Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Lee Miller

” It seems to me that women have a bigger chance at success in Photography than men… Women are quicker and more adaptable than men. And I think they have an intuition that helps them understand personalities more quickly than men.” – Lee Miller

Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her father,Theodore Miller, was a mechanical engineer and an avid amateur photographer. He introduced his daughter to the craft of photography, teaching her the basics using his Kodak Brownie camera.

Theodore also took regular portraits of Miller throughout her early life. Along with taking photographs, she and her brothers enjoyed tinkering with machines to learn how things worked, and she had a mostly pleasant and privileged childhood in an upper-middle-class and progressive household. Her youth was marred, however, when she was raped by the guest of a family friend when she was seven. Scholars have frequently viewed her later photography through a lens tinted by this early trauma.

As a female artist, Lee Miller refused to be defined by her gender, beauty or age. Not content to be limited in her personal life or artistic practice, she was a model and muse to several of the great surrealists, a photographer, actor and one of the only female war correspondents to be credentialed during WWII.

She was a fiercely independent and bohemian woman when society was still deeply restricted by traditional gender roles, and her life and work is a staggeringly varied, innovative, and extraordinary story.

Miller’s artistic practice was grounded in the medium of photography, and her unique visual style documented the sights and landscapes she encountered on her travels around the world in a manner influenced by a Surrealist eye for the uncanny or strange. She also maintained a close relationship with many other artists, particularly those resident in pre-war Paris.

She performed in films by Jean Cocteau, was painted by Picasso and was muse to Man Ray during their time living together. After her experiences as a war correspondent she retired to her farm in Sussex (England) and was largely unremembered as an artist until after her death, when her son Antony Penrose rediscovered her archive. Through his establishment of the Lee Miller Archive she then began to be acknowledged as an important artist in relation to both the Surrealist movement and the development of photography as an art form.

Solarised photograph of woman wearing corset in Vogue studio 1942

Miller’s photographic style combines techniques and formal qualities of Surrealism, such as the recontextualisation of the everyday, carefully manipulated framing to force new perspectives, and the unusual juxtaposition of objects and concepts.
Fashion model standing next to flying boat in Augusta Harbour, Sicily
Her portrait of the Great Pyramid at Giza (Egypt), for example, is taken from the summit and consists only of its huge triangular shadow across the town below. It is undoubtedly a landscape dominated by the pyramid, but we do not see it – a decidedly surreal prospect.
This Surrealist-influenced and irreverent photographic style, particularly as it began to be deployed by Miller in her coverage of the Blitz in London, had a lasting impact on the world of fashion photography.
Her work that appeared in British Vogue during the war often included models wearing finery amongst the destruction and dilapidation caused by bombing, a juxtaposition that has now become a familiar high-fashion trope. The commonplace image of beautiful models wearing high fashion in ruins, junkyards or against other incongruous backdrops derives significantly from Miller’s pioneering work.
Miller’s life and work are almost inseparable. Like many Surrealists her mode of living was as much a rejection of convention as her artistic work. Her bohemian circle, particularly in Paris, was hedonistic and free in its attitudes to money, sex, marriage and respectability. This was doubly significant for the women who were part of the group, for whom this rejection of conventional society was made even more complete by the rigid expectations of their gender. Her life revolved around her artistic practice, and her artistic practice documented and reflected her extraordinary life in great detail.
The ease with which her own artistic practice was forgotten until its rediscovery by her son raises questions about pervasive narratives of male genius, and the minimisation of female contributions to the development of key artistic movements like Surrealism.
She was both muse and artist in her own right, yet was largely overlooked in favour of her male mentors and collaborators. Her collaborations with Man Ray were often credited to him alone, for example, and their eventual break stemmed from Ray’s jealousies of Lee’s work, but more particularly, her relationships.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s