Miller, Lee (1907–1977)

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Miller, Lee (1907–1977)

American photographer. Born Elizabeth Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907; died in Chiddingly, England, in 1977; only daughter and one of three children of Theodore Miller (an engineer and an executive at De Laval Cream Separator Company); educated in private schools; studied painting, theatrical design and lighting at the Art Students League, 1927–29; married Aziz Eloui Bey (an Egyptian businessman), in 1934 (separated 1939, divorced 1947); married Roland Penrose (an English painter and art collector), in 1947; children: (second marriage) Antony Penrose.

One of America's foremost women photographers from the 1920s to the 1940s, and a leading proponent of Surrealism, Lee Miller rein-vented herself several times during her lifetime. A stunning blonde, she gave up a successful career as a photographic fashion model to take up the camera herself and then in 1945 became a war correspondent for Vogue magazine, contributing eloquent text to accompany her photographs. Following the war, she endured years of off-and-on depression, then emerged in 1954 to take up a new career as a gourmand and chef. During the last 20 years of her life, Miller refused to exhibit, discuss, or publish her photographs, and seemed to care little about her place in history. Eight years after her death, however, her son Antony Penrose rekindled interest in Miller with the publication of her biography, The Lives of Lee Miller (1985), followed by a volume of her war photographs, Lee Miller's War (1992). Jane Livingston 's collection, Lee Miller, Photographer, published in 1989, also helped reestablish Miller as a uniquely talented photographer.

Elizabeth Miller (shortened to Liz, then Li-Li, then Lee) was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, the first child and only daughter of an engineer/inventor who was also an amateur photographer. She admitted to being kicked out of every private school around Poughkeepsie and as a teenager was sent off to study in Paris. She wound up working at a theatre in Montmartre and hanging out with the arty set. After a year, her father fetched her back to New York, where she made the acquaintance of Condé Nast, who had recently acquired Vogue magazine. Before long, she was a top model at Vogue and was posing for the cameras of Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, and George Hoyningen-Huene. While in Manhattan, she studied painting, scenic design, and lighting at the Art Students League and in 1929 returned to France to apprentice with American Surrealist and photographer Man Ray. The two fell in love and lived together for three years, during which time Miller had contact with many of the young artists in the Surrealist movement, including Jean Cocteau, who starred her in his classic 1930 film The Blood of a Poet.

In 1932, ready to assume her place behind the camera, Miller returned to New York and opened a portrait studio with her brother Erik. Two years later, however, she was swept away by the Egyptian tycoon and noble Aziz Eloui Bey, whom she wed at City Hall while a matri-monial

clerk lectured her on the pitfalls of interracial marriage. She then sailed off to a life of leisure in Cairo and Alexandria. In 1937, bored, she returned to Paris, where, through painter Max Ernst, she met Roland Penrose, an expatriate English surrealist and collector who would later become the founder of London's Institute of Contemporary Art and the official biographer of Pablo Picasso. The two fell passionately in love, although it took Miller several years to break with Bey. She was separated in 1939 and finally divorced in 1947 and joined Penrose in England. (The couple did not marry until 1947, the year their son Antony was born.) From 1940 to 1945, Miller served as the head of Vogue's London studios, doing fashion layouts and general stories. Meanwhile, the house she shared with Penrose became a gathering place for no-table artists, journalists, and politicians in England and, by all accounts, it was the scene of some extremely lively parties.

At the start of World War II, Miller began a series of photographs documenting the London Blitz, which was edited as Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, with a text by Edward R. Murrow. When most of her friends signed on as war correspondents, Miller applied for accreditation to the U.S. Armed Forces, giving up a life of comfort to record the gritty business of war. "I chuckled to myself at a monstrous irony," wrote David E. Scherman, the renowned war photo-journalist and friend of Miller's, who remembers her as an obsessive clothes-horse and hypochondriac who downed an arsenal of digestive potions with every meal. "Now, in the excitement—and joy—of battle, all this nonsense went out the window," he recalled. "For about a year, with occasional exceptions, she looked like an unmade, unwashed bed, dressed in o. d. [olive drab] fatigues and dirty GI boots, and she wolfed down, without pill or powder, whatever chow the current mess-sergeant saw fit to shovel up."

Miller accompanied the Allied troops through Europe, not only recording the war in startling surrealistic photographs, but filing equally graphic dispatches which she typed on a beat-up Hermes Baby typewriter she carted along wherever she went. "I'll never see acid-yellow and gray again, where shells burst near snow without seeing the pale, quivering faces of replacements, gray and yellow with apprehension—their fumbling hands and furtive, shortsighted glances at the field they must cross," she wrote during the bitter Alsace campaign. At the close of the war, Miller visited and photographed Buchenwald and Dachau, and was inhabiting Hitler's apartment in Munich when his death was announced. (In Antony's book of her war photographs, there is a shot of her taking a bath in Hitler's tub.) Later, she photographed the burning of his fortress at Berchtesgaden. Miller's photos and dispatches were regularly published within the pages of Vogue, which, according to Antony, created its own Surrealistic effect. "The grim skeletal corpses of Buchenwald are separated by a few thicknesses of paper from delightful recipes to be prepared by beautiful women dressed in sumptuous gowns."

While Miller tends to be defined by her war photographs, particularly her pictures of Dachau, her portraits and landscapes are also compelling. Elsa Dorfman , in a review of Jane Livingston's book, notes that all of Miller's images are infused with a surrealist sensibility. "It isn't hard with a camera—the ultimate surreal instrument—to select from the environment to convey a surrealist vision, but whereas often surrealist images depend on manipulation and collage, Miller's depend on astute juxtaposition, a sense of framing and camera angle." Miller also produced exceptional portraits, including some of the best ever taken of Picasso, who remained her friend for 50 years. Dorfman describes her approach to portraiture as honest and direct, exemplified by her pictures of the prison guards at Buchenwald. "She was not afraid to bring her camera close to her subject. She trusted her subjects to be themselves. She did not clutter up her image with extraneous details."

The war may have given purpose to Miller's life, but it also exacted a toll. According to her son Antony, who was born after the war, she almost never talked about her experiences although she retained an irrational hatred of the Germans until her dying day. It was not until he began writing her biography in 1977 that Antony found his mother's photographs, and also discovered the revealing texts she wrote during the war. "She had been so self-deprecating about her life and so dissolute in her later years when I knew her that I could hardly believe she was the author of this startlingly vivid text," he wrote. Antony recalls that only after years of depression and alcohol abuse did his mother finally emerge from her despair to take up a new career in the kitchen. (Her last professional photographs were for her husband's book on Picasso, which in its latest edition includes snapshots of the artist that Miller took as late as 1970.) She became a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, creating remarkable dishes which she served to her friends at elaborate dinner parties. In her later years, she also took up music, and when her husband bought a farm in Sussex, she became an accomplished botanist and gardener. At age 70, she learned to play chess.

Antony's biography coincided with a solo exhibition of Miller's work, The Lives of Lee Miller, at the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York (1985) and spawned two retrospectives: one at the Photographers' Gallery in London (1986), and another at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1987), which then toured the country.


Dorfman, Elsa. "A Review by Elsa Dorfman," in The Women's Review of Books. Vol. II, no. 1. October 1989.

Penrose, Antony, ed. Lee Miller's War: Photographer and Correspondent with the Allies in Europe 1944–45. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts