Lee Miller, More than a Model

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Lee Miller, More than a Model

You may not know the name Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, but if you love art, you’ve probably seen her likeness in a variety of Surrealist photographs and creations. But Lee Miller was more than a model – she was an artist and a photographer in her own right. And according to art historian Caitlin S. Davis, she managed to free herself from a role as a beautiful object using the very tools her male colleagues used to capture and obsessively document her.

Davis traces Miller’s evolution from model to major photographer, connecting her participation in the Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s with her later career as a fashion photographer and photojournalist. Discovered by publisher Condé Nast when he rescued her (then still a teenager) from an oncoming car, she quickly became a favorite of a long line of male fashion photographers.

Then came Surrealism and Man Ray, an American photographer in Paris who played a legendary role in the city’s artistic innovation and bohemian life. Miller became Ray’s lover, muse and assistant, inspiring numerous Surrealist works of art. Photographs, paintings and sculptures of her (usually nude) body were so ubiquitous at the time, Davis wryly notes, that one 1932 article wrote she was “widely celebrated as the possessor of the most beautiful navel in Paris.”

A feature in the October 26, 1940 issue of Picture post magazine following the progress of a fashion shoot for Vogue magazine by Lee Miller. Getty

Miller eventually left Paris for London, where she used her training in Surrealism as a Vogue photographer. During the Second World War, she deftly photographed the ruins of the London Blitz. Davis finds references to Miller’s experiences as muse and subject throughout her war photography. However, Miller found her final liberation during the war. While other women discarded prescriptive gender roles on the home front, Miller began following the Allies across Europe as a photojournalist, abandoning her usual careful grooming.

A feature in the October 26, 1940 issue of Picture Post magazine following the progress of a fashion shoot for Vogue magazine by Lee Miller
A feature in the October 26, 1940 issue of Picture post magazine following the progress of a fashion shoot for Vogue magazine by Lee Miller. Getty

“The war itself freed Miller from her previously prescribed role of ‘pretty woman,'” writes Davis. “[I]It knocked her off her pedestal where she existed as an object of beauty, and gave her a sense of mission and purpose to produce some of the best photographs of her entire career.”

Miller made an essential record of the destruction and chaos of the end of the war in Europe, documenting major battles, the liberation of Paris and the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald. One of the most famous war photographs of Miller himself was taken by a colleague, LIFE photographer David E. Scherman, who photographed her bathing in the tub in Adolf Hitler’s newly liberated Munich apartment in 1945. In front of the tub stood her filthy combat boots.

“This is no ordinary filth from the Front,” writes Davis. “She traced the earth and ashes of Dachau into Hitler’s own sanctum sanctorum, defiling his shrine to cleanliness with the ashes of the victims he considered utterly impure.”

After the war, Miller suffered from what is now known as PTSD, and her wartime experiences haunted her for the rest of her life. By then, Davis writes, however, she had left her role as subject behind, instead leaving behind a legacy of “revolutionary” photojournalism and building a life “as a professional photographer who would no longer model for images, but rather would create.”


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By: Caitlin S. Davis

Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 27, no. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2006), pp. 3–9

Old City Publishing, Inc.

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