Lee Miller (1907-1977), from Poughkeepsie, led a full and adventurous life. Conde Nast sought her out as a model, Picasso painted her portrait, Jean Cocteau filmed her, Man Ray was enticed into teaching her photography, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington befriended her, Life magazine hired her as a photojournalist, the U.S. military hired her as a combat photographer, she married artist and writer Roland Penrose and threw elaborate parties. But, at her death, her son found 60,000 unpublished negatives that brought the Surrealists back to life and contained powerful documentary evidence of World War II and the Nazi atrocities.
Lee Miller was born restless. Over the course of her life, her career ranged so widely that even her closest friends rarely knew the extent of her accomplishments. She was a model, a pioneer of the Surrealist movement, a photographer, a journalist, and a war correspondent. Her documentary images of the Second World War fill the pages of history textbooks, and her iconic photographs of high art and fashion hang in museums around the globe.
Born in 1907 and raised in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was introduced to the world of photography while still a small child. Her father was a keen photographer and young Lee was his chief subject. At age 18, she moved to Paris to study all aspects of the theatre—acting, costume design, and—what was to prove integral knowledge, later on—the subtle magic of lighting.
Upon her return to the States, she moved to New York City and was scouted on the street by the publisher Condé Nast, who urged her into a modelling career. At 5’7’’, with golden hair, blue eyes and chiseled, classically proportionate features, Lee was exceptionally photogenic, and her streamlined build was well suited to the fashions of the day. But modeling didn’t satisfy her. She had creative energy to spare, and she decided that she wanted to become a professional photographer herself. Not being the type to waste time, she simply turned up at Man Ray’s Paris studio, grinned, and said: “I’m your new student.”
Miller was instrumental in the further development of the photographic process known as solarization, which is usually credited solely to Man Ray. Solarization occurs when light strikes a photograph in the process of its development. The reaction creates a sort of fuzzy, electric halo around the photograph, making the subject look incandescent, as though they’ve swallowed phosphorus. The process had been discovered when a mouse ran over Miller’s foot, and she switched on the studio lights reflexively, to see where it had gone. The sudden saturation of light in the darkroom exposed the negatives and interrupted the development process. Student and teacher were both astounded by the new effect, and Ray began incorporating Miller’s discovery into his practice—taking credit for its discovery.
While living in Paris, Miller got friendly with the other Surrealists. She appears in Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film, The Blood of Poet. In the film, she plays an alabaster statue whose mouth leaps from her own carved face and attaches itself to the hand of a young poet, much to his dismay. In a fit of anger, he destroys the statue with a sledgehammer, but as he goes to wash the dust from his hands, his discovers that not only is Miller’s mouth still fixed firmly to his hand, but that she’s still speaking.
Lee Miller as the statue, in Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930):
After spending three years as Ray’s protégé and mistress, Miller opened her own Parisian portrait studio. “I’d rather take a picture than be one,” she decided. Her friend Pablo Picasso thought she was worthy of a picture, though, so he painted one: Portrait of Lee Miller à l’Arliésienne.
In 1932, she returned to New York and set up a popular studio, which she shuttered after only two years, in order to follow her first husband, the millionaire businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, to his home in Egypt. The marriage was short-lived. While on a flying trip to Europe in 1937 to see old Surrealist friends, including Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, she met the artist and writer Sir Roland Penrose, and fell in love.
After two years of sporadic courtship, Miller and Penrose moved into a house in Hampstead, London, together. Then the war started. When ordered to leave the country by the U.S. Government, due to fears for her safety, Miller refused. She stayed on and continued her documentary work, supporting herself by freelancing for her old associate, Vogue. She struck up an artistic partnership with the photographer David E. Scherman, a war correspondent for Life magazine, and eventually, the U.S. military took Miller on as a correspondent.
The London Blitz, D-Day, The Battle of Alsace, field surgeries performed in tents under the glow of a single lightbulb, dead soldiers in canals, duckweed streaming across their bloated faces, the current mussing their hair. It was an never-ending reel of unimaginable ghastliness, but Miller didn’t flinch. She’d get as close and possible and then zoom in, becoming one of the few female war correspondents to see active combat, enduring constant sexual harassment as well as the terrors of the frontlines. “Women war photographers had to fight on two fronts,” she said later, “the bombs, and the men.”
