EXHIBITION REVIEW: Lee Miller: A Woman's War

By: Jessie Bond | Date 16.01.2016
The current exhibition at the Imperial War Museum narrates the transitions Lee Miller made throughout her career: from model to fashion photographer, from photojournalist for Vogue to official US war correspondent.
Fire masks, London, 1941. (Photo: The Lee Miller Archives)
Miller’s lens often focused on women, and the images she produced provide insight into the roles women played during the Second World War and the impact conflict had on their day-to-day lives. Alongside 150 photographs, the exhibition presents personal items and documents from the Lee Miller Archives, some of which have never been displayed before and offer a glimpse into Miller’s working methods and personal life.

Miller’s career as a fashion model began in the mid 1920s when Condé Nast “discovered” her on the street in New York. The exhibition includes the cover of Vogue, March 1927, which featured an illustration of Miller as a flapper girl at the height of her popularity, and a photograph of Miller that was used without her knowledge for a Kotex advert. At the time, menstruation was a taboo topic and the usage of this image stalled her career. Although in some ways unfortunate, this fall from popularity prompted Miller to travel to Europe in 1929, which set her trajectory to becoming a photographer.

In Paris, Miller determined to become Man Ray’s apprentice, despite the fact he did not normally accept students. This was a vital alliance for Miller, through which she gained both an education in photography and initiation into the surrealist circles. Several portraits of Miller are featured in the exhibition, including Picasso’s Lee Miller as an Arleseinne (1937), created whilst on holiday in the south of France, and Good Shooting/Bien Visé (1939) by surrealist Roland Penrose, who later became her second husband. The inclusion of these paintings suggests that Miller’s iconic image was, and remains, inseparable from her work.

For a time Miller was Man Ray’s primary model, posing for many of his iconic photographs, yet she was never a passive sitter. Works such as Nude Wearing a Sabre Guard (c.1930) and Solarised Portrait (thought to be Meret Oppenheim)(1930) show how Miller adapted poses for her own work. Over the course of the exhibition it is evident that the surrealist approach to composing images she developed at this time endured throughout her career.

In the early 1940s Miller worked freelance for Vogue, a publication that played an important role in maintaining women’s morale and galvanising their attitudes towards the war effort. Miller created images for articles such as “Fashion for Factories” (May 1941) and “Short Hair is News Again” (August 1941), which aimed to convince women that carrying out their duty did not mean they had to sacrifice being fashionable. Although Miller made these images for a specific purpose, her singular style prevailed. The photographs on display demonstrate how she put to use techniques such as solarisation, multiple exposures and at times playful, surrealist composition.

There is a natural progression from these images to those Miller took documenting the role women played in the armed services. She visited various military bases across the UK, capturing women at work as drivers, parachute packers, messengers and nurses. Yet she was also documenting a sense of liberation: for the first time these women were given a sense of purpose and the possibility for an independent life outside of marriage. A particularly poignant image from 1944 depicts a joyful group of WRNS stewards reclined laughing in the grass. Alongside enlargements of images from these articles, the exhibition also includes the original photographs and captions sent to the ministry of defence for approval, offering an insight into the constraints within which Miller had to work.

Perhaps the work for which Miller is best known are her photographs taken across Europe towards the end of the war. In December 1942 Miller was granted accreditation as an official US war photographer. Shortly after the D Day landings Miller arrived in France, and began her journey east, following the gradual liberation of occupied countries and the eventual end of the war. Miller did not just take photographs but also wrote articles covering what she witnessed. The portable typewriter Miller used is on display alongside a photograph of her writing in a hotel room in Paris, and tear sheets from the original publications.

Throughout her journey, Miller’s lens often focused on the devastating impact war had on the domestic, everyday lives of women. In Cologne, March 1945, Miller photographed two young women sat amongst the ruins and in Nuremburg, April 1945, she captured a group of women cooking a carp on an improvised open-air stove amongst the rubble. Miller also focused on the more active roles women were able to play in the conflict. A photograph of Maesy Bastion, a female Interpreter working with the US army, talking to fleeing refuges in Luxemburg November 1944, is included in the exhibition, as is one of Ghislane Schlesser, a French ambulance driver posing with her proud father in Alsace, February 1945.

One of the most iconic images included in the exhibition was created by Miller in collaboration with fellow US correspondent David E Scherman. It features Miller in Hitler’s bathtub in his abandoned apartment in Munich. The photograph is artfully posed, with a portrait of the deceased dictator in the background and a pair of muddy boots, soiled from the concentration camp, on the bath mat in the foreground. Irreverently, Miller poses nude, as if washing herself. Close by in the exhibition are just a few of many images taken by Miller during and after the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald. The scenes Miller encountered were deeply harrowing and haunted her in later life. It is hard to reconcile these images with the serene face of the young woman in the bathtub. Yet perhaps creating this surreal photograph was her way to process what she was witnessing.

At the end of the war, rather than travel home, Miller opted to continue her journey further into Eastern Europe. In Vienna she documented the ongoing impact of the war including young children dying of malnutrition. In Hungary and Romania, Miller witnessed the poverty and precariousness of countries now liberated, falling under the rise of communism. She captured Hungarian aristocrats at the Park Club, Budapest 1945, and Queen Elena in the crumbling majesty of Peleș Castle, Romania 1946. Yet the most memorable image included in the exhibition is one of two barefoot girls, begging on the streets of Budapest. Their faces are smiling, innocent, yet behind them are torn propaganda posters. They appear trapped between the recent horrors of the war and the uncertainty of their future.


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