‘It isn’t simple to know what one wants.’ Lee Miller, 1938
The life of Lee Miller was a fascinating and turbulent one. Whether fashion model or war correspondent, traveller or photographer, she played out her roles with inimitable bravura, seeming fearless of everything except boredom.
In New York,1927, she stepped into the path of an oncoming car, only to be pulled to safety by a bystander – magazine magnate Condé Nast. Struck by her modern blonde beauty, he offered her modelling work, and soon her uncompromising features stared out from the front cover of American Vogue.
Modelling for top fashion photographers Hoyningen-Huene and Steichen, her natural precocity led her to absorb their techniques, and before long she had outgrown her role in front of the camera. Deciding to perfect her craft from the brilliant Surrealist photographer Man Ray, she arrived in Paris in 1929 and boldly announced her intentions. Despite his protests she persuaded him to accept her as his student, soon to become his muse, collaborator and lover. Together they crystallised the language of Surrealist photography – the discovery of Solarisation being their outstanding achievement – whilst Miller developed her own signature style: bold, surreal and hard-edged.
She soon became the toast of Paris – but Miller was quickly searching for new adventures. She established a successful portrait studio in New York, then surprised all by marrying a rich Egyptian twenty years her senior and moving to Egypt. She then began an affair, which was to prove her most enduring, to the English painter Roland Penrose. When war was declared in 1939, they went to London together, where with characteristic self-assurance, she talked her way into becoming a staff photographer for British Vogue. Taking advantage of the new portable 35mm cameras, she popularised the new style of location fashion photography, posing models in streets, railway stations, airports and cars.
It was impossible, however, for her to ignore the conflict, and in 1941, under her own initiative, she signed up as a US war correspondent. With her eye trained she tried and make sense of the surreal scenes of war she produced startling images of the siege of St. Malo and the liberation of Paris, whilst her reportage from the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau shocked the world.
After returning to England and marrying Penrose in 1947, she continued to produced captivating portraits of the frequent visitors to their home: Picasso, Man Ray, Braque, Ernst, Eluard and Miro. But by the 1970s she had turned her back on her photographic achievements, allowing her negatives to lie neglected, and thus managed to perpetuate the assumption that her work was of no significance.
It was only a decade after her death in 1977 that her work was exhibited in its entirety for the first time, and her significance as a major photographer was revealed. With a retrospective at The National Gallery of Scotland in 2001, and even a Hollywood film in the pipeline, it seems that her extraordinary life and accomplishments will not be forgotten.