It is a mystery why the life and times of American photographer, Lee Miller, have not been the subject of a TV drama-doc. Certainly her career could match Pamela Harriman for drama and adventure.(1) The Indestructible Lee Miller exhibition explores works from the 1920s to 1950s and considers Miller’s life from multiple perspectives. Featuring more than 90 works, the exhibition reveals how her experience as a model for Vogue and for Man Ray influenced her photographic work.
Text: Mike von Joel | Images: courtesy Lee Miller Archive
Writer, David Hare, reputedly got to the final straight before the machinations of the movie business thwarted the project. Because, although Lee Miller’s output had peaked by the end of the Second World War, she was a thoroughly liberated girl, more 60’s ‘rock chick’ than a daughter of the Edwardian era. Her story would be completely coherent to a modern audience and should certainly resonate with any young person on a creative trajectory.
The fact that Lee Miller has not faded into gentle obscurity is due to the sterling work, primarily, of her son Anthony ‘Tony’ Penrose. The child of Lee’s marriage to Roland Penrose (himself a major post-war figure in British Art and co-founder of the ICA) Tony has repositioned Miller as one of the outstanding women photographers of her generation. There is an irony in this – Lee and Tony Penrose were temperamental opposites and they never enjoyed a close personal relationship. Penrose’s definitive biography of his mother, The Lives of Lee Miller, is all the more authentic for this, because whilst drawing on unique access to private letters and diaries, it is devoid of the sentimentality common amongst familial memoirs.
Elizabeth 'Lee' Miller, later Lady Penrose, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907. Even at an early age she experienced extreme trauma. On a visit to a family friend in Brooklyn at only eight years of age, she was sexually molested and subsequently contracted gonorrhoea. The episode never left Miller and, significantly, her parents overcompensated by spoiling her well into her teenage years. Her father, Theodore, a keen amateur photographer, had always favoured Lee above her two brothers, and at 20 she was posing for some memorable nude studies for him, something she continued for many years to come. Even today this father/daughter intimacy would be considered exceedingly liberal minded. Theodore also made a point of teaching her the technical processes of photography.
In 1925, the 18-year-old Miller went on an extended trip to Paris where she promptly dodged her elderly chaperones and immersed herself in the culture and style of a city that was then still the centre of the world of art and fashion. She later described herself at this period thus: ‘I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside’. She greedily absorbed the names of writers and painters working in Paris and who were destined to become giants of 20th century art: Max Ernst, Duchamp, de Chirico, Masson, Cocteau, Tanguy, Breton, Magritte, Picasso, Braque, with Man Ray dominating creative photography.
Back in America, in another fairy tale twist of fate, at 19 she was saved from being run over on a Manhattan street by a passer-by who turned out to be Condé Nast, the publisher and founder of Vogue. He responded to Lee’s natural beauty and European chic by hiring her as a model – she appeared on the cover of the March 1927 issue. It resulted in two years of hectic work as one of New York’s leading photographic models.
But the lure of Paris proved too much, and by 1929 Lee Miller again set sail for Europe armed with an introduction to Man Ray (from Edward Steichen) and to the editor of French Vogue, courtesy of Condé Nast. In typical Miller style, she soon transcended to being Man Ray’s pupil and the artist became infatuated with her. Ray taught his young lover all he knew about the photographer’s art and gave her the confidence to look beyond modelling for French Vogue, no matter how successful she was becoming. Miller soon established her own studio and portrait business a few streets away and, using her contacts in art and fashion, was rapidly building a thriving business and reputation.
No commentary on Lee Miller can be made without reference to her capricious behaviour and many intimate relationships with men. Informed observers have referred this back to her close and intimate relationship with Theodore. Her father is certainly a presence throughout her adult life. Sexual allure was Lee Miller’s not so secret weapon and she used it with devastating effect.
Miller duly deserted Man Ray after meeting an Egyptian, Aziz Eloui Bey, but in 1932 she quit the emotional turmoil of this relationship and returned to New York and another studio start-up. Two years later this New York venture, shared with her brother, Erik, was doing well despite the recession, when the Egyptian, 20 years her senior, turned up out of the blue. It should have surprised no one that Lee promptly married Aziz Eloui Bey and left to live in Cairo – forcing the studio to close, investors to lose their money and Erik his livelihood. The idyll with Aziz lasted some three years before the psychological desire for Paris provoked a return to Europe. There she promptly met Roland Penrose, a Surrealist painter, poet and major promoter and collector of modern art. Miller did return to Aziz temporarily, but Cairo society could not compete with the avant-garde, art and Picasso, and they eventually parted with Aziz Eloui Bey behaving very generously over her betrayal.
Lee Miller’s hedonistic life in the 1930’s was the stuff of novels and incomprehensible to any ordinary person, preoccupied as they were with the recession and the worsening political situation. But Lee was anything but ordinary. When war was finally declared, it found her in London living with Penrose at his Downshire Hill home. With characteristic swagger, she inveigled her way back into London Vogue’s studio, first unpaid, then as a staff member, but already aware that she was on the verge of her greatest adventure yet.
