Lee Miller’s beautiful and brutal war photographs originally appeared, extraordinarily enough, in Vogue magazine during 1944 and 1945. Some of her prints had not been seen until after her death, and many were never shown in their original versions (they were much-cropped by the magazine, later by book designers). Condé Nast rescued Miller, a 19-year-old student of stage design, from the path of a speeding car in a New York street and immediately put her on the cover of his magazine, Vogue. It was her beauty which began her trajectory, but her photographs are the work of a hard-drinking, unflinching Lee Miller who went into Buchenwald to photograph the dead and dying concentration camp victims the day the Allies liberated Germany. To be photographed at the end of the war in triumphant occupation of Hitler’s bathtub (her combat boots on the floor) was a suitable climax to Lee Millers life. It was because she threw herself passionately into everything that she would find herself scrubbing what had been (and was still just recognisable as) the Face of 1929 - with the dead Fuhrer’s washcloth in 1945.
If she was ever not in the right place at the right time (rare), Miller manoeuvred herself into position. When life as a fashion model palled (quickly), she went to Paris, and seduced Man Ray into teaching her photography. As his muse and mistress, she was a pet of the Surrealists. She made Cocteau give her the part of the statue in his film, Le Sang d’un Poéte (1930) and it is Lee Miller’s left eye which Man Ray glued onto the metronome which launched a thousand postcards. He tore her eye from a photograph, in despair, after she left him.
Because of Man Ray’s many photographs of her, and Steichen’s and Hoyningen-Heune’s and Horst’s - Lee Millers own face and body have been better known than her photography. She had learnt technique from Man Ray, and when she set up on her own, she was a professional success. She became known for elegant cool portraiture; she did fashion shoots during the 30s for Chanel, Schiaparelli and Patou in Paris and went on to commercial work in New York for all the big fashion magazines. She soon found the work too tame, gave it up and made an unlikely marriage to a very patient Egyptian businessman. When World War II broke out, it was a relief. She abandoned the Egyptian in favour of the Blitz and became Lee Miller again. Living with her lover, Roland Penrose, in Hampstead, she photographed bombed London, for a book in collaboration with the American newsman, Ed Murrow.
Buckling down for the duration, Miller decided to work for British Vogue. And though Cecil Beaton didn’t take to her, by hanging around the Vogue offices, she charmed and nagged everyone else, including Audrey Withers, and eventually got onto the staff. She did run-of-the-mill studio work but also produced impressive picture spreads, and some of wartime Vogue’s most memorable fashion images. The natural sophistication of her work was often in contrast to Vogue’s breathy headlines and gushing editorial matter.
When America entered the war, Miller got her-self accredited by the American Army as a war correspondent, and Vogue found that they’d got more than they’d bargained for. The look of Vogue changed drastically, as a result. Were it not for Lee Miller, the magazine would certainly not have brought the battlefront straight into the lives of the Vogue reader. Sent to cover a ‘women’s interest story’ - British nurses in a field hospital - Miller got into her stride, following the action in Europe for 18 months and sometimes getting there first, to the consternation of the American Army. Her presence was usually due to her openness (which amounted to total recklessness) and charm (she could swear like a trooper and drink like a man - but the ‘femme soldat’ always had her lipstick on). She wasn’t squeamish - some think that she may have repositioned dead bodies to get better compositions for one or two of her impossibly perfect pictures, The Burgomeister’s Son-in-law Suicided and The Drowned German officer in particular. Who knows? She’d had a long war by then.
Among Lee Miller’s first battlefront photographs is the first use of napalm, at the siege of St. Malo, where Miller found herself the only member of the press. Under fire to get these pictures, she showed great physical courage. Her perception heightened by exhilaration, exhaustion, and the comedies and horrors of war, the reports she sent to Vogue along with her photographs are alive with bizarre anecdotes (nothing too unbelievable or mundane to include). The 8,000 word eyewitness accounts of everything she had seen, painfully typed on her Baby Hermes, lubricated by whisky, had to be cut by half. Withers could hardly bear to: ‘Though she’d never written before, and every situation she covered was quite outside her previous experience - the writing was vivid and descriptive. At first l cut whole paragraphs, but they were so good, l was reduced to taking out words here and there. I was relieved to discover that the original typescripts have survived.’ Paper restrictions meant that only existing subscribers could get the magazine (someone had to die before they could take on a new subscriber); by the end of the war paper supplies for Vogue had been cut to 18% of the original allotment. But during the year and a half Miller was sending material in, Vogue published 70 pages of her reportage.
The toughest editorial decision Withers had to make presented itself when the war ended and they laid out the issue celebrating Peace in Europe: ‘I still think of the day. Lee Miller’s photographs from Buchenwald had come in - she wrote “You better believe it”. We laid them out on the table in the art department - just like a fashion spread. Imagine. There were piles of bodies in Lee Miller’s pictures, abstract entanglements of limbs. We finally had to put them in - but the most shocking one, of the bodies - was reduced to only 3 inches square. We’d suffered so much, I didn’t think the readers could bear any more. But when l saw that American Vogue had used them full-size over four pages, l was rather ashamed of the contrast. We wanted to celebrate the end of the war - and America had not suffered so.’
Lee Miller suffered from the peace. In 1947, surprised to be pregnant at the age of 39, Lee had married Roland Penrose. After a typical jag of initial Miller enthusiasm, a settled life seemed to kill something in her. She felt constantly lethargic and was prone to imaginary ailments, which her doctor diagnosed with brutal good sense: ‘There is nothing wrong with you and we cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with excitement.’ She carried on, tepidly. Her Vogue work bored her. Writing made her panicky. Penrose finally wrote to Withers: ‘I implore you, please do not ask Lee to write again. The suffering it causes her and those around her is unbearable.’ Miller never wrote again, nor took photographs for publication. Jealous of Penrose’s successes, Miller felt a mere appendage after a lifetime as a star. She took to the bottle and lost the looks she had taken for granted. Eventually the legendary Lee Miller sub-sided into relative calm - by the end of her life she became obsessed with cooking, classical music and magazine competitions. She refused requests to show her work, insisting it was unimportant: ‘I used to take a few photographs,’ was all she would say on the subject.
- Lesley Cunliffe
(There’s also a fantastic video on her life & works by the Guardian here)