I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of Lee Miller before today. I hadn’t heard of her until I saw a picture she had taken on the London Underground. It was of a wartime pilot, looking out from the narrow cockpit of her plane. The picture was an advert for an exhibition of Miller’s work at the Imperial War Museum.
I’d invested in an Artfund Pass last Summer and, for shame, have gotten little to no use from it thus far. I want to see lots more exhibitions this year so on New Year’s Day I embraced this resolution with great gusto and began booking tickets at museums. And a visit to see Miller’s work was one of them.
Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller was born in 1907 to Theodore and Florence Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York. She had a relatively happy, nondescript childhood until the age of 7 when she was raped by a family friend and contracted gonorrhoea. Her mother had to administer treatment for this and it’s not clear if Miller ever forgave her for it – for the rape or the treatment of its physical legacy.
Shortly after this Miller’s father, a keen amateur photographer, began to take pictures of his daughter. However, over time his photographs of Lee blurred the lines of the parent / child relationship and his model was required to appear nude in her father’s pictures. The more pictures Miller was required to pose for, the more erotic the result.
Miller, a surrealist, was keen to take her father’s work seriously so that she might herself one day become a photographer. She enjoyed the creativity of the surrealist movement and it’s favourable attitude towards pleasure yet she always felt that the pleasure of male surrealists took precedence over that of their female counterparts and this is reflected in her work.
Later, in her 20s Miller had a chance encounter with Vogue chief Condé Nast himself who put her on the cover of his magazine and set her on the path to become a war correspondent. Miller, soon tired of fashion modelling, and, after a brief stint – and marriage – in Egypt, moved to London where she was able to transition to a life behind the lens. And then World War 2 broke out and everything changed.
As fighting continued with no end in sight the Ministry of Information put pressure on British Vogue to rally the support of British women for the war effort. It started with embracing simpler fashions with hints and tips on how a woman could still feel elegant but as the war raged on such things seemed too far removed from British daily life that the magazine was forced to address the conflict head on and Miller became the magazine’s one and only war correspondent.
One of only 4 female US war correspondents Miller approached the task at hand with zeal as though she had finally been awakened from a paralysing slumber. Over the course of World War II she documented the lives of the women of war, whether they were participants within the war effort or those who remained, ever changed, as it drew to a close.
As a woman she gained access that a male photographer couldn’t – and probably wouldn’t – have dreamed of. One particularly poignant image of servicewomen whose quarters are adorned with portraits of their children dotted in amongst their regulation boots stood out to me.
Miller mucked in with the boys and was exhilarated in doing so. How ironic that a war had afforded her the opportunity to thrive in a profession she hadn’t known she longed for back in Poughkeepsie. The exhibition itself contains 150 images dating from her childhood to life after the war.
Although wonderfully curated I struggled with some elements of the exhibition. As you enter, for example, the room itself is full of jagged edges and there is limited space to stand and take in the information and images of Miller’s formative years. For example, immediately to your left as you come in is text on the wall introducing the visitor to Miller. A quarter turn clockwise we see images of pre-Vogue Miller projected onto a wall. Another quarter turn, stills on the wall and more text. Another quarter and there’s a television screen running a slideshow of the photographs Miller’s father used to take of her up until early adulthood. There is no flow of movement through this part of the exhibition and it was quite frustrating to feel like I wasn’t quite getting all the information. Although perhaps this sensation of missing out mirrored Miller’s own youthful longing for another life.
There are some terrific artefacts housed in the exhibition, featured in cabinets around the room. However, they are poorly displayed. Handwritten letters from lovers – notably from her great love, Roland Penrose; typed exchanges- one from Condé Nast himself, praising Miller for the quality of her photographs- are exciting to see. Incredibly intriguing stuff. Except it is nigh impossible to read large chunks of text because the letters are displayed so far back from the glass which shields them from us mere mortals. If you visit this exhibition bring your glasses and / or a magnifying glass.
At the end of the exhibition there is a bench nestled between two red pillars. There is a black telephone receiver on each pillar. Though poorly signposted this is a gem of the exhibition – this is where we hear Miller’s voice for the first time as she chats with an American DJ about her experiences at war. Truly fascinating and just hearing Miller’s voice gave me chills.
A remarkable woman and a remarkable exhibition, highlighting the extraordinary contribution that women made to the war effort.
Where do they go from here – the Servicewomen and all the others, who without the glamour in uniform, have queued, and kept factories, homes and offices going? Their value is more than proven…how long before a grateful nation (or anyway the men of the nation) forget what women accomplished when the country needed them?
-British Vogue, 1945
The exhibition also touches on Miller’s life after the war where she tragically sank into depression, self-medicating with alcohol. It is not clear whether the war distracted her from the trauma of her youth which may have returned to haunt her in adulthood. I think it may have been a combination of this and the frustration of being expected to return to a predetermined, pre-war life – all mild-mannered domesticity – after having truly experienced the world and all the horror and glory of the human condition.
After the war, Miller married Roland Penrose and their son Antony was born soon after. By the 1950s her life as a war correspondent had all been forgotten and the images she shot were locked away and not discussed. It was only in her death that son Antony discovered this important facet of his mother’s past and vowed to bring her photographs back to life. Her former Vogue editor, Audrey Withers, recalled of Miller:
She was reluctant to abandon the adventurous life in which she had found her true vocation and sensed rightly that she would never again have the opportunities it had given her.
The exhibition of Lee Miller’s work runs until 24th April 2016. Please do visit and help keep the legacy of this remarkable woman’s work alive. Photography within the exhibition is strictly prohibited. However, Artfund made a short promotional video with present day war correspondent Kate Adie which you can watch below. Photographs of Miller’s work contained within this post are taken from postcards available for purchase in the Imperial War Museum shop.
Until next time,