“It seems to me that women have a bigger chance at success in photography than men … Women are quicker and more adaptable than men. And I think they have an intuition that helps them understand personalities more quickly than men.” -Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, Lady Penrose
Elizabeth Miller, known as Lee, was born in Poughkeepsie, NY and one day in the 1920s she was crossing a street in New York City. She was about to step into oncoming traffic when the magazine publisher Condé Montrose Nast stopped her. He was taken by her beauty and hired her as a model. She landed on the cover of Vogue, posed for Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe and Nikolas Muray establishing her modeling career.
Steichen said, “Lee was the ideal model for the mid-twenties mode. She was tall, carried herself well, and her strong profile and fine blonde hair exactly suited his clear, elegant style.” He encouraged her to be serious about photography and wrote a letter of introduction to Man Ray.
Lee Miller — apprentice & model
Lee Miller became noted surrealist photographer Man Ray’s apprentice at 22 in 1929. She also was his model as he created his innovative portraits and nude figure studies in Paris. Their collaboration was one of creativity and romance too.
While working with Man Ray, who was developing film in the darkroom, she accidentally turned on the lights. This led to their discovery of solarization. Man Ray used solarization as a surrealist technique.
Miller also worked for French Vogue both as a photographer and as a model. She assisted the well-known photographer George Hoyningen-Huene along with his protégé Horst P. Horst. She said that she and Horst “worked like galley slaves” being both models and doing other jobs at the magazine. While she learned much from Hoyningen-Huene, her style evolved from her work with Man Ray.
1930 to 1939
The ’30s saw Miller move to New York City, marry, move to Egypt with her husband, where she photographed the architecture and ruins. She did not like Egypt, so in 1937, she went back to Paris without her husband. She renewed her friendship with Man Ray, who introduced her to the British art collector and artist Roland Penrose. This was the beginning of the end of her first marriage.
1n 1939, she moved with Penrose to London, where she got work as a fashion photographer for Vogue.
Fashion to photojournalist
World War II led her from shooting fashion to becoming a photojournalist. She photographed the Blitz and realized she was creating important images that were published in British Vogue and in the book ‘ “Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire” in 1941. Of this time, she wrote, “It seems pretty silly to go on working for a frivolous paper like Vogue, tho [sic] it may be good for the country’s morale it’s hell on mine.”
She became an accredited photojournalist in 1943. She joined the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in 1944. While with the 83rd, she photographed the siege of Saint-Malo, the liberation of Paris and both Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. She was committed to showing the atrocities that were carried out in the camps. One former prisoner at Dachau, Ari Von Soest, recalled, “She was the only one of the liberators who stayed with us; she went to the prison hospital where prisoners were sprayed with DDT; she joined our celebrations.”
A Vanity Fair article from September 2015 described Lee Miller’s sojourn in Hitler’s bathtub and the resulting photograph by LIFE photographer David Scherman who was her companion during the war this way, after trudging through the liberated concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, photographing piles of human bones, S.S. officers in prisoner uniforms who attempted escape and failed, and glass-eyed, barely living prisoners standing around in groups, waiting to see what happens next — Lee Miller took off her muddy boots, making sure to wipe their horrific mud on the clean, fluffy bathmat, and posed in Hitler’s bathtub.”
Miller remembers, “I took some pictures of the place [Hitler’s residence] and I also got a good night’s sleep in Hitler’s bed. I even washed the dirt of Dachau in his tub.”
“No question that German civilians knew what went on. Railway into Dachau camp runs past villa, with trains of dead or semi-dead deportees. I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town and every area isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel it can publish these pictures.” -Lee Miller (Cable from German front, May 1945)
After the war
Everything Lee Miller witnessed, photographed and experienced during World War II took a great toll on her. She suffered from what we now know as Post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD. She drank a lot, slid into depression, both of which would plague her for the rest of her life. She moved to the U.K. and married Roland Penrose in 1947, becoming ‘Lady Penrose.’ She gave birth to her son Anthony the same year.
Miller and Penrose entertained celebrities of the art world at their home, Farleys House in Sussex. “Working Guests” was her last published story in British Vogue in 1953. It featured some of the artists and collectors who visited working around the farm. The “laborers” included the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr feeding pigs and Max Ernst, who planted petunias.
Lee Miller never responded to requests to publish her work. Toward the end of her life, she rekindled her relationship with her son, Anthony, when he moved with is wife and child to live at the farm with her and Penrose. She died of cancer in the arms of her husband in 1977.
Anthony Penrose found thousands of her negatives and prints in the attic of their home. He established the Lee Miller Archives in 1980.
[Being a great photojournalist is] a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you.
More stories of influential photographers are in On Photography.