Lee Miller: Affirming Her Independent Success

She might have skyrocketed to fame from modelling, but Cara Delevingne is eager to prove she is capable of far more than posing in front of a camera. Over the last few years she has branched out into acting, and at a recent interview at the Women in the World summit, she read out her own poetry and then expressed a desire to go into movie directing. But Delevingne is not the first model wanting to pursue other fields, making the latest exhibition at the Imperial War Museum rather timely. Lee Miller: A Woman’s War looks at the career of Lee Miller: model, muse and photographer.

Lee Miller in Hitler's bathtub, Hitler's apartment, Munich, Germany 1945 By Lee Miller with David E. Scherman © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, Hitler’s apartment, Munich, Germany 1945 By Lee Miller with David E. Scherman © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Miller was born in New York in 1907. At the age of 19 she was spotted by American Vogue, and she quickly became one of the most sought-after models. Perhaps due to her distinctive classical beauty, Miller drew an impressive circle of artistic friends. In 1929 she moved to Paris where she persuaded the Surrealist Man Ray to teach her photography, and soon became his lover, muse and collaborator. She met and befriended many other prominent artists here, including Picasso and Max Ernst, and also starred in Jean Cocteau’s landmark film The Blood of a Poet (1929). Miller would later marry the British artist Roland Penrose.

In the eyes of history, Miller could have easily become a mere appendage to the glamorous artists she was surrounded by. But this exhibition barely touches on this phase of her life. It wasn’t Miller’s relationship with men that made her life so extraordinary, but her own work as a photographer.

Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxiliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxiliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

The Imperial War Museum has assembled 150 of Miller’s photographs, which track her career from the inter-war years, through to her photography of war-torn Europe. When World War Two broke out in 1939, it presented Miller with an opportunity. Living in London at the time, she was able to become a photographer at British Vogue since the male photographers had been called for war service.

Miller was a skilled fashion photographer. But more interesting are her photos taken on the streets of London that document the Blitz. Her photos of Vogue models in front of bomb site and shelters, and the Vogue staff working in the basement of their office provide a fascinating insight into how the people of London – women in particular – continued working through the war.

Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Yet Miller’s most remarkable work was still to come. She was one of only four female professional photographers to be accredited as a US official war correspondent. One striking picture shows artillery spotters directing mortar fire from a room in the Hotel Ambassadeurs. This juxtaposition of war and violence in a room symbolising luxury and comfort points out the strange, almost comical, realities of war.

Miller went on to document the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The exhibition becomes rather too tame here. On display are photographs of American soldiers showing German civilians the Nazi atrocities committed at the camps, but none of the actual horrors of the camps are on display. Perhaps the curators were afraid of disturbing its visitors, but it meant that some of Miller’s most shocking photography was absent.

Nevertheless, Miller’s unexpected sympathy towards German civilians provided a poignant addition. Her photo of the corpse of Regina Liss, daughter of the treasurer of Leipzig, after she committed suicide to avoid capture by the invading American armies, is striking. Miller’s use of lighting is dramatic and flattering, creating an unnerving but beautiful image.

Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War attempted to also put the spotlight on women’s experiences during WW2, but the focus really should have only been on Miller’s photography. Her achievements as a photographer were extraordinary, and should not be restricted to only the pictures she took of women. This is not a comprehensive collection of all of Miller’s work, as a look through the Lee Miller archives will quickly show how much is not on display. As an iconic beauty and muse, Miller had a profound influence on the Surrealist movement. But as this exhibition proves, Miller was an extraordinarily brave woman, capable of far more.

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