Some women are born with the ability to wind men around their little fingers. It is not necessarily to do with looks, although that never hurts, but it is an ingredient instantly discernible – if irresistible. Lee Miller had it. It enabled her, as the war progressed, to obtain full accreditation as an official correspondent in the US forces, then a remarkable feat for a woman in war time. Her assignments for Vogue continued but she began developing them beyond the brief, her eye firmly on the bigger picture. Mere days after D-Day, she was in France reporting on mobile hospital units; punchy, hard hitting features that ran in Vogue alongside the usual fashion and society piffle. Miller was now providing words & picture stories to great effect, alternating Condé Nast commissions with others from the US Army PR machine. She had established an unassailable reputation.
In typical Lee Miller fashion she connived to be in Paris at the Liberation and quickly looked up old acquaintances. She found Picasso in his studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins (he had spent the War in the city) and they renewed their close relationship – she snapped them both embracing. In this crazy schizophrenic time she was creating gritty war features whilst receiving orders from London to photograph the re-emergence of the haute couture fashion houses and their 1944 new season designs! It did not take long for the maverick American to manipulate herself back into the front line armed only with her wits and trusted Rolleiflex.
Lee Miller’s war ended with experiences that would contaminate the rest of her life. She entered Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps with the disbelieving American assault troops, taking a searing series of images of what she witnessed. By contrast, and on a lighter note, she found herself billeted in Hitler’s own apartments in Munich and was photographed lounging in the Führer’s bath, before moving onto Salzburg to watch his Berchtesgaden lair burn. The war was over, and Lee returned to London in triumph to be feted by Vogue executives.
Predictably, Miller’s return to domesticity at Downshire Hill was a failure. After destructive arguments with Roland Penrose, she left for Paris and a spiralling depressive state. But eventually she returned to him, after more hair-raising adventures in the Balkans, and some sort of family life was established. A hectic trip to the USA together culminated in Miller’s committing to Penrose and they returned to England to face the infamous winter of 1947. Miller had never stopped working for Vogue and it was in the middle of an assignment she discovered she was pregnant. In a surprising yield to tradition, she and Roland married after Aziz, ever generous, divorced her during a cordial visit to London.
With baby Tony in tow they found and located a rural retreat (but near enough to the channel ports to facilitate trips over to France) and Farley Farm became the family home. The East Sussex property became a Mecca for artists and writers from all over Europe – even Picasso famously visited – and this stable period is recorded as being one of Lee Miller’s most happy of times. Today it is the home of the Lee Miller Archive and a ‘living museum’ that regularly welcomes visitors by way of organised tours.(2)
The latter years of Lee Miller’s life had tragic overtones. Her depressive interludes finally demanded a withdrawal from Vogue assignments, a relationship already strained by the changing times, and as Roland’s star ascended, hers waned. Additionally, the years of craziness had taken their toll on her looks and health. She kept her sanity, not by photography, that she now eschewed, but by cooking, which she took up obsessively, and latterly classical music. And this was more or less the pattern of her life until the fateful day in 1976 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Lee Miller died at Farley Farm on the 21 July, 1977, aged 70.
Carole Callow of the Lee Miller Archive has been instrumental in positioning the artist as a key player in modern photography. Carole’s story itself is typical of the kismet that surrounds the Lee Miller legend. A highly skilled darkroom technician, Callow arrived in East Sussex 30 years ago looking for temporary work, and was hired as a humble cleaner at Farley Farm. Noting the dust-covered boxes and boxes of forgotten negatives in the attic, she offered to create ‘contact’ sheets and it was only then that the true extent of the holdings were revealed – over 60,000 images. Carole Callow has played a vital role in formulating and cataloguing the vast range of subjects and locations and, effectively, in re-creating Miller’s place in 20th century reportage photography. It would be fair to say that today she is the leading authority on Miller’s oeuvre and continues to be responsible for creating modern prints and curating the vintage archives.
The success of any documentary photographer is to be in the right place at the right time, and if the technical quality of the image can match the content, then so much the better. Lee Miller’s extraordinary personality placed her at the forefront of many key political and social events of the 20th century; it is right and proper that her contribution to both photography and history has been recognised and preserved for future generations to appreciate.
F22 is grateful for the generous assistance of the Lee Miller Archive and Farley Farm administration in the preparation of this feature.
1. In the 1998 TV movie The Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story, Ann-Margret played the title role.
2. In 2012 Farley Farm House will be open to the public on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month (April to October) and on extra weekends during local arts festivals. The key rooms are explored with a trained guide. The tour takes 50 minutes. www.farleyfarmhouse.co.uk
The remarkable life of artist Lee Miller (1907-1977) will be explored at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale 4 Oct-28 Feb, 2016. The Indestructible Lee Miller is organised by the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria, in partnership with NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.