Visual art

5 Hours of Photography. 2: Lee Miller

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Above: Portrait de L’espace. Prise de vue 4, photo by Lee Miller, 1937

Welcome back for the second hour of 5 Hours of Photography, where we’ll be looking at American artist Lee (Elizabeth) Miller (1907-77). I have to say, war photography is really not my thing, but I love Miller’s work.

One of the first photographers to document what was taking place in concentration camps, it’s no wonder she spoke very little of her experiences as a photographer later in life, suffering with depression as a result of what she had witnessed.

She spoke so little of it in fact, that she’s still more famous for having been the muse of Man Ray and the subject of many of his photos, but the war presented Miller with opportunity.

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Miller was quite the character and a wilful woman who is the perfect visual storyteller of the period… Miller’s rise to accomplished photojournalist begins with a very personal introduction. Intimate holiday snaps with a European art-world set including the surrealists Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington are hung next to vibrant portraits of Miller by Picasso and the British surrealist Roland Penrose (whom she later married). Time Out

In 1927 she began her modelling career on the cover of American ‘Vogue’, and was photographed by the greatest talents of the day. Perhaps because of her training in theatre arts, in Paris in 1925 and afterwards at Vassar College, she excelled in enacting the narratives of fashion photography. In 1929 she sought out Man Ray in Paris and became his pupil, lover and muse. She also starred in Jean Cocteau’s landmark film ‘The Blood of a Poet’ (1930)… She learned from one of the greatest modern photographers, mastering lighting, printing and the process of ‘solarization’ – a way of reversing highlights into blacks – they discovered together. She created a self-portrait titled ‘lee miller par lee miller’ and contributed to Paris ‘Vogue’ as both model and photographer. She made portraits and satirical drawings, photographed enigmatic street scenes, elegant near-abstractions and images like ‘Exploding Hand’ which exemplify the ‘convulsive beauty’ preached by the founder of Surrealism, André Breton… Despite the Great Depression, she worked in celebrity portraiture, fashion, advertising, as well as appearing, uniquely, as both model and photographer in a fashion shot for American ‘Vogue’… Lee Miller exhibited at Julien Levy’s pioneering art gallery and enjoyed a close rapport with the sculptor Joseph Cornell… In July 1934 Lee Miller married Aziz Eloui Bey, a member of a prominent Cairo family. On first moving to Cairo in 1934, Miller was still in recovery from the antipathy to photography which had afflicted her at the end of her time in New York. However, she regained her interest in the medium and photographed in Egypt from 1935-39. V&A

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Above: FFI (Forces Francaise de l’Interior) worker, Paris, France (1944), a photograph by Lee Miller. Credit: Lee Miller Archives, via Imperial War Museum London

Despite bringing some Surrealist flair to the practice of shooting wartime fashion, Miller’s images for British Vogue from the 1930s appear inert when compared with what came next. After female conscription was introduced, in 1941, she began to document women on the home front: factory workers, mechanics, pilots, nurses, land girls, and Wrens, all going about their daily business. Aperture

Submitting work as a fashion photographer for British Vogue, she soon captured the ravages caused by German air raids in London during the Blitz. Miller was accredited as a war photographer in 1942 and moved across Europe at the front line with the American troops. In 1943, she began writing her own war correspondence, which was published to accompany her pictures in Vogue. In 1944, she witnessed the landing of the Allied troops in Normandy and the battle for St. Malo. These pictures fell victim to censors, however, as they showed the use of napalm, a weapon still kept secret at the time… The two years she spent documenting the war left an indelible mark on her psyche. As an eyewitness to the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, she realized that she could play an essential historical role by telling the world about the horrors she witnessed. She wrote in one of her vivid dispatches to her editors that she would be very proud of Vogue if they published her photographs of the camps as a way to counteract disbelief of their existence. She typed emphatically, “Believe it…this is Buchenwald Concentration Camp at Weimar’…No question that German civilians knew what went on…” Her pictures show the conditions in the camps and portray both victims and perpetrators… The occupation of Hitler’s residence sent a clear political and symbolic message that conveyed the regime change. She photographed and documented the apartment and investigated Hitler’s life by interviewing his servants and neighbors as part of the overall goal to deconstruct the “Hitler Myth,” by casting a subjective light on history… Miller’s reporting led her after the war to Vienna in 1945, where she photographed a cityscape destroyed by war, along with victims at children’s hospitals. The exhibition includes a section devoted to this largely unpublished group of works. Miller sympathized with the ailing children in the city’s hospitals, whom she regarded as the most innocent victims, and saw their portraits as a warning against future wars. NSU

Come back in an hour to find out who the third photographer will be! Don’t forget to go back to the previous post and look at the grotesquely beautiful work of Hans Bellmer while you wait.

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