The Curious Life of Lee Miller
When considering Women’s History Month, one must also consider Lee Miller and the various roles she adopted throughout her life. Elizabeth “Lee” Miller inspired the world through her contributions to photography, as well as her portrayal of historic events through her role as a photojournalist during and after World War II. Born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Lee Miller’s father, Theodore Miller, introduced her and her two brothers to the world of photography, often using the teenage Lee Miller as a nude model for his own amateur photography, creating images that are considered very controversial today. When she was 19, Miller was saved by Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, before she stepped in front of a car. This event ended up launching Miller’s modeling career since she appeared on the cover of Vogue as a representation of the “modern girl” shortly after.
After her fashion career ended following the publication of a photograph for advertising without her consent, Miller traveled to Paris in 1929 where she presented herself to the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, simply by declaring: “I’m your new student.” Miller became Man Ray’s apprentice, muse, and lover, working and collaborating so closely with Ray that many photographs taken during this period are credited to him. Nevertheless, Miller developed her own photographic skills and rediscovered the technique of solarization after an accident in the darkroom. Along with Man Ray, Miller met other modernist artists that were active in Paris at this time, including Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dali, who, although they supported intellectual and sexual liberation, were still among many male artists who expressed misogynistic attitudes in their artworks. Man Ray was no exception and, in 1932, Miller’s relationship with him ended, breaking Ray’s heart. Man Ray’s despair following this breakup led him to create some of his most memorable art, including the famous metronome with the ticking eye. The ticking eye was a photograph of Miller’s eye. He also created a series of paintings and objects relating to Miller’s lips.
Lee Miller, however, continued to grow and develop in the pursuit of a life free of the constraints of society that the Surrealist movement, and her photography, offered. In 1932, Miller returned to New York City, establishing a portrait and commercial photography studio, eventually founding the Lee Miller Studio. Miller had one solo exhibition in her life, abandoning her studio to marry the Egyptian businessman and engineer Aziz Eloui Bey, taking surrealist photographs in Egypt while living with Bey. In 1937, Miller returned to Paris, where she met the British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose, with whom she lived and eventually married in 1947.
In 1942, Miller became a photojournalist for Vogue, becoming an accredited photographer with the American army for Condé Nast Publications. As a photojournalist during World War II, Miller documented the Blitz, the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace, the liberation of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, and dying children in a Vienna hospital. One of Miller’s most famous photographs is one taken of her by American photographer David E. Scherman, a correspondent for Life, on the very day of Adolf Hitler’s suicide. In this photograph, taken on April 30, 1945, Miller is bathing in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub in his Munich apartment while her boots with the soil of Dachau dirty the bathroom floor. Like many other wartime photographers at this time, Miller worked to provide images and accounts of the casualties of the war to demonstrate to the public the truth of what was being seen and experienced during and after the war. In a telegram to Audrey Withers, the editor of Vogue at the time, Miller wrote: “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE!”
Upon her return to Britain, Miller suffered from episodes of clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism. In 1949, Miller moved to the Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex, with her husband, Penrose, and their son. By 1953, Miller gave up photography, but continued to be in touch with artists who visited the Farley Farm House, including Picasso and Man Ray, with whom she had reconciled and established a friendship until his death in 1976. Miller died soon thereafter of cancer in 1977.
In 1932, Lee Miller remarked to a journalist that she would rather “take a picture than be one.” Throughout her life and career, Miller sought to do just that: from being a model that was photographed and framed by others, she developed her own career as a surrealist photographer, seeking to move beyond sexist and societal restraints at the time, and worked to document terrible atrocities for the sake of history and the public. She acquired an independence and art form that inspired the very artists she had met in Paris and that had used her as a muse and had continued misogynistic atmospheres in their artworks, with many of them visiting her later in life. Although Lee Miller is often overlooked, her art and her story are significant in that they serve as a reminder of the significance of change, independence, and determination. Miller demonstrates how one should frame the world in different ways, shining a light on the various perspectives and aspirations that exist within it.
Hannon, Kerry. “Images Always in Style.” New York Times, November 1, 2015.
“Lee Miller.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 17, 2019.
“Much More than a Muse: The Art of Lee Miller and Man Ray.” NPR.org, August 20, 2011.
Villa, Angelica. “Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career Took Her from Vogue to War-
Torn Germany.” ARTnews.com, March 19, 2021.
Artnet.de, 2022. http://www.artnet.de/k%C3%BCnstler/man-ray/lee-miller.
“Lee Miller in Hitler’s Apartment at 16 Prinzregent - 2245.” www.leemiller.co.uk.
“Man Ray. Indestructible Object. 1964 (Replica of 1923 Original).” www.moma.org, n.d.
 Angelica Villa. “Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career Took Her from Vogue to War-Torn Germany.” ARTnews.com, March 19, 2021. https://www.artnews.com/feature/lee-miller-photography-vogue-man-ray-1234587240/.  “Lee Miller.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 17, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Miller.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Villa, “Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career.”  “Much More than a Muse: The Art of Lee Miller and Man Ray.” NPR.org, August 20, 2011. https://www.npr.org/2011/08/20/139766533/much-more-than-a-muse-lee-miller-and-manray?t=1646485208044.  Ibid.  “Lee Miller.”  Ibid.  Ibid.  Villa, “Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career.”  “Lee Miller.”  Kerry Hannon. “Images Always in Style.” New York Times, November 1, 2015. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/november-1-2015-page-12-f/docview/1933967439/se-2?accountid=14696.  Villa, “Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career.”  “Lee Miller.”  Villa, “Photographer Lee Miller’s Subversive Career.”