By Meredith Wadsworth
Elegant, well-mannered, proper, beautiful, faithful, nurturing, charming; charming; these have been qualities expected of women throughout much of history, and even in this day in age. To a large extent, women are held up to particular standards of behavior, and in effort to live up to those standards, women become objectified, marginalized, and “conventional.”We are fortunate enough to live in an era where it is not unheard of for women to desire a life outside the conventional—to a degree—but this was not always the case. It is only recently that women have been so encouraged to stray from the societal norms of femininity, embrace their individualism, and make a name for themselves. But even with this enlightened appreciation of women, there seems to be a fine line between a woman’ s respectful, individual ambition and a scandalous defiance of gender norms. This line has continually blurred in the last decades, and especially since the work of Lee Miller, a beautiful model, photographer, and rebel in her own right.
While Miller possessed many of the aforementioned womanly qualities, it was her boldness, fearlessness, and unwavering confidence that had, contrarily, garnered her more critique than acclaim during her lifetime. A living, breathing paradox, Miller had an untamed elegance, a disguised vulnerability, a charming humor despite a past ridden with trauma, and was perhaps the only woman alive who could fluidly “swing from the Siegfried Line to the new hipline.”1 Miller was a woman in a man’ s world, made fashion relevant in war, and brought emotional perspective to the conventional genre of documentary photojournalism. Most importantly, and arguably most misinterpreted, was Miller’ s exceptional ability to capture beauty, both devastating and desired.
In the mid 20th century, as inconceivable as it was for a woman to house an artistic genius, it was further incongruous for that woman to be a beautiful model, to take sorrowful, gruesome photographs, and to willingly place herself in such dangerous settings as the warfront and aftermath of Nazi liberation. A distant reading of Miller and her life story may frame her as unstable, abused, and vulnerable. But a deeper investigation into her life and her work, both the published and the unpublished, the fashion-focused and the personal, would reveal the true genius to her artistry, the strength behind her beauty, and the reason she is a role model to so many.
Miller’ s upbringing was far from ordinary. “Lee, rather often, had forgotten how to behave well,” stated her son Antony Penrose in a documentary version of his biographic work, The Lives of Lee Miller. After expulsion from several schools in her hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY, she eventually graduated from an all-girls Vassar prep school before convincing her parents to send her overseas to Paris. There, she spent much of her young adult life traveling and studying theatrics, stage, and costume design at L’ École Medgyes, and living the young, bohemian dream.
Throughout this time, however, Miller would return home periodically, eventually remaining in New York for some time, having fallen ill to a disease she acquired from being sexually abused by a family friend at the age of seven. Her parents, in the hopes of aiding Lee in her mental recovery from her abuse, had sent their daughter on several visits to a psychiatrist who would “[encourage] the young girl to believe that sex was merely a physical act and not linked to love.”2 Additionally, her father, Theodore Miller, began taking a series of images of Miller, bare-bodied and exposed to the camera. Theodore was”fascinated by photography,” as it was “a means to record things he loved…particularly his daughter”;3 images of Lee overwhelmed their family albums. It is unclear whether this disturbingly close relationship with her father was something Lee appreciated, but “as a direct source of strength and a powerful mentor,” her complaisance to his obsessive acts prevailed.4 However, as her career unfolded as a muse and fashion model, it would appear that Lee had internalized the advice of her childhood psychiatrist, had learned to “[cope] with the situation by dissociating…herself from the use of her body,” and came to possess that “sense of detachment” and “attractive aloofness” so desirable in a fashion model.5 After the esteemed Condé Nast saved her life from a moving truck on the streets of Manhatten, her radiating beauty struck the magazine mogul, and she spent time modeling for the many branches of Vogue. From her first appearance in the March 15th, 1927 illustrated cover, Miller graced the pages of the popular fashion publication with this very air of ease and comfort, “never appear[ing] self-conscious.”6
