Only four female photographers were accredited as official war correspondents during World War Two and probably none had led a more glamorous life up to that point than Lee Miller. Jack Watkins went to see a new exhibition about this most interesting of characters, which has just opened at the Imperial War Museum.
The first half of Lee Miller’s life has the outward appearance of a Hollywood movie shot in Technicolour. Her photographic and modelling career embraced the inter-war glamour of New York and Paris, travel to exotic continents, and the tragedy of war. Yet the second half saw a descent into depression and alcoholism, and when she died, aged 70, in 1977, her work was pretty much forgotten. Despite being a participant in the Surrealist movement, she was not much more than another name, a footnote in the biographies of the accepted greats of the 20th century avant garde, such as Man Ray, Picasso and Jean Cocteau.
The rebirthing of Miller’s reputation in more recent times owes much to Antony Penrose, her son by her second husband, the English Surrealist painter and poet Roland Penrose. Antony has admitted that he didn’t much like his mother while she was still living, and that they rowed incessantly. Miller’s last decades, from the late 1940s, were spent in East Sussex, at the farmhouse near Lewes where she and Roland had made their home, and in which Antony was brought up.
It was only upon her death, when he was foraging in the attic for a picture of himself as a boy, that he came across a collection of over 60,000 of Miller’s negatives, plus 70,000 original prints and a large number of manuscripts and letters. Developing a greater appreciation of his mother’s earlier accomplishments, and the reasons why she refused to talk much about the Second World War, he has since become her champion. He has established the Lee Miller Archives, has ensured the farmhouse has been kept as it was in his mother’s day, when its guests included many leading figures of the arts world, and has opened it to the public.
He has also assisted in the curation of many exhibitions on Miller. However, at the press viewing of the latest, at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), he was keen to pay tribute to the IWM curator Hilary Roberts, a specialist in the history of war photography, for her painstaking studies which have enabled a greater understanding of Miller’s work in the context of its time, and established its wider historical value beyond the Surrealist movement. The new show is also unusual in that its prime focus, while still offering a fine and moving overview of its subject’s life, is to reflect something of the impact of the Second World War on women.
Lee Miller was at ease on both sides of the camera. She’d begun her career in 1927 as one of Vogue magazine’s most beautiful models. Gradually, though, she developed her own photographic skills. She went to Paris and lived with Man Ray, but found her relationship with him restrictive, sensing a streak of misogyny, and becoming aware that the liberated lifestyles many of the male Surrealists publicly embraced were one-sided. A free spirit herself, her photographs of this time often hinted at underlying tensions between the genders.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Vogue was increasingly working with the Ministry of Information in the field of soft propaganda, and her assignments were focused on the role of women in uniform. Even then, she found time to create images of females challenging or overcoming gender barriers to play a part in the reportage of hostilities. She took a photo of Martha Gellhorn in 1943, seated at her dressing table for a British Vogue feature on ‘newsmakers and newsbreakers’. Gellhorn was the only female reporter to witness the D-Day landings, after stowing away on board a hospital ship. Miller’s picture showed a portrait of Gellhorn’s husband Ernest Hemingway hanging above her head. His competitive opposition to Gellhorn’s war work would ultimately lead to the failure of their marriage.
Always carefully framed, some of the photos Miller took in this period were staggeringly beautiful, and shot from interesting angles that stamped a sense of meaningfulness upon the roles women in the services were performing. A picture of a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at work in the darkroom is imbued with sombre mystery. Best of all was a night-time shot of two hard-hatted ATS searchlight operators photographed in silhouette, the feminine facial bone structures illuminated by the beam of the light behind them. It’s a picture as heroic as anything Cecil Beaton took of London’s stoicism amidst the flames of the Blitz. Later in the War she’d take another silhouetted figure, that of opera singer Irmgard Seefried singing an aria from Madame Butterfly in the ruins of the Vienna Opera House.
Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.
Miller, though, retained her own pin-up quality. Once she became a rare example of an officially accredited female American war correspondent – Britain had none, and the United States only four – she was shown in uniform in full make-up, any imperfections of hair or skin visibly scraped away from the surface of the print paper in the way of those pre-Photoshop days. Things, though, were getting grimmer. She’d been sent over to France as the only female photographer to take pictures of the aftermath of the Normandy landings in 1944, and this once hypochondriac, pernickety woman who’d always loved her creature comforts, suddenly embraced the war correspondent role full on, mucking in amongst the GIs.
She witnessed the liberation of Paris, but the sights she was to see afterwards were more, not less, unsettling. Immaculate compositions were replaced by bitter reality. There was a picture of a French woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, whose hair had been completely shaven off in punishment. More upbeat was one of a stylish Parisian resistance worker, whose deliberately extravagant, full-skirted dress and hair piled magnificently high were recognised as a form of resistance to the rations imposed on Nazi-occupied France. Miller was alive to the symbolism, but the publication of the photo caused resentment in Britain, where its message was misunderstood.
Two German women sitting on a park bench surrounded by destroyed buildings, Cologne, Germany 1945 by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.
When Miller passed through uninvaded Alsace and Aachen, there was another change of tone. A picture of a woman laying out her laundry on the grass under a bright, benevolent sky reflected Miller’s first impression of Germany as a country untouched by the War. That changed when she saw the ruins of Cologne, and then the horrors of the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Famously, in Munich in April 1945, she was photographed taking an impudent bath in Hitler’s Munich apartment, shortly after his death, and the day after she’d visited a prison camp.
Miller was so unsettled by the war that she probably suffered what we would now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder. The final picture of the exhibition shows her in her kitchen in the Sussex farmhouse, still beautiful in late middle age. Alongside it, a Roland Penrose painting tells a painfully different story, that of a sad, withdrawn figure. If Lee Miller didn’t die for her art exactly, her soul was almost certainly a victim of collateral damage.
‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’ is at the Imperial War Museum to 24 April 2016.
Photographs in the Lee Miller Archives can be viewed at www.leemiller.co.uk
For the opening hours of her former home, see www.farleyfarmhouse.co.uk