Culture » Art & Design » Thoroughly Modern Miller
Thoroughly Modern Miller
Whether Lee Miller was shooting the atrocities of World War II or the latest collections from Paris, her eye was unflinching. A new book, Lee Miller in Fashion, adapted here, looks back on the photographer, model, and muse’s audacious life in style.
In 1927, in a brownstone apartment on West 48th Street in New York, 19-year-old Lee Miller listened to the radio as she brushed her blonde bob and donned a smart ensemble she’d bought in Paris the previous year. Perhaps it was the bad weather or the late hours she had been keeping, but as she headed out of the building and stepped off the curb, she failed to see a car heading straight for her. Luckily, amid the honking horns and screaming cabbies, she quite literally fell into the arms of the publisher Condé Nast. And though he was often surrounded by beautiful women, Nast was quickly taken with her big blue eyes, perfect red lips, and lithe figure. Miller, he decided on the spot, embodied the intangible quality of chic he sought to reflect in his magazines. A few months later, she appeared on the cover of the American and British editions of Vogue sporting a vivid blue cloche that set off her eyes, the glittering Manhattan skyline as her backdrop.
Miller would go on to find fame as a war correspondent and a surrealist artist, best known for the photographs she took in Europe during World War II and her friendships with artists like Man Ray (her mentor and lover in the late ’20s and early ’30s) and Pablo Picasso (who painted her portrait in 1937). But it was in the fashion world—where she worked both in front of and behind the lens—that this stunning, boundary-breaking woman got her start.
Born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where her father, Theodore, was an executive, Miller lived through a childhood marred by trauma. When she was 7, her mother, Florence, became ill, and Lee was sent to stay with family friends in Brooklyn. There she was raped by the family’s son and contracted a venereal disease, for which she received excruciating treatments for many years. Her forward-thinking parents employed a psychiatrist who encouraged her to believe that sex was merely a physical act and not linked to love, in the hope of staving off feelings of guilt. It’s not surprising that her parents were thereafter extremely indulgent toward the young Lee. What is difficult to comprehend, perhaps, is that Theodore began regularly photographing her in the nude, starting just before her 8th birthday and continuing until she was in her 20s. But ultimately it might have been those experiences that enabled Miller to separate her feelings from her body while modeling, bestowing upon her that distinct characteristic of the greatest mannequins: a captivating aloofness.
After her first Vogue covers, Miller became one of the photographer Edward Steichen’s favorite models. In Nast’s 30-room Park Avenue penthouse, furnished with chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors, and Louis XV furniture, Steichen shot Miller draped in furs, jewels, and couture gowns. Over the next two years, Miller flitted between Nast’s parties—peopled with the likes of Josephine Baker, Cecil Beaton, and Fred Astaire—and the Upper West Side bohemian set’s bootleg gin bashes, where Dorothy Parker held court. A panoply of suitors—including Charlie Chaplin—took her to dance, sail, watch polo, and fly in two-seater planes.
But Miller was not content with her role as a beautiful young thing. After two years of modeling and studying Steichen’s methods, she decided to “enter photography by the back end,” as she told a journalist many decades later, clearly aware of how kinky her words sounded. When Steichen showed her the innovative work of Man Ray, who lived in Paris, she decided to move there and find the American photographer. Armed with letters of introduction, she set sail in May 1929. She chased Man Ray around the city for several weeks; finally she cornered him in a bar and told him: “My name is Lee Miller, and I’m your new student.” Man Ray replied that he did not take on students and, anyway, he was leaving for Biarritz the next day for vacation. “So am I,” she retorted. And so for the next three years, she would be his lover, apprentice, and muse. When he “touched you,” she would later recall, “you felt almost a magnetic heat.”
Man Ray took hundreds of photographs of Miller, and the pair developed new photographic techniques together; “solarization” began as an exposure mistake Miller had made in the darkroom. Soon, she began to take on assignments that he was bored by or too busy for. But then came the Wall Street crash, and Man Ray suddenly had less work. Miller luckily had the professional refuge of French Vogue, where she worked as a model and an assistant in the studio of the famed Russian expat Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. By the winter of 1930, she had her own studio in Montparnasse and began shooting regularly for leading couturiers, including Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel.
That same year she was cast as the female lead in Jean Cocteau’s first film, The Blood of a Poet, which made Man Ray fiercely jealous, as Cocteau was one of his artistic rivals. Exasperated by Man Ray’s possessiveness, Miller left for New York, where in 1932 she set up a new photo studio near Radio City Music Hall. With a bit of help from her Condé Nast connections, it flourished even in the Depression; by 1934, Miller’s name had appeared on Vanity Fair’s list of the “most distinguished living photographers” alongside Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton. But just as abruptly as it had begun, this phase of her career ended, when an old beau from Paris, a wealthy Egyptian named Aziz Eloui Bey, turned up in Manhattan. They were married in July 1934; Miller closed her studio, and they moved to Cairo.
