On November 24 1945, the American photographer Lee Miller walked into the newly liberated Buchenwald death camp. Dead bodies were stacked in rotting mounds. The furnaces that had burned human flesh were still warm to her touch. The stench of shit and death clotted the air. The living dead remained in their metal beds too frail to move.
The Nazi guards were there, too. Some were confined in holding pens. Another guard awaited his execution, after being beaten to a pulp by dozens of frail internees. In Miller’s photo, his fractured nose stabs through his skin, as he stares beyond the camera with vacant eyes. Another camp guard was strung up from a lamppost and, like Mussolini, his body pummeled into a grotesque mess of flesh. Another Nazi was shot in the head and dumped in a stream, his body sheathed in reeds like a dead carp. Miller, the former fashion model, moved through it all, capturing the first startling images of the death camps with the unsparing lens her Leica.
Miller sent back to New York from that scene of unspeakable horror some of the most disturbing photographs to come out World War II: pictures of cruelty and retaliation, survival and compassion, life and death amid the ruins of a Europe gone mad. The images derive power not only from the shocking content, but also from the craft of their composition, which recall scenes from the crueler fantasies of Bosch. The images seemed otherworldly, fantastical, a cruel dream. At the same time, there was no denying their reality. When the images appeared in (of all venues) Vogue magazine, they ran under the headline “Believe It!”
Lee Miller made a career out of compelling people, often upper middle class women like herself, to believe the impossible, to confront the dark dreamworld of life in the 20th Century. From Buchenwald Miller went to Dachau. She photographed the sad varieties of death along the way, including a hauntingly erotic photo a blond teenage girl, as beautiful as Miller herself, wrapped in her father’s Nazi jacket, laying on a couch. She’d been forced by her father to commit suicide prior to the arrival of the allied troops. The photograph has the repulsive allure of a painting of a martyred saint, but we know it’s nothing of the kind.
The night after Miller visited Dachau, she and fellow photographer David Scherman (who was also her lover and 20 years her junior) ended up in a partially bombed out villa on the outskirts of Munich. The house turned out to be the Munich residence of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Miller asked Sherman to take her picture in Hitler’s bathtub. She posed naked in the tub, with a photo of the fuhrer behind her. A few days later Miller arrived at Berchtesgaden in Austria, where she photographed Hitler’s mountain chalet as it was consumed by flames.
The landscape Miller traversed in Europe in 1944 and 1945 was that of a bad dream, a waking nightmare. “Germany is a beautiful land dotted with jewel-like villages, blotched with ruined cities and inhabited by schizophrenics,” she wrote in a dispatch accompanying her photos. “Little girls in white dresses and garlands promenade after their first communion. The children have stilts and marbles and tops and hoops, and they play with dolls. Mothers sew and sweep and bake, and farmers plough and harrow; all just like real people. But they aren’t.”
Lee Miller was better equipped than most war photographers of her generation to capture the strange incongruities of this scene. After all, prior to World War II Lee Miller was one of the leading figures in the surrealist movement. She was the lover of Man Ray and had invented the solarization technique that made him famous. She was friends with Dali and Picasso and starred in Jean Cocteau’s first film, the surrealist classic Blood of the Poet. Later she married the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose.
Miller was no late-arriving tourist of the war, either. She had been photographing the carnage since the blitz of London, producing thousands of photos of shattered buildings, orphaned children, people getting along with their lives under the nightly terror of the buzzbombs and V-2s. She wanted to follow the British troops in North Africa, where she had spent many years, but the English military didn’t allow women photographers on the front. So she stayed in England and got a position working for British Vogue. She covered the air bases and military factories. For a nearly a year, she devoted herself to documenting the new working roles assumed by women in a time of war: operating tractors and heavy machinery, serving as firefighters and boat builders, loggers and pilots. London in the early 1940s was a world-turned upside down, filled with unexpected revelations, as in a Magritte painting.”I don’t like to photograph horrors,” Miller wrote. “But don’t think that every town and area isn’t rich with them.”
Lee Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907 into an odd middle class family. Her father, Theodore, was engineer and inventor. He also dabbled in photography. His favorite subject was Lee Miller and her schoolmates. He photographed his daughter thousands of times, usually naked, often in sexually explicit poses.
Miller was raped at the age of seven, supposedly by a family friend. But the culprit may well have been her father, Theodore. In any event, Lee’s mother, Frances, a nurse, responded to this trauma by making it worse. She subjected Lee to regular and excruciatingly painful douches with dichloride of mercury.
In 1925, Miller fled New York and her grim family for Paris, where she studied theater at L’Ecole Medgyes pour la Technique du Theatre. She stayed for six month until her father, anxious to have back by his side in New York, cut off her funds.
