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Lee Miller: From muse to war photographer

June 11, 2023

A chronicler of the 20th century, from her surrealist experiments with Man Ray to gripping photos from World War II, Lee Miller put her unique stamp on all of her work, as shown by a retrospective in Hamburg.

In a black and white photo taken by Lee Miller in London in 1941, two women sit at the entrance to a wooden air-raid shelter, both turned to the right towards the camera. The woman on the right wears a protective metal mask over her eyes; the woman on the left wears a protective metal mask with eye holes over her entire face, and a metal helmet.
Image: Lee Miller Archives, East Sussex, England. www.leemiller.co.uk

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907, Elizabeth "Lee" Miller showed an early interest in the arts and Europe, moving to Paris at age 18 to study lighting, costume and design at a theater school. A year later, she moved to New York City, studying theater, drawing and painting.

In a photo by Martin Schuett taken at a Lee Miller exhibition in Erfurt in 2020, two people stand in front of a large black and white photo of Miller, seen in profile. She is dressed in clothing typical for the 1920, including a cloche hat.
Lee Miller started modeling in the late 1920s, posing for legendary photographers such as Edward Steichen and George Huyningen-HueneImage: Martin Schutt/picture alliance/dpa

The accidental model

Soon after, she became one of the most sought-after models in New York, purely by accident, when Conde Montrose Nast, the publisher of Vogue magazine, saved her from getting run over by a car. But Miller quickly tired of modeling, and was far more interested in taking photographs herself.

In a black and white photo from 1966, the artist Man Ray poses in front of a portrait he made of Lee Miller.
Man Ray and Lee Miller collaborated with and inspired each other, and were both hugely influential for surrealist artImage: picture alliance / dpa

Surrealism's golden couple

In 1929, Miller returned to Paris, where she became the student, muse, lover and collaborator of the artist and photographer Man Ray. Together, they made the technique of solarization — used here in this portrait of Miller made by Ray — one of their aesthetic trademarks. Miller set up her own photographic studio and established herself as an artist.

In a black and white photo by Lee Miller from 1937, an Egyptian desert landscape is seen through the tear in a screen window.
Lee Miller, 'Portrait of Space,' Egypt, 1937Image: Lee Miller Archives, East Sussex, England. www.leemiller.co.uk

Making art in the desert

After leaving Man Ray, Miller married her first husband, Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, in 1934 and moved with him to Cairo. There, she applied her surrealism-trained eye to photographing the natural landscape of Egypt, resulting in some of her best-known artworks like this photo, "Portrait of Space."

Lee Miller Ausstellung in Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg
Lee Miller, 'Auxiliary Territorial Service searchlight operators,' North London, 1943Image: Lee Miller Archives, East Sussex, England. www.leemiller.co.uk

War photography through a surrealist's eye

In 1937, Miller returned to Paris, where she met her second husband, the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose, with whom she later had a son. The couple settled in London, and with the outbreak of the Second World War, Miller decided to put her photographic skills to use as a war correspondent for Vogue magazine.

She traveled through England and Europe and was at the frontlines, the only woman photographer granted permission to travel independently in the war zones. The photos she took during this period merged photojournalism with art, as her surrealist sensibilities informed the framing of her shots.

The woman in Hitler's bathtub

Miller was also praised for picking out small moments that a man might have missed. One of her most famous photos shows her bathing in Hitler's bathtub in Munich on the same day the Nazi dictator committed suicide in Berlin. She was billeted in Hitler's Munich apartment after documenting the liberated Dachau concentration camp.

Miller was motivated by empathy more than a desire to aestheticize, and her photos of the death and destruction und human suffering she witnessed retain their shocking power more than seven decades later. 

In a black and white photo taken by Lee Miller in 1944, she stand on the right smiling at Pablo Picasso, on the left, who has his left hand around the back of her neck. A white statue by Picasso of a man is on the left in the background.
Lee Miller, 'Picasso and Lee Miller in his studio,' Paris, 1944Image: Lee Miller Archives, East Sussex, England. www.leemiller.co.uk

Pals with Picasso

Lee Miller shared close friendships with several of her fellow artists, including Pablo Picasso. She took nearly 1,000 photos of him during the four decades they knew each other, and he painted her six times. Miller’s son, Antony Penrose, has written a children’s book about his childhood experiences with the artist, titled "The Boy Who Bit Picasso." This photograph by Miller of the two was taken at Picasso’s studio in Paris shortly after the liberation of the city by Allied forces.

In a black and white photo by Lee Miller from 1940, a ruined mechanical typewriter lies smashed on the ground.
Lee Miller, 'Remington Silent,' London, 1940Image: Lee Miller Archives, East Sussex, England. www.leemiller.co.uk

A farewell to photojournalism

Miller remained deeply affected by what she saw and documented during the war, and suffered from depression and alcoholism after returning to England. She eventually gave up photography, turning her creativity to cooking gourmet meals for her friends and family.

Lee Miller died of cancer at the age of 70 in 1977. Her trailblazing influence and legacy, both as an artist and a war reporter, have earned her an important place in the history of 20th-century photography. The Bucerius Kunst Forum in Hamburg is now dedicating a retrospective to this remarkable photographer. 

Edited by: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

Tanya Ott Culture reporter, editor, translator, producer and voiceover artist based in Berlin.