The romance didn’t last long. In the summer of 1937, Miller convinced Bey that she needed to spend time in Paris alone. The night she arrived, she met the English surrealist and collector Roland Penrose at a costume ball, and the pair became inseparable, traveling to the South of France, where they visited Picasso. The most famous testaments to this enchanted summer are Picasso’s portrait of Miller and Penrose’s photographs of Man Ray, his lover Ady Fidelin, Penrose and Miller, and Nusch and Paul Eluard picnicking languidly in the sunshine, the women all topless.
Miller returned to Cairo at the end of the summer but found Egyptian society stultifying. She met up with Penrose whenever the opportunity arose, and in the summer of 1939 they returned to the South of France. But when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in September and Britain and France declared war on Germany, Penrose and Miller rushed back to his home in London, just in time to hear the first air-raid sirens wailing. As the war dragged on, Miller began turning up at the offices of British Vogue, becoming one of the magazine’s most prolific fashion photographers, shooting everything from “Bargain of the Month” to full-page features. But, according to her sometime lover, the Life photographer David E. Scherman, the prospect of “being left out of the biggest story of the decade almost drove poor Lee Miller mad.” He suggested that she apply for accreditation as a war correspondent.
Miller headed to France, getting as close to the front line as she could. Instead of the quiet picture story on U.S. Army nurses in the hospitals of Normandy that her editors at British Vogue were expecting, she sent startling photographs that included a badly burned GI, his face covered with bandages. Just as Miller had ignored presumed boundaries between artist and model and fine art and commercial photography, she blurred the lines between fashion and war reportage. The pieces she wrote to accompany her images overflowed with rich descriptions of the chaos around her. In her second major story, covering the siege of St. Malo, she described the company of American soldiers as “ready to go into action, grenades hanging on their lapels like Cartier clips.”
On August 25, 1944, when French and American forces liberated Paris, Miller headed straight there and was struck by the surprisingly ubiquitous smell of perfume. The young women, she wrote, were “dazzling,” with their makeup-free faces, flowing hair, and “tiny waist-lines” in “full floating skirts.” Lucien Lelong, the president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, had negotiated with the Nazis to keep the couture industry in Paris. When the ateliers officially reopened in October that year, Miller was there, telling her readers to expect “much black,” along with red and chocolate—the “tantalizing choice of a sweet-starved people.” Miller’s intimate knowledge of both fashion and the front line enabled her to capture the historic importance of the first postwar collections, as well as the difficulties of daily life.
Still, she also found time to photograph Marlene Dietrich and her old friends Picasso, Dora Maar, and Cocteau. “This is the first allied soldier I have seen, and it’s you!” Picasso exclaimed upon her arrival. (He was less thrilled to discover that while he was out of the room, Miller had eaten the tomatoes off the plant he had cultivated throughout the Occupation—and which had been the inspiration for a dozen paintings.) When the war ended, in May 1945, Miller went to Germany to photograph concentration camps. American Vogue ran her images of the burned bones of starved prisoners, furnaces, and piles of skeletal bodies. “Believe It” the story was titled.
Postwar, Miller juggled her life as a fashion photographer with her new role as a mother. Discovering she was pregnant with Penrose’s child in 1947, she wrote to him: “There is only one thing. My work room is not going to be a nursery!” Bey agreed to a divorce, and Miller gave birth to a son, Antony Penrose. Two years later, the family settled in East Sussex, England, fulfilling Penrose’s lifelong dream of becoming a gentleman farmer. With its 120 acres and relatively easy access to London and to Europe, Penrose and Miller’s home would become a bustling nexus for artists and writers in the years to come.
But while she assumed the role of quirky hostess and gourmet cook, Miller was still haunted by the war. Returning to civilian life as a fashion photographer was a dramatically dissonant experience, even for a former model. Penrose secretly wrote to her British Vogue editor: “I implore you, please do not ask Lee to write again. The suffering it causes her and those around her is unbearable.” By 1953, Miller had stopped working entirely. And yet, in her final years, she was still very much in demand. Addressing the many requests for photographs that came her way, Miller, who died in 1977 of cancer, would claim that they had been destroyed during the war and were best forgotten. “Oh, I did take a few pictures,” she would say. “But that was a long time ago.”