Even as she progressed to the other side of the camera, Miller’ s unrestrained relationship with her body and resulting independence continued to carry into her professional and personal life. Fond of the glamour and excitement that came with the life of a fashion model in Manhattan, Miller nonetheless yearned for her life in Paris, eager to be “swallowed up in the madness”7 of the romantic, bohemian city. She eventually found herself intrigued by the role of the photographer, and was determined to get behind the lens. Thus, in 1929, Miller departed for Europe yet again, “letters of introduction from Condé Nast to Man Ray and George Hoyningen-Huene,” chief photographer of French Vogue, in hand.8 In her admirable stubbornness, Miller managed to hunt down Man Ray, the popular Surrealist photographer, at a Parisian cafe, where she approached the artist and “boldly announced herself” as his “new student.”9
Miller was born with a strong aesthetic eye and a knack for Surrealism, but beyond that, according to Antony, she had “that quirky way of looking at things, seeing behind the picture, the joke, the pun –it’ s all part of her lexicon.”10 Indeed, these qualities are present throughout her work from the frontline, but they are worth noting in her work for Vogue as well. As described in the afterward for Lee Miller in Fashion, Becky Conekin’ s recently published biographic collection of her work, the “subversive Surrealism, ironic juxtapositions, and humbling humanity” that shines through her work are the qualities truly worthy of acclaim. While “Miller has been posthumously recuperated as an artist,” changing the field of photojournalism for good, “for a full assessment of her career, fashion is vital.”11
For those who knew Lee Miller solely as the woman who famously posed in Hitler’ s bathtub, the general reaction to her work during her lifetime was not one of praise; on the contrary, Miller was refuted for creating such harrowing, horrifying images from the war, and for placing them before the innocent eyes of Vogue’ s female readership. This sort of work, so far from the conventional feminine artistic musing, was not fit for a woman, especially a woman as beautiful and enchanting as Lee. As a result, Miller’s credibility was tainted, and her work was interpreted as unwomanly, ugly, and unpleasant for the eye. Nonetheless, as my research has taken me further and further into the depths of Miller’s work, spanning decades, oceans, and publications, I have come to the conclusion that there is an often-muted beauty in her images that captivates the viewer, preventing them from looking away. There is a scale of beauty existing throughout her photographs, from subtle to self-evident, varying from image to image, but nonetheless present. No other Surrealist came close to photojournalism,” nor did any other photojournalist come close to achieving Miller’s remarkable Surrealist content. Lee “saw the world through surrealist eyes,” noted Antony, and it is that aspect of her personality that created the “endearing and forcible quality” consistent in all of her images.12
Photographing that which was valued for fashion, that which was abject in war, and effectively bridging the gap between the two, Miller had an incomparable style that no man could have taught. While Miller’s relationship with Man Ray had initially provided her with access to further inspirational, artistic figures of history, it was entirely on Miller’ s own accord that she forged and maintained those connections. Seeing beneath the surface of every experience to even greater opportunity, Miller grew her own artistic abilities and made a name for herself that cannot be linked to any one influence. In a profession with relatively few accomplished female predecessors, Miller sought to create her own lineage, and in doing so created her family. Nestled into the archive, among her travels and Vogue assignments, is a family album of sorts, revealing her heartfelt connections with all whom she met along the way. While she swiftly moved from lover to lover, country to country, Miller severed no ties and burned no bridges. Every relationship she made was built to last, which only further speaks to her character and appeal—an attractiveness that was more than skin deep.
From her very first controversial move, out of view of the camera to behind the lens, Miller took it upon herself to create a revolution; beyond altering the face of fashion magazines and photojournalism, Miller refashioned the very perception of what it meant to be a woman in a changing society. “I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’ t waste a minute all my life’ – but I know myself, now, that if I had it over again, I’ d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection.”13 A classic beauty with an indomitable sense of self, Miller possessed a passion to see the world in a way that no woman—or photographer—had done before. Her humble approach to her work—having tucked away some 60,000 negatives in the attic—only amplifies her fans’ desires to search and discover the stories behind the images for themselves; taking the archives online was the only way to sustain all of their attention and adoration.