Profiles in Black & White: Lee Miller

In Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on October 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm

“(Being a great photojournalist is) a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you.”

Lee Miller

Lee Miller by Man Ray

Lee Miller by Man Ray

It is apt that this week we feature Lee Miller with her teacher, lover, colleague and beneficiary of her inspiration, Man Ray. After all, their works were intrinsically linked for an early part of their prospective careers. However, it would be myopic to think that Miller’s time with Man Ray encompassed everything that she would produce. While Man Ray’s work continued to dabble within the worlds of fashion, Surrealism and Dadaism after their separation, Miller would explore new grounds that deviated much from her initial endeavors. Unfortunately, the price of new successes would take a heavy mental toll on her later in life.

Miller’s amorphous career began in front of the camera, rather than behind it. Born near the turn of the 20th century in New York State, Miller began modeling – along with her brothers – for her father’s photographic experiments early in her life. Unfortunately, her early life was plagued by sex abuse and inappropriate nudes taken by her father. A chance encounter with Vogue founder Condé Nast changed things, as he brought her into the fashion world in the twenties. She was highly sought out as a model, working under the careful eye of photographers such as Edward Steichen and Arnold Genthe. But before long her interest in modeling waned, leaving her to desire greater control over her artistic endeavors. To accomplish this, she sought out Man Ray in Paris.

After becoming entrenched as Man Ray’s lover and assistant in 1929, Miller took an active role within the surrealist movement, creating friendships with fellow artists and writers that lasted far beyond her relationship with Man Ray. Coinciding with her surrealist work with Man Ray was her work in fashion photography. Not only did she make a name for herself behind the camera, she often took Man Ray’s fashion assignments (despite his still getting credit), which allowed him to focus on different endeavors.

The thirties were a period of frequent restlessness for Miller. Upon her break from France and Man Ray in 1932, Miller returned to the U.S. and formed her own commercial portrait studio with her brother Erik. Two years later, she married Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey and gave up her studio. She would do no professional photography at this time (though she did manage to create some personal works of surrealism). Three years after that, Miller was once more bored with her surroundings, left Bey, and returned to Paris. In Paris she met surrealist painter Robert Penrose, who would provide her with respite once more, and later become her husband.

US Tank and Civilians, 1945

US Tank and Civilians, 1945

With the outbreak of World War II, Miller’s career made a departure to the world of photojournalism. She refused to leave London – where she was living with Penrose at the time – despite the bombing which were occurring. It wasn’t long before she herself the new war photographer for Vogue magazine and accredited by the US Army. A month after D-Day, she was back in France, capturing images of concentration camps, the liberation of Paris and the use of napalm. She even modeled one more time, in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler. Her frequent partner, LIFE correspondent David E. Sherman, took the picture on the day Hitler committed suicide.

After the war, Miller continued to photograph for Vogue for two more years. She had a son with Penrose by the name of Antony in 1947 and bought the Farley Farm in East Sussex 1949. The Penrose/Miller clan played host to numerous artists for years. Also at this time, Miller departed the life of a photographer for the life a gourmet cook. But the tolls of war bequeathed themselves on Miller like they did so many soldiers. She suffered from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress, never quite able to fully shake them for the rest of her life. Alcoholism compounded the issues. She died in 1977 due to cancer. At the time, she was still less than well known in the art world. But when her son found a cache of thousands of negatives, he would have the foundation for forming the Lee Miller Archive. It is mostly through his work that Miller is now properly appreciated. Antony Penrose published the first biography of Miller in 1985.

Lee Miller Photographs

  1. […] 1929 he met Lee Miller and photographed her nude which would have shocked the French bourgeoisie at the time.  He was […]

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