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Lee Miller, Photographer

by Jane Livingston

New York: The California/International Arts Foundation and Thames and Hudson, 1989, 172 pp., $50.00 hardcover
A review by Elsa Dorfman
Originally published in The Women's Review of Books, Vol II, No. 1, October 1989 

Lee Miller was an outstanding photographer of the twenties, thirties, and forties. Her work was out of print and inaccessible until Holt, Rinehart and Winston published The Lives of Lee Miller by Antony Penrose, her son, in 1985, eight years after her death. She was left out of the two or three 1970s photography books that resurrected women photographers, probably because she refused to exhibit, discuss, or publish her work during the last twenty years of her life.

Jane Livingston discovered Lee Miller's work when she was doing the research for two major exhibitions she curated and produced catalogues for: L'Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism (Abbeville Press, 1985, with Rosalind Krauss) and The Indelible Image: Photographs of War, 1846 to the Present (Harry N. Abrams, 1985, with Francis Fralin). Inevitably, Lee Miller's photographs were prominent in each exhibit and catalogue, since she created some of the most enduring images in each of these genres.

Lee Miller's work can be divided into several categories defined by place: Paris, surrealism; New York, portraits; Egypt, landscapes; Europe during World War Two, reportage; the Paris/London artistic axis, friends (most of them prominent artists and writers). A surrealist sensibility infuses all the work. It isn't hard with a camera - the ultimate surreal instrument - to select from the environment to convey a surrealist vision, but whereas often surrealist images depend on manipulation and collage, Miller's depend on astute juxtaposition, a sense of framing and camera angle. They have a certain wry humor.

Her portraits of women are sensational. The women are heroic and strong. Her portraits of Man Ray are loving and make him appear quite approachable, if not lovable (see "Man Ray Shaving," a close-up of his soapy profile). The portraits of Picasso are among the best made of Picasso - who was photographed by the best photographers of his time. He and Miller were friends for almost 50 years and their rapport is obvious. The war portraits have an especially surreal quality. The focus is isolated. The view is narrow. There is very little context.

Jane Livingston's monograph is the catalogue for an exhibit that is touring several American museums in 1989 and 1990. Her 25-page text relies heavily on Antony Penrose's book about his mother, and does not include any obvious original research. In fact, Penrose writes candidly about Miller's on-and-off-again depressions and heavy drinking (though avoiding the words alcoholism and manic-depression) while Livingston alludes mysteriously to why Miller stopped working in 1957. At least twenty percent of the images in Livingston's book were included in the Penrose volume and though I wish there were no overlap between the two volumes, I realize the reason is that, as the exhibit catalogue, it must include the images in the exhibit (which was curated with the help of Antony Penrose). According to Livingston, there are 40,000 images on file in the Lee Miller Archive.

Not so subtly, Livingston introduces the book (and I assume Penrose opens the exhibit) with an eighteen-page portfolio of images of Lee Miller by various men. The reader is left with two conclusions: that Lee Miller was used to being objectified by men and that she was ravishing. Androgynous in clothes and athletic and cool undressed, she is the archetypal female of the twenties and thirties. (Miller posed for the first Kotex print advertisements. They caused a stir, but it is hard to imagine the remote young woman in the image leaking blood through her napkin.) My favorite of these is of Lee at 23 but looking wise and 40, by George Hoyningen-Huene. Images by her father and brother are also included: Livingston hints that Miller's father, an ardent photographer who had Lee model for him in the nude endlessly, indulged in camerarape.

In none of these portraits is Miller older than 25. It's a pity that Livingston didn't include two other images from Penrose's book - Lee in her kitchen about 1970 by Christina Ockrent and in Arles, France, in 1976 by Marc Riboud. In each of these images, she looks worn and forthright; her gaze is direct. This is a person you want to know. But it is symbolic that these two are omitted; Miller's body showed its age despite face-lifts and though I think she looks great in these photographs, aging caused her a lot of pain.

Livingston does not speculate how much Lee Miller might have contributed as an active collaborator with the photographers, how much of each picture (especially the nine by Man Ray) was her idea, how much she directed the image. Nor does she speculate about what influence, if any, being a model had on Miller's own portraits. Miller must have learned a lot about the dynamics of a photography session, as well as the technical aspects, from these two men. My own sense is that her respect for her subjects and her lack of ego in photographing other people must relate back to her feelings about herself as a model. Portraits of her friends Dorothy Hill and Tanja Ramm and of the prison guards at Buchenwald exemplify her approach. She was able to look at her subjects with a clear eye and with no manipulation. She was not afraid to bring her camera close to her subject. She trusted her subjects to be themselves. She did not clutter up her image with extraneous details. She let the subject dominate the image and did not try to be an auteur photographer whose presence would overwhelm the image.

Born in Poughkeepsie in 1907, Lee Miller was the first child and only daughter of an engineer/inventor who was also a rabid amateur photographer. An unconventional student, she was sent to Paris at eighteen to travel and study. After a year, her alarmed father fetched her home. But not for long. She ran off to Manhattan to study theatrical lighting and design; by late 1926, she was one of the most sought-after high fashion models.

