Lee Miller: Photographs

Image of Lee Miller: Photographs
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

At night in London during World War II it was common for giant searchlights to scan the skies in an attempt to locate enemy aircraft. When a hostile flying object was spotted, searchlights  from all directions would suddenly focus and freeze on the object. Similarly the life and career of the photographer Lee Miller (1907–1977) are suddenly the focus of the searchlights of art historians who have frozen their sights on this elusive and extraordinary figure in 20th century art.

This new appraisal and appreciation of the model turned photographer is amplified by Lee Miller: Photographs with an introduction and curation by her son, Antony Penrose.

Coincidentally, London searchlights figure prominently in two images from the book on pages 70 and 71, which depict heroic women standing before the powerful beacons of light that lit up the sky.

Lee Miller will be the subject of the film Lee, scheduled for release in 2023. Kate Winslet, an Academy Award-winning actress, will star as Lee Miller. Winslet contributed the foreword to Lee Miller: Photographs. The prestigious Gagosian Gallery has announced an ambitious exhibition of her work and her influence on other avant-garde artists. The exhibition is set to open at Gagosian’s  New York City gallery in November 2023.

Lee Miller was objectified by the male gaze from an early age, as Winslet notes. Whether she was merely photographed or highly exploited by her amateur photographer father, Lee Miller was objectified by the male gaze from an early age. She was photographed nude by her father in a manner that is questionable to our current sensibilities. A nude stereoscopic image by Theodore Miller of his daughter at age 21 is beautiful and haunting. It is the first photograph illustrating Penrose’s introduction.

Despite this controversy, her father did enable her to be comfortable and competent on both sides of the camera. Lee became technically proficient with the equipment and chemistry of photography. Her modeling for her father evolved into a career posing for fashion and art photography by many of the most famous names in the field.

Contemporary photographers such as Sally Mann and Jock Sturges have each suffered from a more current set of standards that can criminalize the naked depiction of pre-pubescent and post-pubescent children. This was not the case for Lee Miller and her father.

Miller grew to be a legendary beauty who had the perfect face and body for fashion photographers in the 1920s. She was tall, striking, and blond. Her cool beauty was the Jazz Age come to life, as Winslet notes in her foreword.

Famously, Miller made a decision at the height of her career as an early supermodel, to rotate from the front of the lens to the back by announcing as Winslet quotes her, “I would rather take a photograph than be one.“

That declaration becomes the essence of what makes Lee Miller: Photographs so powerful and so important. Lee Miller refused to be defined solely by her physical presence. She had so much more to offer.

This transformation creates one of the most complicated and astonishing lives to have been lived. Miller dwelled in the major art capitals of the world among the major artists and writers of her time. She emerged from the New York/London/Paris artistic axis to become a muse and member of the surrealists. Her affair and collaboration with Man Ray enabled the emergence  of a new photographic technique—solarization. She befriended and photographed Picasso for 50 years  while she lived the life of a true libertine. Her creativity exploded as she undertook her photography with a passion. Her fashion photography and portraits of her friends and her milieu are well documented by Penrose in his text and in his choice of photographs that form the body of the book.

But that creative and liberated Bohemian era was about to be challenged with the approach of war in Europe. She had achieved successful careers in modeling, fashion, commercial, and travel photography. She was a surrealist visionary and muse, as well as a landscape photographer for ten years in Egypt during a surprising and difficult marriage to a wealthy and privileged man. But circumstances would cause Miller to pivot again.

A different persona became to emerge particularly through her pre-war return to Europe and her affair with noted poet and author, Roland Penrose, whom she met at a surrealist-inspired costume party on her first day back in Paris in June 1937. They traveled throughout Europe despite her marriage, and she documented many locations that were threatened by the gathering thunderclouds of war. She returned to Egypt in 1939, to be joined by Penrose, and to formalize her separation from the Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey.

Lee and Roland were in London at the start of the war in September 1939. Miller started with fashion, but the war created another set of photographic preoccupations. Her work gradually evolved into documenting the effects of the London blitz and the work of women in the war effort. Miller was particularly interested in their war clothing; boots, coveralls, and helmets became a new fashion statement for her to record.

Subsequently Lee Miller was able to create a new version of herself as a full-fledged war and combat photographer. She heroically joined and documented many dangerous missions on the war front while under intense fire. Her photographs of the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps are shocking and poignant. Penrose makes a point by including several of them in the book.

Miller’s post-war years are only briefly mentioned, but other books on Lee Miller note her descent into alcoholism, depression, and PTSD, which were likely caused by her war experiences. Perhaps this period was too painful for Antony Penrose to cover given that Miller was his mother. But it is known that her archive of photographs disappeared into the attic of their old farmhouse, Farley Farm, for the remaining 20 years of her life. She did do some limited photography but it was only intended to help Roland in his biographies of luminaries including Picasso, Man Ray, Joan Miro, and others. Her archive in the attic was only discovered after her death.

Lee Miller: Photographs is a beautifully produced book. The reproductions are impressive and inspiring as are the words of Kate Winslet and Anthony Penrose.

There is no question that Lee Miller was one of the most unique and compelling figures in 20th century art and photography. Fortunately there is now a recognition of  the important role that women played in photographic history. Lee Miller‘s time in the spotlight is long overdue and richly deserved.

Lee Miller: Photographs will appeal simultaneously to art scholars and to those needing an introduction to the life and work of this remarkable woman.