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Lee Miller


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Lee Miller

5 May 2020 7:30AM   Views : 522 Unique : 293


Did you see the documentary on Saturday night? If not, read this, then head straight to the BBC iPlayer.

Lee Miller seemed to embody so many things about photography: fashion model, nude model, photographer and surrealist, muse, war photographer. And all sorts of issues about photography, from ‘inappropriate’ images to burnout.

She was born in 1906, near New York: her father was a keen amateur photographer, and took many pictures of her. Including nudes, right through to her early twenties. In the documentary, it’s fair to say opinions of this differ: the kindest view comes from Jessie Mann, daughter of Sally Mann, who photographed her children nude – it seemed natural to them, but causes some commentators considerable disquiet.

She became a Vogue model, and then moved to Paris to study with Man Ray. She was his assistant, his model and his lover. And she emerged as a confident and capable photographer: a highly creative one, at that.

Marrying a rich Egyptian businessman, she moved to Cairo: and created beautiful images in the desert. But a colonial lifestyle didn’t suit her, so her husband bought her a ticket to Paris, where she met Roland Penrose, an English artist abroad. They became lovers – Miller was a strong woman who lived life on her own terms, always.

Living in London with Penrose when war broke out, she formed a working partnership with an American war photographer, David E Scherman: for a time, he lived with her and Penrose in London. Travelling with Scherman immediately after the Allied invasion of France, she took photographs in St Malo while it was being bombed, photographed the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, and was photographed nude in Hitler’s bath in his apartment in Munich.

It appears that the experience of war left Miller permanently damaged: she had seen things that burned into the psyche of everyone who witnessed them: but she had wanted to be there, wanted to take photographs that matter. Vogue published her images from the concentration camps, possibly influenced by Miller’s impassioned plea to the editor to do so.

She settled with Penrose in East Sussex, packing away her whole photographic life in cardboard boxes: her son, Antony Penrose, knew nothing of her careers in photography until after her death. She appears not to have had a happy old age, dying at 70, an alcoholic.

Asked, in 1969, by a New York Times reporter what drew her to photography, she said it was "a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you."

Should we regret the way that she soared so close to the sun, and paid a terrible price for being such an adventurer? Or should we celebrate a golden girl who fulfilled all her promise, and so much more? Or, and this is my choice, do both?


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woolybill1 Avatar
woolybill1 Plus
16 39 79 United Kingdom
5 May 2020 8:24AM
We simply had to watch this last night on the i-Player (10:30 pm of the first showing is long after my bedtime) and were duly impressed.
Lee Miller has been a tremendous interest of mine and ours for years in all her various personae. I first came across both her and Man Ray in the pages of Eric de Maré's compendious Photography (Penguin 1957 et seqq) where a solarised portrait of Miller by Man Ray appears, quite coincidentally opposite a high-key nude (not by Man Ray) that in a way foreshadows your upload today. I had the good fortune to visit an exhibition of Surrealist art in the Pompidou Centre in the early 1980s where Man Ray figured prominently as photographer and creative artist, including several of his solarised portraits of Miller (I have a fancy that his discovery of the process was more likely to have been a joint effort). Then we spent a morning in the superb Lee Miller retrospective in the Science Museum gallery a few years ago where much space was given over to her Vogue photographs of women's contribution to Britain's wartime effort on the Home Front. She was an outstanding portraitist, too; after working with Steichen she could scarcely not have been!

I had only one quibble with the programme: while the voice-over dealt with Man Ray's various portraits of Miller the well-known modified photograph Le Violon d'Ingres was shown for a couple of seconds; it does not feature Lee Miller but a model known as Kiki de Montparnasse. Otherwise a top-hole documentary.

It might be considered that Lee Miller was born to be a flawed personality; but what a fascinating person, a supreme model and undoubtedly a great photographer. Thank you for bringing the programme to wider attention, John.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
5 May 2020 9:45AM
It's odd that being an alcoholic, and moody, is seen as a vitue in some, almost: didn't Geoffrey Bernard make a profession of it? Isn't Dylan Thomas revered?

I wonder if some of the motivation for negative views of Miller is that she wasn't prepared to be fitted into a male stereotype of 'model' - she appears to have required creative equality. And few men would have the stomach for hte work she did in Dachau and Buchenwald...
PaulCox Avatar
5 May 2020 12:32PM
Saw an exhibition of her work “RealSurreal” at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester February 2003, along with some of her wartime cameras, and the famous Photo of her in “Hiltlers” bath in the richstag. And have fascinated with her work ever since, and have several books on her life and experiences, but missed the TV program so will look that up on iPlayer.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
5 May 2020 12:44PM
It's definitely worth the effort, particularly because the people involved in giving views have entirely different voices, in all senses.
mrswoolybill Avatar
mrswoolybill Plus
16 4.6k 2635 United Kingdom
5 May 2020 1:03PM
It's good that the programme touched on David Scherman's work, which tends to be overlooked. I do wish there had been some mention of Miller's technical ability though.
As an aside, I find it interesting that while she was clearly a highly independent, physically self-assured woman, she sought out 'father figure' men, either much older or very rich, or both.
phred Avatar
phred 17 85
6 May 2020 11:41AM
I tried to watch the BBC episode, but I have hearing issues and the incessant background music made viewing insufferable. But that's BBC!
I have had an interest in her for quite a few years now.
But to me it's the UK part of her life that intrigues me and the goings on at Farley Farm (Farleys House), names obviously like Roland Penrose, May Ray, Picasso etc. Quite a melting pot of artistic talent of that era.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
8 May 2020 10:46AM
Music is everywhere in TV, and not only on the BBC. And in films, and even on the radio in speech programmes. Clarity is, it appears, rahter undervalued...
phred Avatar
phred 17 85
8 May 2020 11:36AM

Quote:Music is everywhere in TV, and not only on the BBC. And in films, and even on the radio in speech programmes. Clarity is, it appears, rahter undervalued...

So true, I have tried turning the volume down to a level where I can't hear the muzac but the speech goes 1st?

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