Herstory at its fucking finest.
Anecdote, Version (a): While Lee Miller was living in New York, she found a severed breast, surgically removed during a mastectomy at the hospital where she was photographing. She took it to the studios at Vogue, set it on a dinner plate between a fork and knife, set it alight, and photographed it until she was forcefully removed from the building. This angry display was an attempt to capture her disdain for the soullessness of modelling and her dissatisfaction with her career in the fashion industry.
Anecdote, Version (b): After a friend underwent a mastectomy, Lee Miller took and hid her friend’s severed breast on a plate, under a napkin, and slipped it out of the hospital, she then took it to the Vogue office in Paris, where she put it on a plate, set it on fire and took pictures until she was told to leave. Two images were produced and mounted side-by-side. She intended the doubling to refer to two breasts and to the idea that women were perceived only as sexual attributes. Linking the breasts to the wifely duty of food preparation was a metaphor for the domestic shackles that continued to hold women back.
In 1977, when Lee Miller died, all of her possessions hidden away in the crevices of her beloved Farley Farm home, became the responsibility of her son, Anthony Penrose. As Anthony sorted through diaries and letters and negatives, the remnants of his mother’s elusive past, he found two photos of the same subject. Slightly different in composition, one considerably better lit than the other, the images were of something burning on a dinner plate. The plate, arranged on a checked place mat with cutlery laid at its sides, had a severed breast carefully positioned in its centre. The story behind this set of pictures has suffered several miss-tellings over the years. But that’s not unique when you’re recalling an anecdote about Lee Miller. In fact, there are two Lee Millers. There’s Lee Miller the muse, the beauty, the seductive model who starred in many a surrealists’ wet dream, the mythical creature. Then there’s Lee Miller, the woman, a real person who suffered heartache, a mother, a phenomenal mind and artistic soul, someone who saw warfare first hand and never quite got over it.
After I saw Man Ray’s Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I wasn’t particularly struck by the way Lee was pigeonholed in reviews of the collection (which she frequents in). Muse, beauty, lover, blah. It’s not like our Lee is the first woman to have lost her legacy because she had the audacity to shag someone who was also influential. What I was struck by, however, is how little she’s revered by the fashion industry, her own industry. Miller was an official war correspondent for British Vogue throughout the 1940s. Something unusual and pretty extraordinary in itself, something that hasn’t been repeated since and likely never will be. This affront started when I saw a piece about Man Ray in le Topshop blog. Now I’m not daft, I understand that when women are browsing for clothes they can’t afford, the sight of burning surgical tissue probably isn’t au fait with “buy me, or your life will be pathetic and lonely”. But while I fully accept that their angle on Lee is going to be somewhat superficial; describing her as Man Ray’s “stunning lover”, with no reference to her own work as a photographer, well it’s an abomination of gargantuan proportions. Topshop: she was a war correspondent for your holy grail, comprenez-vogue? But even in Vogue.com’s Fifteen Years of Vogue.com, Fifteen Influential Women, her years as a reporter for their publication came after muse and beauty in her list of credentials. Well, we love Lee. I love Lee. She was feisty and witty and completely underestimated and she had all the inner-turmoil I require in an artist. So here’s Lee Miller: The War Years.
Lee’s Father introduced her and her brothers to photography when they were children. She spent some of this time posing as his model, and the rest learning the technical aspects of taking a masterful picture.
When she was nineteen and living in New York, Lee was stopped from walking out in front of a car by Condé Nast, cofounder of Vogue. This launched her modelling career, and led to the relationship with Vogue editors that would later enable her to travel throughout Europe, documenting WWII.
When war broke in 1939, Lee had just moved to England with her then future husband, Roland Penrose, and they were living in Hampstead, London. A few months later she found herself at the very heart of The Blitz, which she used to explore different artistic approaches in her photography. Having already modelled in the 1920s, and become a noted celebrity and fashion photographer in the 1930s, her love and knowledge of photography facilitated an easy transformation from unofficial war photographer in London to accredited war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications.
The earliest of her war images feature in Grim Glory, a collection of pictures taken by various photographers, depicting The Blitz. The book was targeted at American civilians, and attempted to share with them the civilian experience across the pond. The foreword claims that Miller’s photos were taken for the book, when in actual fact Miller had been taking them as a personal sideline to her fashion assignments for British Vogue, which she felt were irrelevant to the current situation. Dedicated to Winston Churchill and the indomitable spirit of the British people, Grim Glory pays particular attention to the ordinary, everydayness of the Home Front, something which dominated Lee’s work thematically and probably stemmed from her time spent in surrealist circles.