The next fall Miller enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied set design. On her way to class one day, Miller casually stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic. She was snatched from the murderous path of a taxi by a sharply dressed passerby. That man happened to be Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue.
Nast knew a beautiful face when he saw one and Miller was a striking blond: athletic, smart and adventuresome. He immediately put Miller to work for his magazine as a model and later a photographer. In 1927 her face graced the cover of Vogue in a photo taken by Edward Steicher. The Vogue cover led to other gigs as a model, including the first Kotex ad to feature a photograph of a woman.
Modeling paid the bills, but Miller really aspired to be a writer. Nast sent her to Paris as a correspondent for Vogue in 1929. She was supposed to cover the fashion industry and the Parisian art and social scene. Miller was a skilled writer, but she also suffered from an incapacitating case of writer’s block. She would churn out torrents of text, but rarely a complete story. After missing dozens of deadlines, Nast put her to work doing research for Vogue designers.
One of her first assignments was to compile a catalogue of Renaissance gowns for reproduction in a Vogue photoshoot. Miller visited museums and palaces, drawing the samples. But she soon discovered that her skills as a sketch artist were limited, so she began photographing collections from Parisian museums.
So it was in Paris that she sought out another expatriate from New York, Emmanuel Radnitzky: Man Ray. Miller wanted to improve her skills as a photographer, so she showed up at Man Ray’s studio one afternoon and demanded to take her on as a student. Man Ray told Miller he wasn’t a teacher. “I am here to inspire, not inform,” Man Ray said piously. But he didn’t blow her off entirely. And as it turned out, Miller became the inspirer. That night they became lovers and lived together on and off for the next three years.
It’s hard to say who benefited more from the relationship. Man Ray introduced Miller to the luminaries of the Parisian art scene: Marcel Duchamps, Picasso, Magritte, Cocteau, Max Ernst, Lenora Carrington and, her future husband, Roland Penrose. She later wrote that Man Ray taught her the rudiments of photography: “Fashion pictures, portraits, the whole technique of what he did.”
For her part, Miller soon became the surrealist’s favorite model. Man Ray photographed her obsessively, often in darkly erotic poses. He even photographed her lounging on the lap of her stiff father in a portrait infused with an unsettling subtext, hinting at incest, longing and steaming hatred. You can see how the dissipated beauty of Miller’s face in this strange portrait appealed to Jean Cocteau, the man who would write Les Enfants Terrible.
One day Miller, working in Man Ray’s dark room, accidentally exposed a negative plate to light. She and Man Ray were astounded by how this distorted the images, giving them an electric, almost 3-D appearance. They fine-tuned this accidental discovery into a technique called solarization. It brought Man Ray (though not Miller) international acclaim.
Miller was the most sexually and artistically uninhibited American woman to hit the streets of Paris since Josephine Baker. Notoriously, she drove her car topless through the streets of Paris. She posed nude for dozens of painters and sculptors and allowed a mould to be taken of her breast, which was transformed into the most popular champagne glass in Paris.
Like the other surrealists, Man Ray publicly ridiculed marriage and promoted sexual liberationfor himself. Miller took the pompous photographer seriously and flung herself freely into numerous affairs. Man Ray objected. He was free to fuck around at will but she wasn’t. He wanted to keep her shackled in one of the oldest modes, as an artistic muse: as confined and immobile as one of the strange statues in a de Chirico painting. When Miller resisted, Man Ray became insanely jealously and violent. In 1930, Miller moved out and opened her own studio, where she exhibited some of her best surrealist photos, including “Man Ray Shaving”, “Nude Bent Forward” and “The Exploding Hand“.
But Man Ray refused to leave her alone. He trashed her work, bullied her friends, threatened her lovers and stalked her through the streets of Paris.
Eventually, Miller fled to Alexandria, where she fell in with a crowd of British writers and artists that included Lawrence Durrell. The distraught Man Ray responded to Miller’s flight by shredding his photographs of Miller and creating his so-called Objects of Destruction. One of the most famous is a metronome with a photo of Miller’s eye attached to the pendulum. In 1941, Man Ray left Paris ahead of the Nazis for southern California, where he wound up doing headshots for Hollywood.
In Egypt Miller met up with an old lover, Aziz Eloui Bey, an Egyptian millionaire and art patron. They soon married and Miller became a hostess to bacchanalian parties, many of them with surrealist themes. Freed of Man Ray’s oppressiveness and photographic aesthetic, Miller also began to perfect her photographic style: composed, luminous and slightly offbeat. One bizarre photograph from this time is of the British writer Robin Fedden, wearing snow skis and a pith helmet, atop a Saharan dune. Another is the strange and beautiful “Portrait of Space,” a view of the desert through a torn screen, which inspired Rene Magritte’s painting “Le Baiser.” Equally striking is Miller’s 1937 photo “The Shadow of the Pyramid“, taken from the peak of the Great Pyramid of Giza, showing the dark void of negative space looming across the desert.
