On a recent weekend in Philly, I attended a preview of “The Art of Lee Miller,” a major retrospective of the photographer’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which originally showed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I was also lucky enough to catch a talk given by her only son, Antony Penrose. Despite the 350-plus crowd in the museum auditorium, it felt like a rather intimate affair. The quick-witted Penrose, 60, shared a handful of his own family photos in his accompanying slideshow and traced his mother’s life from her years as a fashion model in New York to her apprenticeship in Paris with Man Ray to her later stint as a photojournalist covering WWII. “I found soon after I was born,” he remarked at one point, “that I had been featured in Vogue’s December 1947 issue, and the marvelous thing was that, when the magazine was closed, I was able to bury my face in the ample chest of Diamond Lil.” (Her photo was opposite his baby picture.)
All of this and more is well-represented in the exhibit itself, which encompasses images from the horrific to the elegant. It’s startling to see Miller’s harrowing photographs of Buchenwald and then see Miller herself, beautifully modeling a Patou hat. Indeed, it’s the many faces of the artist herself, that make her—and this exhibit—so fascinating. “I remembered her at worst as a useless drunk,” Penrose said, “and at best as a beautiful enigma who bore no resemblance to the woman I know and hated so much.” (Throughout, he didn’t hold back in describing his turbulent relationship with his mother. “She knew how to use words to devastating effect,” he said.)
At the end, in response to an audience query, Penrose mentioned that a Lee Miller biopic might be in the works. “We have interest from—I can’t say the guy’s name—but he’s an A-list director,” he said. “Things are getting cranked up.” And the actress he would most like to portray his mother? “Cate Blanchett,” he answered, without skipping a beat.
Self Portrait in Headband, New York, 1932 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved.