Lee Miller: a life too colourful for black and white
Photographer, actress, model, journalist and Surrealist muse - she blurred the line between fiction and fact
Man Ray’s darkroom in the Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris was, Lee Miller would later recall, “no bigger than a bathroom rug”. She was there in 1929, developing photographs of the singer Suzy Solidor taken by Ray, Miller’s employer (and lover), when a mouse ran over her foot.
In her panic, she turned on the light, just for an instant, but long enough, she feared, to destroy the undeveloped negatives. Since Solidor had already left Paris, reshooting was not an option, so Miller continued in the hope that something could be salvaged. The result was not ruin but a startling discovery: the brief exposure to light had caused the black and white parts of the negatives to reverse, and a sinuous black line now separated the subject’s figure from the white background.
Ray and Miller experimented with the technique until they had perfected it, calling it “solarisation”: a tribute to Solidor, whose name means “sun giver”, and to the hyper-illuminated effect it produced.
Photography, invented less than a century before, was still considered a “lesser” art form. Yet it was the perfect medium for Miller, whose father, an amateur photographer, had given her a Kodak Brownie in her early teens. She grew up to become a femme moderne who embodied the forward-thinking attitudes of a 1920s flapper and was ahead of her time – artistically, sexually and intellectually.
As a child in New York, Miller (then Elizabeth) had loved all things mechanical, especially trains. When her father took her to see a motion picture show of a speeding locomotive, her imagination was immediately caught by the film’s cameraman, who shot footage while sitting on the engine of the moving train. “The hero was the intrepid cameraman himself, who was paid ‘danger money’,” Miller would tell a Vogue journalist decades later. “I pulled eight dollars worth of fringe from the rail of our loge in my whooping, joyful frenzy.”
This cameraman seems to have served as an unconscious model for Miller throughout her unconventional life. At 22, she abandoned a successful modelling career in New York to pursue photography in Paris. Within months, she had become Ray’s assistant, and a muse to the rest of the surrealists. Picasso made six paintings of her, Roland Penrose (whom she married in 1947) composed abstracts of her body and Jean Cocteau cast her in his film The Blood of a Poet. A French champagne manufacturer even modelled a coupe after her breast.
But Miller was determined to move behind the camera. After a nine-month apprenticeship to Ray, she rented her own studio and began working as a fashion photographer for French Vogue. In December 1942, she became one of the few female war correspondents, reporting for British Vogue on military nursing facilities in Normandy, Vienna and beyond. She photographed the group suicide of Leipzig’s treasurer and his family after the fall of the city, and piles of corpses in the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps after their liberation.
One of the most famous images of Miller, by the American photographer David Scherman, shows her taking a bath in Hitler’s Munich flat on April 30 1945, the day the Fuhrer died.
Miller’s editor, Audrey Withers, marvelled: “Who else can get in at the death in St Malo and the rebirth of the fashion salons? Who else can swing from the Siegfried line one week to the new hip line the next?”
Who else, too, could make such an impression on the American publisher Condé Nast after he pulled her out of the way of oncoming traffic, that, according to an article in the New York Evening Post from October 1932, he took her to his studio and made her Vogue’s March cover girl?
Who else would have had the gall to track down Ray to a Montparnasse bar just hours before he was going on holiday, and insist that he take her on – not only as his student, but also as his holiday companion? “I said: ‘My name is Lee Miller, and I’m your new student’,” Miller told Home Journal in 1975. “Man said: ‘I don’t have students.’ He was leaving for Biarritz the next day, and I said: ‘So am I.’”
The trouble with these enticing anecdotes, including her account of discovering solarisation, is that they sound almost too serendipitous to be true. In his 1963 autobiography, Self Portrait, Ray gives Miller no credit for the technique and marginalises their relationship altogether. Their partnership certainly blurred authorial lines since, as Miller put it: “We were almost the same person when we were working.”
Later, she admitted not all of her life made sense, describing it in a letter to one of her many lovers as “a water-soaked jigsaw puzzle, drunken bits that don’t match in shape or design”. In her final years, plagued by a sense of detachment and dissociation, she descended into alcoholism. Her photographs were boxed up in her house in Sussex until her son discovered them after her death.
The fact that Miller probably mythologised her own life story might have been a symptom of her vanity – her few female friends found her self-obsessed – but it might also have had its roots in early trauma. At the age of seven, Miller was raped by a family friend, and then photographed in the nude by her father from the age of eight. He continued to shoot her throughout her childhood, a period coloured by the attempted suicide of her mother and a cross-dressing scandal surrounding her brother John, an aeronautical photographer whose hobby was outed by The New York Times.
These scars thickened as Miller continued to be objectified, first as a model and then as a muse. Ray fixated on her body. Her breasts, neck, eyes and mouth recur in his work, including two of his most famous pieces: Observatory Time – The Lovers, an oversized painting of Miller’s lips floating in mackerel sky, and Object to be Destroyed, a sculpture of a metronome with her eye attached to the pendulum.
After Miller found success as a photographer, Ray’s love for her became obsessive. “You are so young and beautiful and free,” he wrote to her in Christmas 1932, during one of her numerous separations from him, “and I hate myself for trying to cramp that in you which I admire most, and find so rare in women.” Ray nevertheless asked that she devote herself to him utterly; a wife in everything but name.
Miller’s furious response was to take one of his discarded negatives from the bin, and present it as her own work. Ray found it, and threw her out, before slashing an image of her neck with a razor and covering it in red ink. When Miller saw the image, she decamped to New York and opened her own portrait studio.
Trauma drove Miller to produce her best work. Unhappy with the superficial identity Ray had constructed for her in his images, she reinterpreted it. One of his photographs from 1930 shows Miller nude, her head caged in a sabre guard. Lee used the sabre guard in her own shoot: freeing it from Ray’s sadomasochistic overtones by wrapping it loosely around her model’s shoulders like a shawl.
More boldly still, when Miller was sent on assignment to the Sorbonne medical school for French Vogue in 1930, she acquired a severed human breast from a mastectomy operation. She carried it from the Left Bank to the Vogue offices, and set up a shoot in their studio, arranging the breast on a dinner plate with a napkin, fork and knife. She took a number of pictures before the horrified French Vogue editor, Michel de Brunhoff, insisted she abandon the shoot.
These images are a pointed rebuttal by Miller to Ray’s soft-focus photographs of her breasts, cropped so that her figure is cut off at the neck. Indeed, since so many of the most famous images of Miller reduce her to fragments, it is fitting that one of her most striking self-portraits, from 1930, is a three-quarter body shot, her torso aimed square to the camera, her arms raised. Unlike the soft focus Ray used on Miller’s body, here her muscles and bones are accented and defined by shadow. She looks strong and pioneering, like the figurehead on a voyaging ship. Called, simply, Self Portrait, it is the image that most closely resembles the heroine she saw herself to be.
And it is the woman I tried my best to capture when I cast Miller as the main character of my novel, The Age of Light. Bold and fearless, in Self Portrait Miller looks upon the horizon with calm assurance. She knows who she is and where she’s going. The photo isn’t solarised, but the light on her skin is so bright it almost could be. It is as if she is lit from within.
– © The Daily Telegraph