Petit Journal #44: The Art of Lee Miller
21 October 2008 – 4 January 2009

Exhibition curator: Mark Haworth-Booth

Lee Miller is a legendary figure of the 20th century. Famed for her beauty and for the freedom with which she lived, she also left a bright mark on the art of her day. This exhibition sets out to focus on her artistic career, a career all too often overshadowed by the images of Miller’s striking presence in the works of other artists. For the reality is that this independent and determined woman soon became a dedicated photographer, exploring nearly all the aspects of the medium in the career that is showcased here, from Surrealist experiment to fashion, from images of her travels in Egypt to the photographs she took during the Second World War and the Liberation.
This exhibition of some 140 prints, the first on this scale in France, offers a comprehensive retrospective of the photography of this enigmatic figure who was by turns model, lover and assistant of Man Ray, Surrealist muse and war correspondent.

Early career

Born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, as a child Elisabeth Miller modelled for her father, an amateur photographer. In 1927 she moved to New York City, where, in front of the lenses of Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene and Edward Steichen, she soon became a star model for Vogue.
In summer 1929 Lee Miller settled in Paris. There she met and immediately charmed Man Ray. She became his companion but also his student and model, and eventually a true artistic partner. She continued to pose while learning photographic technique. For some fashion shots, she worked on both sides of the lens. The influence of Surrealism led her to try out solarisation, a technique developed and popularized by Man Ray, as in the Solarised Portrait of Unknown Woman (1930). In 1931 she played the roles of the mouth, the sculpture and fate playing cards in Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet).

New York

Lee Miller left Man Ray in 1932. On arriving in New York in October, she told a journalist, “I’d rather take a photograph than be one.” Photography, she said, was a practice she enjoyed and it was well suited “to the rhythm and spirit of the age.” In partnership with her younger brother, Erik, also a photographer, she set up the Lee Miller Studio at 8 East 48th Street. Their clients included Vogue, advertising agencies and also fashion houses and cosmetics firms.
Lee Miller also accepted portrait commissions from Warner Brothers and theatrical companies, and worked for Creative Art, where Alfred Stieglitz was on the editorial board. Part of a new generation of talented photographers, her reputation would soon grow thanks to gallerist Julien Levy, who in January 1933 put on her first solo exhibition in his space at 602 Madison Avenue.

Travels in the 1930 s

In June 1934 Lee Miller married a wealthy Egyptian civil servant, Aziz Eloui Bey, in New York, and the couple moved to Cairo. But while at first life in Egypt was a welcome opportunity to step back from photography, the creative urge gradually returned and she started photographing aspects of Egyptian life, both during everyday life and on the more adventurous excursions she organized. She also tried her hand at landscape photography, achieving a dream-like atmosphere in images of the desert such as her 1937 Portrait of Space.
But she was growing bored, and in early summer 1937 Lee Miller returned to Paris and to the world of the Parisian avant-garde. There, Man Ray, Dora Maar, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Picasso helped revive her imagination and creativity. She also met the British Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. The following year they travelled to Romania together along with the musicologist Hari Brauner, and she took large numbers of photographs.

The Second World War

Lee Miller left her husband and Egypt and in June 1939 moved to London to live with Penrose. She now spent four years working for British Vogue, where she was officially hired in January 1940. In December 1942 she became Vogue’s accredited correspondent with the US Army and in September 1944 she did her first war report on the work of nurses during the Normandy landings. Then came photographs of liberated Paris, of Saint-Malo, where German forces had withdrawn into the citadel, and, in 1945, of the campaign in Alsace and the fall of the Third Reich. The photographs she took during the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau death camps made a huge impact when published in American Vogue in June 1945.
The famous image of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, taken by David E. Sherman, was seen alongside these deeply distressing images of the camps. As the only woman photojournalist in the theatre of war, Lee Miller had witnessed all the horrors of Nazism.

The postwar period

Lee Miller returned to London and Roland Penrose, whom she married in May 1947. Their son, Antony, was born later that year. Although she continued to work for British Vogue, she was now losing interest in fashion photography. She also contributed to the biographies her husband was writing about Picasso, Man Ray and Tàpies, and produced some of her finest portraits of artists made during this period.
In 1949 she and Penrose moved to Farley Farm in Sussex, where they received numerous friends and fellow artists. In 1953 Lee Miller concluded her career as a photographer with the publication in Vogue of a set of photographs showing the “Working Guests” at Farley Farm busy with chores around the house or in the garden.

The Lee Miller Archives

When Lee Miller died, in 1977, many of her photographs had been lost or were inaccessible. Art historians had all but forgotten the photographer in favour of the muse and model. However, her son Antony Penrose began piecing together the details of her extraordinary life and sifting through the negatives found in old trunks. In 1980 he set up the Lee Miller Archives. He published several books and organized exhibitions that in turn stimulated further research.
This new exhibition explores the different facets of Lee Miller’s remarkable body of work, one that she herself long kept hidden.