She put occasional pauses on her field journalism to photograph wartime fashions for Vogue, but the incongruity of platform shoes on the streets of Paris and napalm bombs detonating during the siege of St Malo angered her. (“Naturally, I’m a bit nervous…it’ll be 200 pounders from the air,” she wrote in a hasty note to Penrose, shortly before going down to the bomb lines at St. Malo. She ended up crouched in a trench. When her heel sank into the disembodied hand of a German soldier, torn to bits by a bomb. Lee picked up the hand, hurled it away in disgust, and ran for shelter as best as she could, slipping on the blood-slick ground: “Christ, it was awful,” she wrote, with characteristic restraint.)
Following Germany’s surrender, she was present at the liberation of the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau. The Nazi guards had hanged themselves, and were dangling from the walls, necks blackened with bruises, tongues swollen and protruding. Miller took their portraits. The crematorium doors were open and half-charred skulls, brains gleaming through bone, were visible from the hatches of the dozens of ovens within. She documented an unending list of atrocities that day. Bodies were stacked like firewood, a dozen deep, starved to the point of being little more than bone with skin stretched over.
Hitler had committed suicide and his house at Berchtesgaden was set aflame. After duly photographing that pyre of insensate evil, Miller went with David E. Scherman to Hitler’s apartment, where the pair ran a bath in Hitler’s tub, stripped off their uniforms and took turns scrubbing away the grim remembrance of the day’s events. Each took a photograph of the other. Hitler had installed a portrait of himself on the wall of the shower, and from under the cold gaze of the dead fascist, Miller looks over her bare shoulder at Scherman. Her dirt-caked combat boots are discarded on the bathmat, and the ashy smear of dirt on the plush bathmat is the dirt and ashes of Dachau.
“I’d been carrying Hitler’s Munich address around in my pocket for years and finally I had a chance to use it. But my host wasn’t home. I took some pictures of the place and also, I got a good night’s sleep in his bed. I even washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub,” she said, later.
It is strange for us to consider today, but in 1945, many people, especially Americans, had difficulty accepting that the sickening tales of the concentration camps were real. It was a horror that the human imagination simply could not accept. Miller sent her photographs of the death camps to Vogue editor Audrey Withers, along with a telegram, an all caps-plea: “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE.” Withers, sick with shock, ran Miller’s documentation of the atrocities at Dachau and Buchenwald in the June 1945 issue of American Vogue. The photos were captioned simply, “Believe It.”
After the war’s end, Miller stayed on in Europe. In 1947, she divorced Bey and married Penrose; and the couple’s only child, Antony, was born in September of that year. Two years later, they moved to Farleys Farm, a large country house in Chiddingly, East Sussex. It is now called Farleys House & Gallery “Home of the Surrealists,” with a museum filled with the work of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose. https://www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk/
Miller suffered from PTSD and depression, and Antony was raised largely by a nanny. Photography had become a trigger, and she turned to gourmet cooking to occupy her time. After the horror show of the war, concocting prank dishes to tease her frequent house guests (such as Coca-Cola sauce poured over marshmallows) was a welcome respite. She liked to throw elaborate luncheon parties, too, occasionally breaking away from routine to take a photography assignment for an art magazine or to illustrate a biography that Penrose had written.
She became a heavy drinker to numb the memories of past horrors, and like many who saw active combat she never spoke about the war. In fact, it wasn’t until years after her death of cancer in 1977 that her son, Antony discovered 60,000 negatives tucked away in the attic at Farleys—negatives which proved that she’d taken some of the most important images of the Surrealist movement as well as that she’d taken some of the most important documentary images of the Second World War.
In a 2011 interview with National Public Radio regarding an exhibition of his mother’s work, Antony explained: “I barely knew that she had been a photographer during her life. She was so secretive about it, and she deliberately hid all of her work in the attic of our old farmhouse. … So, it was an absolute bombshell of a surprise after Lee had died that we went into the attic and found all of this incredible work. But I think she made a deliberate decision to bury her career, and this was partly as a result of her war experiences, and partly as a result of her post-traumatic stress.”
“[Being a great photojournalist is] a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you,” Miller once said.