Typically, her images are less heroic and patriotic than traditional, contemporary depictions of the war. While other photographers were busy producing propagandist pieces to boost morale, Lee pursued the mundane, against a backdrop of isolation and destruction that the bombing provided. Many of these first pictures are scant on people, making them look apocalyptic and haunting. Those which do have people in resonate her interest in portraiture. Most photographs of The Blitz, and the war in general, capture a moment, whereas Lee’s subjects would look straight at the camera, making eye contact with the viewer and showing their cooperation with the photographer.
Lee’s chronicling of the Home Front was unique in two ways. Firstly, her fixation with domesticity was particularly apt for the exclusively civilian, predominantly female viewership that Vogue had. Taking pictures of women and children’s daily lives alongside the despair and carnage of The Blitz not only brought a new dimension to war imagery, but one that was a distinct reality for those reading the magazine. This along with the fact that Lee’s work punctuated pages of makeup tips and fashion spreads, something which was now ostentatiously superficial, was likely to impact women more than the posters and that littered their streets. Secondly, while any unstaged images of the frontline were immediately shocking, the everydayness of Lee’s images meant the viewer was likely to look at them a lot longer, and really study them before they realised how truly devastating they were.
By 1942, Lee was an accredited correspondent and her assignments were taking her to the continent where she began photographing actual combat. During her dispatches for Vogue, Lee covered a hospital evacuation in Normandy immediately after the D-Day Landings, Paris after the Liberation, the German surrender in Loire, the first use of napalm in an allied attempt to retrieve St Malo, battles in Alsace and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald. Her use of the ordinary never wained, and throughout these events many of her photos continued to display the isolation and oddities of war, the complexities, the ambiguities, as opposed to the casualties. As the war approached an end, Lee was working very closely with an American photographer named David E Scherman. It was with David that Lee produced her most iconic image Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub.
On April 30th 1945, at the time that Hitler was reported to have killed himself, Lee and David were living in his abandoned city apartment. They’d arrived in Munich to cover the American Liberation, but after discovering the Führer’s home, decided to stay and take pictures. The image of Lee washing in Hitler’s tub, assumedly with his flannel, has come to define not just her partnership with David, but her photography career and in some ways, her personality. It wasn’t uncommon for Lee to place herself inside her compositions of the war. She had an astute sense of how everyone, including herself, were complicit in the horrors that the conflict had created. Rumours exist that David posed in the bathtub too, but it’s the picture where Lee is the subject that characterised the pair’s stay at Hitler’s pad. Obviously, in part, because she was stunning, but that’s not what makes the photo so poignant. Most notably, is that Lee is the personification of the Aryan ideal. She says herself that, “I looked like an angel on the outside, that’s how people saw me. But I was like a demon inside. I had known all the suffering of the world since I was a very little girl.” This, along with the shower-cord hanging behind her (a subtle nod to the gas chambers), the themes of purity and cleansing, the fact that she was an intruder in a powerful man’s home, the portrait of the man himself placed precariously on the rim of the bath, the fact that Lee and David had come straight from the liberation of the concentration camps, and she was effectively washing away the atrocities of his regime in his home. All of it has cemented the image’s symbolic status.
When Lee came back to Britain at the end of the war, returning to her old career felt like an anti climax. Going back to the kind of assignments she’d been working on before was unfulfilling. Drab. Unworthy even? Added to which she was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, going through severe periods of clinical depression, anxiety and drinking heavily. The things she’d seen during her years as a correspondent, particularly at the concentration camps, plagued her for the rest of her life. The contrast of what the war did for her art and what it did to her mind is so sad. Like many, she rarely talked about the war, her drinking spiralled. In an interview last year, describing why he’s dedicated his life to garnering the recognition his mother’s work deserves, Anthony said:
“I had only known my mother as a useless drunk – after the war her suffering from post traumatic stress disorder caused her to become a depressive and an alcoholic. She was very difficult to those close to her but when I began to tell my father about the information I was finding on her life he was as astonished as I was. There were some very emotional moments when we wished we had known about her war experiences because then we could have been more understanding towards her.”
What we know about Lee’s career now has only been revealed in the years since her death. She never did much to promote her own work and those she worked with or for seem happy to gloss over her significance. Why ruin a perfectly good portrait with a three dimensional personal? And what we do know is all down to her son. But Anthony’s pursuit for the real story of Lee’s life, not the story of the mythical creature his mother is presented as, is an understandable one, a personal one. He didn’t need a muse, or a lover. He needed a mother.