Born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, about 100 kilometers north of New York City, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller had an early interest in the arts and Europe. At 18 she went to Paris to study lighting, costume and design at a theater school. A year later she moved to New York City, where she studied theater, drawing and painting.
The “accidental” model
As soon as she arrived in the Big Apple, she became one of the most sought-after models in the city. It was a coincidence that happened when Conde Nast, editor of Vogue magazine, saved her from being run over by a car. But Miller quickly grew tired of modeling and became more interested in taking pictures himself.
Surrealism with Man Ray
In 1929 she returned to Paris, where she became the student, muse, lover and collaborator of the artist and photographer Man Ray. Together they made solarization one of their aesthetic trademarks. (Ray used this technique to create the portrait of Miller in the image above.) But Miller set up her own photography studio and established herself as an artist in her own right.
Art in the desert
After leaving Man Ray, Miller married her first husband, Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, in 1934 and moved to Cairo with him. There she applied her surrealist-trained eye to photography of the Egyptian natural landscape, resulting in some of her best-known works of art, such as the photo “Portrait of Space” (see above).
War photography through the eyes of a surrealist
In 1937 Miller returned again to Paris, where she met her second husband, the British Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. The couple settled in London, where their son was born in 1947.
When World War II broke out, Miller decided to use her photography skills as a war correspondent for Vogue magazine. She traveled through England and Europe – also to the front. She was the only photographer granted permission to travel independently to the war zones. Photojournalism and art merged in the photos she took during this period, as her surrealistic sensibility shaped the design of her photographs.
The woman in Hitler’s bathtub
Lee Miller had an eye for the little moments that others might miss. One of her most famous photos shows herself bathing in Hitler’s bathtub on April 30, 1945 in Munich – the same day that the Nazi dictator committed suicide in Berlin. The Allies quartered her there after photographing the liberated Dachau concentration camp, near the Bavarian capital.
More than a desire for aesthetics, Miller was motivated by empathy. Her photos of death, destruction and human suffering, which she witnessed, have lost none of their shocking power more than seven decades later.
Friendship with Picasso
Lee Miller was close friends with several fellow artists, including Pablo Picasso. In the four decades that they knew each other, she took almost a thousand photos of the Spanish painter of the century. He painted her six times. Miller’s son Antony Penrose has written a children’s book about his childhood experiences with the artist. The title: “The Boy Who Bit Picasso”. This photograph of Miller and Picasso was taken in Picasso’s Paris studio shortly after the city was liberated by the Allies.
Farewell to photojournalism
Miller remained deeply affected by what she saw and documented during the war and suffered from depression upon her return to England. Eventually she gave up photography and devoted her creativity to cooking gourmet meals for friends and family.
She died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 70. Lee Miller’s seminal influence and legacy, both as an artist and as a war reporter, has earned her an important place in the history of 20th-century photography. The Bucerius Art Forum in Hamburg Lee Miller is dedicating a retrospective this year (June 10 – September 24, 2023).
Adaptation from English: Petra Lambeck