“The personality of the photographer, his approach, is really more important than his technical genius – Lee Miller
Lee MILLER was an American photographer and photojournalist born in April 1907 in in Poughkeepsie, New York. From a young age, her father often used her as a model for his amateur photography.
In her childhood, Miller experienced issues in her formal education, being expelled from almost every school she attended whilst living in the Poughkeepsie area. At the age of eighteen, Miller moved to Paris to study lighting, costume and design at the Ladislas Medgyes’ School of Stagecraft. She returned to New York a year later and joined an experimental drama programme at Vassar College, taught by Hallie Flanagan, a pioneer of “experimental theatre”. Soon after, Miller left home at the age of 19 to enroll in the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan to study life drawing and painting.
Miller’s father introduced her and her brothers to photography at an early age. She was his model and he also showed her technical aspects of the art.
Aged 19 she nearly stepped in front of a car on a Manhattan street but was prevented by Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue. This incident helped launch her modelling career. She appeared in a blue hat and pearls in a drawing by George Lepape on the cover of Vogue on March 15, 1927. Her look was exactly what Vogue’s then editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase was looking for to represent the emerging idea of the “modern girl.”
For the next two years, she was one of the most sought-after models in New York, photographed by leading fashion photographers including Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, Nickolas Muray, Arnold GENTHE and George Hoyningen-Huene. A photograph of Miller by Steichen was used to advertise Kotex menstrual pads without her consent, effectively ending her career as a fashion model. She was hired by a fashion designer in 1929 to make drawings of fashion details in Renaissance paintings but in time grew tired of this and found photography more efficient.
Later that year, she went to Paris with the intention of apprenticing herself to the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Although, at first, he insisted that he did not take students, Miller soon became his model and collaborator (announcing to him, “I’m your new student”), as well as his lover and muse.
She succeeded and later established her own photography studio often taking over Ray’s fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. They collaborated so closely that photographs taken by Miller during this period are credited to Man Ray. Together with Ray, she rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation, through an accident. One of Miller’s accounts involved a mouse running over her foot, causing her to switch on the light in mid-development.
Miller and Ray made the technique a distinctive visual signature, with examples being Ray’s solarised portrait of Miller taken in Paris circa 1930, and Miller’s portraits of fellow Surrealist Meret Oppenheim (1930), Miller’s friend Dorothy Hill (1933), and the silent film star Lilian Harvey (1933).
Amongst Miller’s circle of friends were Pablo Picasso and fellow Surrealists Paul Éluard and Jean Cocteau, the latter of whom was so mesmerised by Miller’s beauty that he coated her in butter and transformed her into a plaster cast of a classical statue for his film, The Blood of a Poet (1930). During a dispute with Ray, regarding the attribution of their co-produced work, Ray is said to have slashed an image of Miller’s neck with a razor.
After leaving Paris in 1932, she returned to New York in 1932, and again set up her own portrait and commercial photography studio studio which ran for 2 years and was highly successful. Clients of the Lee Miller Studio included BBDO, Henry Sell, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Saks Fifth Avenue, I. Magnin and Co., and Jay Thorpe. During 1932, Miller was included in the Modern European Photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition International Photographers with László Moholy-Nagy, Cecil Beaton, Margaret Bourke-White, Tina Modotti, Charles Sheeler, Ray, and Edward Weston.
In 1933, Julien Levy gave Miller the only solo exhibition of her life.
She later closed the studio when she married a wealthy Egyptian businessman Aziz ELOUI BEY and went to live with him in Cairo, Egypt. She became fascinated by long range desert travel and photographed desert villages and ruins.
During a visit to Paris in 1937 she met Roland Penrose, the Surrealist artist who was to become her second husband, and travelled with him to Greece and Romania. In 1939 she left Egypt for London shortly before World War II broke out. She moved in with Roland PENROSE and defying orders from the US Embassy to return to America she took a job as a freelance photographer on Vogue.
At the outbreak of World War II, Miller was living in Hampstead in London when the bombing of the city began. After ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the US, in 1944 she became a correspondent accredited to the US Army, and teamed up with Time Life photographer David E. SCHERMAN. She followed the US troops overseas on D Day + 20. She was probably the only woman combat photo-journalist to cover the front line war in Europe and among her many exploits she witnessed the siege of St Malo, the Liberation of Paris, the fighting in Luxembourg and Alsace, the Russian/American link up at Torgau, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. She billeted in both Hitler and Eva Brauns houses in Munich, and photographed Hitlers house Wachenfeld at Berchtesgaden in flames on the eve of Germanys surrender. Penetrating deep into Eastern Europe, she covered harrowing scenes of children dying in Vienna, peasant life in post war Hungary and finally the execution of Prime Minister Lazlo Bardossy.
After the war she continued to contribute to Vogue for a further 2 years, covering fashion and celebrities. In 1947, she married Roland PENROSE and contributed to his biographies of PICASSO, MIRÓ, Man RAY and TÀPIES. Some of her portraits of famous artists like PICASSO are the most powerful portraits of the individuals ever produced, but it is mainly for the witty Surrealist images which permeate all her work that she is best remembered.
Miller’s work has served as inspiration for Gucci’s Frida Giannini, Ann Demeulemeester and Alexander McQueen.
Lee Miller died at Farleys in 1977.