“The personality of the photographer, his approach is really more important than his technical genius.”
—Lee Miller, as told to the New York Evening Post in 1932
LONDON — A Lee Miller photograph often tells more than one story. Like Miller herself — a former model and Surrealist muse who became a correspondent documenting the Second World War — the photos are multifaceted. They’re expressive but also unsentimental, playful yet dark. An exhibition of her wartime photography at London’s Imperial War Museum, Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, traces narratives large and small to show how women’s societal roles were altered by the war, and how her own professional and personal lives were severely disturbed by its horrors.
The retrospective — arranged chronologically and set against khaki and gray walls — begins by looking at the Poughkeepsie-born photographer’s private life, with family photos that suggest a far-from-ordinary upbringing. In two pictures taken by her father, Miller appears as an eight-month-old baby being potty-trained and later, at 21, in a stereoscopic nude study. A portrait with her mother shows Miller as a smiling seven-year-old; a caption adds that it was taken shortly before she was raped. I felt angry about what had happened to Miller, and the event — mingled with these peculiar photos — stuck in my mind. I wanted to consider Miller’s work from a strictly professional standpoint, but it was difficult to separate out her private life; I wondered, if Miller were a man, whether these personal details would have been included in the exhibition at all. Yet I quickly realized that, as with so many of the best photographers, her strongest work contains flickers of her personality.
At first, Miller’s photography career — which began at British Vogue — didn’t allow her to be herself. She was initially rejected by the magazine and instead enrolled as a volunteer studio assistant; it was only when Vogue’s male photographers left for military service that she was able to take their place. Miller’s Vogue photos demonstrate her skill, yet they amount to propaganda, meant to influence readers’ wartime behavior according to media guidelines from the British Ministry of Information. For example, “Fashion for Factories, Vogue Studio, London, England, 1940” shows a model posing in a factory worker’s uniform and goggles with her hair tied in a trendy scarf — factory work made to look fabulous. In “Short Hair is News Again, Vogue Studio, London, England, 1941,” a model sports a neatly cropped ’do in an attempt to turn readers’ attention to newly trendy short hair — which happened to fit factory safety requirements. Such photos showed women how to adapt to war, but also urged them to keep calm and carry on.
Miller struggled with this balance in her work, as her focus drifted from fashion to the war itself. One detects her changing interest in a series of images projected on the wall. In “Here is Vogue in spite of it all, Bond Street Shelter, London, England, 1940,” a smattering of Vogue staffers are stationed at typewriters in the office cellar during the Blitz. “Fire masks, Downshire Hill, London, England, 1941” depicts a pair of models wearing Air Raid Precautions masks and sitting at the entrance to Miller’s bomb shelter at her home in Hampstead, North London. The most striking of these images, “Model wearing Digby Morton suit, shot through arch revealing Blitz bomb damage, London, England, 1940,” shows a model in a black and gray skirt suit standing in front of buildings reduced to rubble, her body turned slightly to look at the ruins. Miller shows war not as a backdrop to fashion but rather as the focus of these images; the models here don’t command their surroundings but are instead commanded by them.
Turning her hand to reportage in 1941 for Vogue, Miller began photographing nurses, Red Cross volunteers, wives, and mothers, as well as women who, like her, worked in typically male professions. One particularly captivating picture is “Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxiliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire, England, 1942.” In it, the flight lieutenant wears her goggles on her head and a half-grin as she looks over her shoulder, as though preparing for takeoff — she appears to enjoy her position at the helm of a vehicle that was typically operated by men. A nearby photo, “A.T.S., what it takes to become an officer, London, England, 1943,” offers a close-up look at an Auxiliary Territorial Services officer giving an order. The woman’s face is arranged in a smirk, and her expression — a mixture of professionalism and pride — seems to symbolize how many women in positions of power must have felt at the time.
As Miller traveled through Europe, especially Germany, her photographs became sharper, imbued with anger and disillusionment. Her resentment of the Nazis can be felt in the chilling intimacy of “The Bürgermeister’s daughter, Town Hall, Leipzig, Germany, 1945,” in which Regina Lisso, the daughter of the City Treasurer of Leipzig, lies dead, flopped over an armchair after committing suicide with her parents. The text adds that Miller commented on Lisso’s “extraordinarily pretty teeth,” revealing her caustic wit. The photographer’s hatred is most pronounced in “Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, Hitler’s apartment, Munich, Germany, 1945,” taken with her colleague David Scherman on the day of Hitler’s death, hours after she had visited Dachau. Miller brought mud from the concentration camp into the dictator’s bathroom — once a private, now very public space — with her boots, which she left on a soiled rug. Next to a portrait of Hitler, and amid the mess he’s made, she sits in the tub and washes herself. By appearing in the photo, Miller breaks out of her role as observer and reprises her work as a model at a crucial moment. She strikes back at the dictator in her own way, crossing a personal boundary in order to express a disgust that she can’t contain.
After the war, Miller became depressed, disillusioned by the horrors she had witnessed through her lens, and eventually gave up photography. Leaving the exhibition, the final image — a glossy photo of the former photographer in her kitchen, from a 1973 issue of House & Garden — jarred me. Though Miller appears to be content, a paragon of domesticity, I could think only of the secrets she had buried inside herself: thousands of photos from the war, and the passion for photography it had cruelly taken from her.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War continues at the London Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Road) through April 24.