23 March - 17 June 2007 Tamaki Gallery, Ground Floor
Elizabeth 'Lee' Miller (1907 - 1977) was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907. Lee was the first child and only daughter of an engineer/inventor who was also a rabid amateur photographer. An unconventional student, she was sent to Paris at eighteen to travel and study. After a year, her alarmed father fetched her home. But not for long. She ran off to Manhattan to study theatrical lighting and design.
From the moment in Manhattan when, as a young art student, she stepped out in front of a car to be pulled back on to the kerb by a man who happened to be the original owner of Vogue, Miller was always going to take the path less traveled. For this 21-year-old, to be discovered by Condé Nast in person and then be transformed into one of the most successful models in New York was remarkable enough, but for that model to become the eyes of the world to the true horrors of war could never have been predicted.
For Miller, what followed was years of frustration. In 1929 she traveled to Paris with the intention of learning photography from the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Miller soon became his photography assistant, as well as his lover and muse. While she was in Paris, she began her own photographic studio. After leaving Man Ray and Paris in 1932, she returned to New York and established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her business partner. In 1934, she abandoned her studio to marry Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. Eventually Miller bullied her way into a job at Vogue, doing what she regarded as a mere stopgap job that would serve to pass the time only until the moment when she was able to go to war.
But the policy of the British army that no female photographer would be given accreditation to go into the field left Miller performing tasks that she felt were humiliating and irrelevant. Faster lenses and higher film speeds meant that she was now able to take fashion models out of studios and place them in London's bombed-out buildings and war-damaged streets.
In 1941 she had met the Life photographer Dave Scherman. Miller was drawn to the 25-year-old Scherman because, as someone who had already escaped from almost two years as a prisoner of the Germans, he was the very embodiment of the modest, happy-go-lucky, seen-it-all wartime professional she most aspired to become.
It was, inevitably, Scherman who finally pointed out to his friend that if the reactionary British wouldn't take Miller, the progressive Americans would. In 1944 she became a correspondent accredited to the US Army.
One month after D-day, Lee Miller found herself landing on a Normandy beach. Deliberately choosing to misunderstand the strategic state of play, she made her way on foot into the port of St Malo, which the Eighth Army had not yet successfully secured, and from the centre of the battle she took startling images of its bombing and surrender. Within a few days of arriving on French soil, she had not just countermanded military orders and scooped the world press, she had also embarked on a second career. She then persuaded her editor, Audrey Withers, to let her double in the unlikely role of Vogue's war correspondent.
It is stunning, looking at what now constitutes the modern notion of a women's monthly magazine, to remember that it was indeed British Vogue that once published tens of thousands of words of Miller's graphic war journalism. To its lasting credit, Vogue also published her photographs of the inmates of Dachau and of Buchenwald.
For the nine months between the Allied landing and the long-delayed victory, Miller was everywhere she needed to be, often rash, always fearless, with Rolleiflex and typewriter, out among the GIs whom she idolised and adored, covering first the liberation of Paris, then the bitter, continuing attritional campaign in Alsace. Her nose for a story became a joke among her colleagues.
She was probably the only woman combat photo-journalist to cover the war in Europe and among her many exploits she witnessed the Liberation of Paris, the fighting in Luxembourg and Alsace, the Russian/American link up at Torgau, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. She billeted in both Hitler and Eva Braun's houses in Munich, and photographed Hitler's house Wachenfeld at Berchtesgaden in flames on the eve of Germany's surrender.
But even as she worked, her mood was becoming darker and darker, her behavior with drink and with men more impossible. The war was both feeding her and driving her mad. By the time she sat, like the great model she once had been, naked in Hitler's bath in his abandoned apartment in Munich for Scherman's most famous photograph, Lee Miller knew when the war stopped, so would her life. For more than a year after the ceasefire she refused to return home.
Miller took random assignments in Hungary, in Austria - one day, the execution of a fascist prime minister in a Budapest courtyard; another, dying skeletal children in drug-starved Viennese hospitals - all in the hope of being able to believe that there might somehow still be a brief, there might still be a purpose. The regime of Benzedrine, alcohol and coffee took its toll, and in 1946 Miller reluctantly returned home.
She worked on for Vogue for a few more years, without enthusiasm, then retired to a farm in Sussex. Miller had a terrible time dealing with the let-down when the war was over - typical of war photographers, many of whom were almost war junkies by 1945. Unlike most of her colleagues, though, she had had it with photography. Though she worked with Roland Penrose on his book on Picasso, she showed absolutely no interest in her photographs or in her place in photographic history. She was, in fact, openly antagonistic to inquiries about her work.
Instead, she became totally obsessed with cooking. She collected recipes. She collected cookbooks. She interviewed chefs. She cooked and cooked. She gave elaborate parties, and spent the rest of her life viewing the world through the bottom of a whiskey glass.
In the months after her death, her son Antony went up into the attic to discover the neglected store of 40,000 negatives and 500 prints that would form the posthumous basis of the Lee Miller Archive. For the last 30 years of her life, Miller did virtually nothing to promote her work. Nor did her husband Roland Penrose. That Miller's work is known today is mainly due to Antony’s efforts. He has been studying, conserving, and promoting his mother's work since the early 1980s.