Here in Egypt we begin to see the maturation of Miller’s art. Increasingly, her subjects are more naturalistic, but the composition is increasingly fractured, a suggesting an increasing influence of the Cubists on her approach to photography.Even in Egypt, Miller didn’t lose her fondness for sexual puns. In 1939 Miller took a series of photographs of cliffs and rock outcrops near Siwa. The photos are as austere and descriptive as anything taken Ansel Adams. But Miller learned from the surrealists how a title could completely alter the meaning of a work of art. Hence her photo of a sandstone monolith, which she called “Cock Rock“, immediately assumes the resemblance of a mighty, semi-erect phallus.
Eventually, Miller bored of the sheltered life of Egypt and in 1939 she left Cairo for Paris where she threw herself into a torrid affair with the English surrealist painter Roland Penrose. Penrose, also extremely wealthy, was close friends with Max Ernst and Picasso, both of whom painted portraits of Miller. Penrose would later write one of the best critical works on Picasso, who famously said it was so good he could have written it himself. Miller took the photographs for the book.
When war broke out, Miller and Penrose moved to London to a mansion in Hampstead near Sigmund Freud. Penrose was a Quaker and a pacifist, but Miller was gung ho for war. She tried to get accredited as a war photographer by British papers, but the British army refused to allow women to accompany troops into combat. So Miller signed on with British Vogue and soon produced a stunning series of photographs documenting the London Blitz, which was turned into a popular book called Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, featuring a text by Edward R. Murrow.
When the US entered the war, Miller went back to work for American Vogue and followed the D-Day landings into France. She was no embedded reporter. In fact, during her first week in France, Miller violated orders from the Army and entered the besieged village of St. Malo. She was the only photographer to capture the decimation of this small French town. She also rode into Paris on the day of its liberation.
During these frenzied months, Miller, along with fellow American Margaret Burke-White who had been photographing the war from the Russian Front, helped invent what we now know as photojournalism. Prior to WW II, photographs were used mainly to illustrate long prose dispatches from the likes of Ernie Pyle. But Miller’s work from Europe put that tradition on its head. She used a series of photographs linked by small fragments of prose.Her photos of Europe during the war are informed by surrealism but without resorting to its more overt gimmicks. Gone are the contrived camera angles and the darkroom tricks. It’s as if she were saying that the images themselves, of senseless death and cultural destruction, are strange enough-to enhance them would be to undermine their reality.
“We’ve all been conditioned wrong,” Miller wrote. “We should have been exposed to nightclubs and sleep-snatching and alarms and excursions to prepare us for this, our life.”
Like other war journalists, the battles in Europe ended too soon for Lee Miller. Like Sean Flynn in Vietnam, Miller became addicted to tense reality of war, living on coffee, random violence and benezdrine. She loathed the Germans and opposed reconstruction of the German nation. “A more disorganized, dissolute, dishonest population has never existed in the history books,” Miller wrote. She continued on for a few more weeks. One of her final photographs was of the execution of Laszlo Bardossy, the former prime minister of Hungary and fascist collaborator.
When she returned to London, she began to sour on photography. It could never recapture the intensity it had during those feverish days in Europe. She began taking portraits, mainly of friends and painters in relaxed settings. Some of these photographs retain the old power, especially the photos of Picasso. Others seem restrained and mannered.
In the mid-1950s Miller stopped taking photos, refused all interviews and prohibited her works from being shown– one reason she remains an obscure artist today. She turned her attention to cooking. She began collecting recipes and interviewing chefs from across Europe. There’s a strange similarity between the dark room and the kitchen, both are conjurer’s arts. It’s the kind of career conjuncture that would appeal to the surrealists.
When Miller died in 1970 from cancer, her son Anthony began to excavate her attic. He found more than 500 prints and 40,000 negatives, many of them never seen by anyone other than his mother. Slowly, Penrose has begun the hard work of reassembling his mother’s astonishing legacy of work, first in a book, The Lives of Lee Miller, then in a small museum in East Sussex and now in an online archive. The work is far from complete and Miller is yet to receive the kind of critical assessment that she is due. But even so what has been released so far is nothing less than a dramatic reemergence of a buried history of the 20th century as recorded by one of the most unflinching eyes to ever aim a camera lens.
“It’s like this,” Miller wrote. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed. This is how it is.”
This essay is slated to appear in the forthcoming book Behind the Lens: Women War Photographers.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Born Under a Bad Sky and the co-editor with Joshua Frank of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.