In 1929, she went back to Paris and immediately took up with Man Ray, who fell madly in love with her and with whom she lived for three years. This was the heyday of the surrealist movement and Lee Miller and Man Ray knew everyone, went everywhere, did everything. She even managed to star in Jean Cocteau's film "Blood of a Poet," which still appears on late-night TV. It was during this period that she made the switch from being the person in front of the camera, the collaborator on someone else's work, to the person behind the camera. Livingston includes 22 images from this very productive period. "Nude Bent Forward," a soft-focus study of a woman's torso, and "Walkway, Paris" are among my favorites.

In 1933, Miller left Paris for New York where she set up a portrait studio. In July 1934, she married Aziz Eloui Bey and went off to Cairo to live the life of a wealthy Egyptian woman, traveling and entertaining on a grand scale. In the summer of 1937, she went back to Paris and fell into an intense romance with English surrealist Roland Penrose. But leaving Aziz was apparently very hard to do, and she returned to Egypt for two more years.

Livingston includes eleven images from this period, noting that they "combine a distinctive quality of lush atmospherism and a pungent sense of place." One of them, called "Portrait of Space," is said to have inspired Magritte's painting "Le Baiser." It is an unforgettable image of a desert landscape seen through the torn screen of a tent. A mysterious rectangular frame which reflects nothing is pinned onto the screen at the top of the large billowing rip.

Finally, in June 1939, Miller left Egypt and Aziz for good; Roland Penrose was waiting for her in England. When World War Two broke out, she managed to get a job at the offices of British Vogue. She began a series of photographs documenting the horrors of blitz-torn London which were edited as Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, with text by Edward R. Murrow. It was a success in both England and the United States. Livingston includes nine images from Grim Glory; but she does not say how many images altogether it included, and it is impossible to find a copy of it. (Her book does not include a bibliography of Miller's publications.) Miller, she says,

was making a huge stride in her work toward the boldly expansive compositions, the increasingly eccentric-and-yet-unaffected imagery, and the transcendent fearlessness in relation to her subject, that are the hallmarks of her work throughout the war years. (p.32)
Eventually, Miller became a war correspondent for American Vogue. (Yes, she actually talked Vogue into assigning her hard-core war stories for which she wrote the text to go with her images.) It was for Vogue that she made her images of war and ultimately of Dachau and Buchenwald. Her photograph of the floating body of a Dachau prison guard is an icon of that horrific genre. Livingston writes,
That most difficult of balances in action photography is flawlessly struck, i.e., the balance between the visual legibility, or order, necessary to enduring images, and the charged confusion innate in traumatic events...Lee Miller takes her place easily...as one of those handful of photographers whose innate moral vision and formal approach to the medium of black and white photography created a uniquely pungent and ethically resounding body of images centering on war itself - often on nothing less than personal human cruelty and depredation in its most graphic form.
(pp.65, 76)
Miller had a terrible time dealing with the let-down when the war was over - typical of war photographers, many of whom were almost war junkies by 1945. Unlike most of her colleagues, though, she had had it with photography. Though she worked with Roland Penrose on his book on Picasso (and the revised edition has snapshots of Picasso that she took as late as 1970), she showed absolutely no interest in her photographs or in her place in photographic history or in the history of surrealism. She was, in fact, openly antagonistic to inquiries about her work.

Instead, she became totally obsessed with cooking. (Kitchens are, in fact, just like darkrooms. They have the same feel and often the same physical layout.) She collected recipes. She collected cookbooks. She interviewed chefs. She cooked and cooked. She gave elaborate parties. It is hard for us with our 1980s mind-set to accept this career switch. The portraits from Buchenwald and Dachau are so unforgettable, her portraits of her artist friends are so amiable and on the mark, that in our greediness and curiosity we want her work to go on. We want to ask, was she depressed? was she eccentric? what role did Penrose play? did she really think her work was of no significance?

I ask these questions too. But I remind myself that lots of war photographers get careless at the end of their wars (or the beginning of the next war) and get themselves killed. That certainly is one way to close the canon. Also, there seems to be something about the nature of photography that makes it not uncommon for people to produce twenty-year bodies of work, as she did.

I have a wish list: I wish that Livingston's book had been more a scholarly monograph than a superficial exhibition catalogue. An anecdotal description of what is included in the 40,000 negatives, journals, and letters in the Miller Archive in East Sussex would have been very useful. I wish that she had included a bibliography of published images of Lee Miller and a bibliography of articles written about her over the years. An index of names would have been useful. I wish that she had reproduced one of the Vogue photo essays to give a sense of how they were laid out. (Livingston never deals with Lee Miller as a writer, although she wrote the text for all fifteen of her Vogue essays.) I wish that her book had a different layout: the 25-page essay is spread over the first 104 pages and is followed by another 56 pages of images; it is very hard to follow the thread of the essay, and the book feels bifurcated. I wish she had found out if Lee Miller knew of or ever met M.F.K. Fisher. I hope a culinary historian goes back to those archives in East Sussex and pulls out a Lee Miller cookbook.

(elsad@comcast.net)  You might also want to look at the  web page  of the Lee Miller Archive in Sussex, England.. It includes many images.


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