An essay exploring the many lives of one of fashion's forgotten role models by Jenny Drea
Muse, fashion Model, Writer, Photographer, War Correspondent, Surrealist, Mother - Lee Miller once described her own life as ‘a water soaked jig-saw puzzle, drunken bits that don’t match in shape or design’. Unearthing the background to this intriguing comment reveals the life of a model in the roaring twenties in New York City, a hugely influential member of an innovative artistic movement in Paris in the Thirties and a journalist and photographer of the Second World War. Perhaps these huge undertakings do not match in shape or design, however, understanding the woman who achieved such a significant influence across this wide spectrum makes clear a unique personality. In a time when female culture is so often characterised as frivolous and superficial, the story of someone so fearless and so passionate certainly has a place as a role model.
Miller began her career in front of the camera. In the space of two years working with Vogue, she had been photographed by the great photographers of her time and her portrait, drawn by artist George Lepape, even graced the magazine’s cover. While she was highly successful, her interest in photography quickly took over with her declaring she ‘would rather take pictures than be one.’ Miller moved to Paris in pursuit of her love of photography and began assisting Surrealist photographer, Man Ray. Miller became the most photographed sitter of Man Ray’s. Her charisma and inner strength enchanted him, and he spent years trying to understand her. He began dissecting her in his work - photographing body parts and facial features, treating her more like an object than a woman. This relationship with Man Ray did not define Miller, who had become a central character of the Surrealist art movement herself. She began making new discoveries of her own - inventing solarisation, the technique of Solarisation. Ultimately, it was Man Ray’s competitive nature that ended their professional relationship. Miller moved back to New York in pursuit of her own creative projects. In response, the devastated Man Ray tampered with one of his most famous pieces, a metronome made in 1923. He replaced the eye on the metronome with one cut out from a photograph of Miller. The instructions read as follows: “Cut out the eye from the photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more... With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.”
When the Second World War broke out, she was working as a fashion photographer at Vogue, but knew immediately that she wanted to work as a war journalist. In doing so, she became the only female combat photographer to follow the Allied advance through Eastern Europe. During her career, she captured some of the most tremendous events of the decade - London’s underground air- raid shelters, the siege of St Malo, the tent hospitals and frontline casualty-clearing stations in Normandy and the liberation of concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Miller also convinced editor, Audrey Withers, to allow her to write her own articles to accompany her work.
Towards the end of the War, Lee Miller and Dave Sherman, Life Magazine’s war correspondent, found Hitler’s abandoned apartment in Munich. They were staying in the apartment on the day the news was announced that Hitler had committed suicide. They photographed the interiors of the apartment for Miller’s 1945 July Vogue article, ‘Hitlermania’. The most iconic photograph from this series, taken by Sherman, shows Miller washing herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Despite the ordinary nature of the photograph, there are two elements which shock the viewer - the framed image of Adolf Hitler in the corner of the room and the black working boots in front of the bath, dirty from Miller’s visit to Dachau concentration camp the day before. Miller plays with symbols of purity, cleanliness and normality, while staging it in the home of a figure who epitomises evil, violence and inhumanity. Miller writes in her article, ‘He’d never really been alive for me until today’ - she seemed unable to believe that this destructive monster had been real, until she saw the place that showed he had once had human habits.
Sadly, in her later life, Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress, insomnia and alcoholism. This disconnect between the two parts of her life was clear in the fact that it wasn’t until after she passed away, in 1977, that her son, Antony Penrose, learned all that his mother had achieved. In a letter to her editor, a frustrated Miller wrote, “nearly all the photos I ever took have disappeared - lost in New York - thrown away by the Germans in Paris - bombed and burned in the London Blitz - and now I find Condé Nast (Vogue publisher) has just casually scrapped everything I did for them, including war pictures.” This made it difficult for her son to to put the pieces of his mother’s puzzling life back together. This led him to set up the Lee Miller Archive in 1979. Not only did he uncover the extraordinary career of photography, he also discovered the unnerving nude portraits that Miller’s father had taken of her growing up. Devastatingly, it was her son who made the most horrifying biographical discovery of all. Lee Miller had been raped at age seven and contracted an STD which required an extremely invasive and painful procedure as treatment. Did carrying these scars equip her to deal with some of the most evil human abuses in history? She admits, "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."
Throughout Miller’s life, she is subject to male fixation in a variety of ways. Whether it be when she was first scouted as a model, her role in front of her father’s lens and Man Ray’s obsession with her as a muse - they all demonstrate a fascination with her. These men are entirely dependent on her to produce their own work, and in certain cases, this seems to reach the heights of possession. This is very obvious in her assault and, in a far less violent way, her relationship with Man Ray. in a respectful and loving way, you can also see this in her son’s work. Although there is a sense of struggling and striving in her life, there is an even stronger theme of independence and freedom. At a time when a woman’s purpose was to merely facilitate the success of a man, Miller removed herself from the men in her life to do exactly the opposite. She used her creative talents and life experience to fulfil a traditionally very male role in a completely unique and genuine way. Lee Miller teaches us that an engagement with creativity enhances our connection to the world rather than stifling it. While piecing the puzzling parts of Miller’s life back together, I can declare my own obsession with her to be near complete.