Opinion

Model/Surrealist/War Photographer Revealed Through Thousands of Images

Lee Miller self-portrait (Courtesy Lee Miller Archives)
Lee Miller, 1932 self-portrait (Courtesy Lee Miller Archives)

Some people manage to live many lives in their one existence, and Lee Miller with her journey from Poughkeepsie to the Surrealist scene of Paris to the front lines of World War II was definitely a woman whose life could not be singularly defined. However, despite being photographed as a model for Man Ray and creating her own intriguing Surrealist photography, as well as documenting the Liberation of Paris and the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, her profile remains subdued. On April 23, in honor of what would have been her birthday, the Lee Miller Archive launched an online presentation of around 3,000 of her photographs, and it’s only a small part of the intended completed project that aims to expose the life and art of this fascinating artist,  according to the Independent.

Lee Miller was born in Poughkeepsie in 1907, and later as a model moved to Paris. Her striking and soft features with slightly downturned lips that would later catch the eye and be transformed into a disembodied icon by Man Ray, got her all the way to the cover of Vogue. While in Paris she learned photography herself, imbuing her work with distinctive angles and unexpected juxtapositions, the same perspective that would continue, although more subtly, in her photojournalism during World War II. She was one of the few women to work as front line photographers in the war, and she captured the battles and death and grasps of humanity in it, from the twisted corpses of the concentration camps to the cityscapes crushed to rubble with a calm directness. (Yet she kept her Surrealist humor about her, such as in bathing in Hitler’s bathtub.)

After the war she mostly settled down in Sussex in England, although she continued to photograph her friends such as Picasso (who also painted Miller), Henry Moore, Cocteau, Oskar KokoschkaGeorges Braque, and Max Ernst. When alcohol and depression overwhelmed her later in life, she eventually left the art behind, and it was only after her death in 1977 that her son, Antony Penrose, found the trove of around 60,000 negatives, along with around 20,000 contact sheets and prints and thousands of other documents, in the attic of her former home.

“It makes you think, doesn’t it, what can be achieved – particularly in those days, when the advantages were so stacked against her,” her son told the Independent. “The first part of her life she was what you would call a supermodel, for Vogue and Vanity Fair, being photographed by [Edward] Steichen and Man Ray and looking absolutely incredible. And then, not many years later, she is this person indistinguishable from the GIs, in combat gear and a helmet in a pile of rubble – how great a contrast can you get?”

Some of the around 3,000 digitized images of the Lee Miller Archive have never been seen before, and each year the plan is the add between 5,000 and 7,000 more until all of what was once secreted away in the attic is brought to the public, hopefully to renew interest in her captivating life and work.

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