“I would rather make a picture rather than be one.”
Such was the appetite for life of the American fashion model, photographer, artist and muse, war correspondent and gourmet cook Lee Miller which combined with her beauty contrived to ensure that her desire was only partially met.
Taught by her amateur photographer father the rudiments of the craft whilst she modeled in the nude for him in her teens, Miller threw over a successful New York modeling career with Vogue to become a student of the surrealist artist Man Ray.
At the age of 22 Miller went to Paris in pursuit of her quarry.
About which the Telegraph reports her as saying “It was intentional on my part, I was chasing him.”
They first met in a Paris bar where she introduced herself “My name is Lee Miller, and I’m your new student.’ Man [Ray] said, ‘I don’t have students.’ He was leaving for Biarritz the next day, and I said, ‘So am I.’ I never looked back!”
Over the next three years Miller was Man Ray’s student, assistant, collaborator and lover. They fell out over the photograph Neck - portrait of Lee Miller (see above) three years later. Taken by Man Ray but rescued from the trash and worked up by Miller they quarreled severely over its authorship.
In 1932 Miller returned to New York and opened a commercial photographic studio. Her Paris work was included in the Julien Levey Gallery’s exhibition Modern European Photography and the following year she had the only solo exhibition held in her life time.
Miller then married the business man Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Egypt. Whilst she photographed the pyramids, the desert and portraits of the “the black-satin-and-pearls set” expatriates, Miller became bored and returned to Paris after three years of living in the lap of luxury.
When World War II broke out Miller was in London and she took up photojournalism.
“Naturally I took pictures. What’s a girl supposed to do when a battle lands in her lap?” the New York Times has reported her as saying.
Before America entered the conflict Miller sent images of the London Blitz to American Vogue. After the “Yanks went over there” Miller became an accredited war correspondent for Vogue and reported, in both words and pictures, many of the atrocities she encountered in Europe. Including the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau and during the war’s aftermath of children dying in a Vienna Hospital.
“I hope no one will ever forget the subject of those photos. Because I won’t,” she has been reported as saying.
And she didn’t. Suffering what today would be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Miller abandoned her photography and journalism retreating into the arms of alcohol addiction. Although she was able to develop her culinary skills cooking gourmet meals for pre-war friends like Man Ray, Miro and Picasso.
But as her son Antony Penrose, who is the director of his mother’s archive and his father’s, surrealist artist Sir Roland Penrose, collection, has said “I knew she was handy with a camera when I was little — but that was about it. She never talked about the war.”
The exhibition The Indestructible Lee Miller is currently on show at Fort Lauderdale’s NUS Art Museum until the 14th of February next year.