The New York-born photographer, writer and legendary beauty Lee Miller (1907-77) had a remarkable career and life. Miller was a volatile youth and was expelled from nearly every school in the Poughkeepsie area where she lived. In spite of this she found a voice for her emotions through photography, acting and dance in her teens, and at the age of 18 she moved to Paris to study lighting, costume and design at Ladislas Medgyes' School of Stagecraft. On her return to New York in 1926 she enrolled in the Dramatic Production programme at Vassar College, where she was taught drama by Hallie Flannigan, a leading exponent of experimental theatre. In 1927 Miller was discovered as a model by the leading American magazine publisher Conde Nast in New York and subsequently made regular appearances in Vogue. She learned photography first through being a subject for the most important fashion photographers of her day, including Nickolas Muray, Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen.
In 1929 Miller moved to Paris and sought out the American Dada and Surrealist artist Man Ray. For several years she became his assistant, collaborator and lover, as well as establishing her own reputation as a photographer in Paris. Miller learned how to manipulate plates and crop, enlarge and retouch negatives with Ray; soon she did much of Ray's printing for him. He also taught her to photograph sitters as he did, from a distance, using a small studio camera with heavy glass plates.
Together the two discovered the mysterious new photographic technique of 'solarisation' – the partial reversal of blacks and whites that created a halo effect. In the next few years both photographers used the technique to turn body parts into dream anatomies. Miller was Ray's favourite subject and he included his famous Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, 1929 in his autobiography in his later years, connecting her to the rebirth of creativity he experienced in the 1930s.
It was also a prolific time for Miller, who made photographs of Parisian life with a Surrealist quality, focussing on the quirky aspects of everyday scenes. Four rats are pictured seated side by side with their tails draped over the rung of a ladder in Rats' Tails, Paris, 1930 and long shadows create melancholic, dream-like spaces, as seen in Windows, Paris, 1930. She also befriended many of the leading Surrealist artists including Pablo Picasso, Paul Eluard and Jean Cocteau. Miller contributed to Paris editions of Vogue as a model and a photographer, completing assignments for leading designers including Schiaparelli and Chanel. The artist also made portraits of Ray, as seen in her enigmatic and softly focussed Man Ray, Paris, 1931.
Miller eventually left Ray in 1932, seeking greater autonomy, and headed back to New York to set up her own photography studio. Ray was tormented and heartbroken, yet the two remained friends for the rest of their lives.
After her return to New York in 1932 Miller spent the next two years establishing her own photographic studio in New York. She became a skilled commercial photographer, working with portraiture, fashion and advertising. Her self-portrait Black and white photograph, 1932, is one of a series taken during a photo shoot which shows Miller seated gracefully on an upholstered armchair.
A slightly larger composition, regarded as the most accomplished of Miller's fashion pictures, was published in the American edition of Vogue on 1 March 1933, with Miller in the unique position of both model and photographer. She photographed some of the most famous figures of the period including actresses Lilian Harvey and Gertrude Lawrence. She also documented the African-American cast of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) written by American composer Virgil Thomson and American author and playwright Gertrude Stein.
Miller’s inclusion in Julian Levy's exhibition Modern European Photographers in 1932 and her subsequent one woman show at his gallery brought her to the attention of the art world. Critics praised many of her photographs, including a shot of a male Greek statue in a shop window, a witty reply to the many studies made of her own statuesque form. Within a short time Vanity Fair listed her among 'the most distinguished living photographers.'
Alongside her stylish, commercial portraits Miller also took more experimental photographs of artists and friends. In a sensitive homage to her friend, the artist Joseph Cornell, 1933, she positions him behind one of his objects as if her were a part of his own creation. This work would be the first of many featuring distinguished artists posing with their artwork.
Miller abandoned New York in 1934 to marry the distinguished Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey and moved with him to Cairo. Her photographs of Egypt at this time reveal her feelings of isolation as an American expatriate. The textural lushness of the desert sand is seen through tilted, disorientating perspectives, and Cairo becomes a melancholic place with long shadows and winding staircases. Miller's best known Egyptian image, Portrait of Space, 1937 transforms the desert view through a torn fly screen door into a dream-like, Surrealist, space.
Miller's unsettled feelings about Cairo drew her back to the European artistic circles of her youth. She visited Paris in 1937 where she met her future husband, the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. Together they travelled to Cornwall, where they met with numerous other British Surrealists. In the same year Miller met Penrose's friend, the artist Eileen Agar and took many photographs of her including Eileen Agar, 1937.
Miller, Penrose and several other artists went on to visit Picasso and Dora Maar at Mougins in the south of France for a month. Photographs taken by Miller during the holiday include Picasso at Hôtel Vaste Horizon, 1937.
Picasso also painted Miller several times during their stay. In 1939 Miller officially left her Egyptian husband for Penrose, travelling with him to Romania and London just before the outbreak of war.
The war spurred Miller to full artistic maturity. Roland Penrose observed, 'her eye for a surrealist mixture of humour and horror was wide open.'1 Miller taught herself photojournalism by focussing on the startling aspects of the London Blitz, published in her first book, Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain under Fire, 1941. She also famously recorded Henry Moore, 1943, drawing Londoners sheltering in the underground while he was working as a war artist.
In the next few years Miller became a war correspondent for editions of both British and American Vogue, working as a photographer and a journalist. Travelling through France and Germany, she documented historic events including the liberation of Paris, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau and the destruction of Hitler's mountain retreat. Her images from this time are some of the most graphic and powerful from the last century. On Liberation Day on 25 August 1944 Miller went to Paris, finding her old friends Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard and Picasso.
In November 1944 Miller visited Brussels where, she later wrote for an edition of Vogue, she found her 'favourite modern Belgian painters in good health' including Paul Delvaux, 1944, and Rene Magritte, 1944, both of whom she photographed that year.
Two years later, Miller returned to London to be with Roland Penrose. Together they travelled on to the USA to visit family and friends including Surrealist artist Max Ernst, 1946, in Arizona, posing him as a bird of prey.
Miller married Penrose in 1947 and their son Anthony was born later that year. She went on to document Jean Arp, 1947, in Switzerland and Giorgio Morandi, 1948, in Venice.
Although Miller stopped working as a professional photographer in the 1950s, she did not abandon the medium entirely. After acquiring Farley Farm in Sussex with Penrose she used the camera to document their ongoing guests there, including Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, 1955, Jean Dubuffet and Georges Limbour, 1959.
Miller continued to write for British editions of Vogue until the early 1950s. Her final tongue-in-cheek photo-essay was titled Working Guests, July 1953 and featured prominent artistic figures performing household tasks and pretending to make their home more habitable at Farley Farm, seen in Richard Hamilton, 1951, and Reg and Jo Butler, 1952. Miller's late Picasso series, includingPortrait of Picasso, Cannes, 1958, pays homage to her lifelong friend.
A new passion for cookery emerged, and Miller would invent her own Surrealist inspired dishes for their many distinguished guests at Farley Farm. She died of cancer in 1977 at the farm, aged 70. Several years later Miller's son Antony Penrose discovered an attic full of unpublished material, which has now been stored in the Lee Miller Archive at Farley Farm House. Her son has spent the last 36 years cataloguing and preserving his mother's legacy - during this time her work has been shown in 20 different countries, including major retrospectives in the V&A in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museo De Arte Moderno in Mexico and the Imperial War Museum in London.