricqueville, Normandy, France, 1944).
Female war correspondents weren’t allowed on the frontline but Miller ended up trapped at Normandy during the Battle of Saint-Malo. They then travelled with, and documented, the Allied forces as they liberated France. Here her extraordinary access and connections led to images only Miller could take, such as Picasso and Lee Miller in his studio, Liberation of Paris (1944). The look on Picasso’s face suggests how charismatic she was. The exhibition includes photos of Colette, Jean Cocteau, René Magritte, Charlie Chaplin, Man Ray, Jean Dubuffet and a memorably joyous Miró at the zoo [Hornbill] (London Zoo, 1964).
It’s impossible to know exactly why Miller abandoned photography work in the years after the war – though PTSD, alcoholism, and postnatal depression all played a role – but it was clearly impossible to have taken the photos she took in 1945 and remain unchanged. Where to go after witnessing and photographing such horrors? And how to come to terms with the mode of the photos’ publication in Vogue? As Antony Penrose put it, “The grim skeletal corpses of Buchenwald are separated by a few thicknesses of paper from delightful recipes to be prepared by women dressed in sumptuous gowns.”
Mindful of that problem, Miller sent the devastating photos she’d taken at the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps with a note to Vogue’s editor, saying, “I implore you to believe this is true.” Photos of dead deportees lie beside the railway track in Dachau; a dead SS prison guard floats in a sunlit canal; released prisoners in striped prison uniforms stand beside a heap of bones from bodies burned in the crematorium at Buchenwald. These photos are swiftly followed by the devastating Nearly all these children will die (Wilhelminen Hospital, Vienna, 1945).
It is impossible not to think of the current conflict in Gaza when looking at these photos. Children being left to die, bodies in piles: the long shadow cast by the middle of the 20th century and the seeming impossibility of good rising out of the ashes of war.
Surrealist Lee Miller is showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art until February 25.
BALLET The Nutcracker
His Majesty’s Theatre, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, November 17–December 10
Chapel Off Chapel, Naarm/Melbourne, until November 26
LITERATURE Phillip Island Festival of Stories
Venues throughout Bunurong Land/Phillip Island, Victoria, November 18-19
THEATRE Welcome to Your New Life
Space Theatre, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, until November 25
FESTIVAL MELT Festival 2023
Brisbane Powerhouse, Meanjin, until November 26
CULTURE I Am the People
White Rabbit Gallery, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until November 12
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "The shadow of war".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Letters & Editorial