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Who was Lee Miller? Why the model-turned-war photographer is finally getting her due

CNNA surrealist with an incisive eye, finding the beauty and absurdity of everyday life. A model who posed for Vogue and sat for Pablo Picasso and Man Ray, but whose fashion career was suddenly cut short. A war photographer who embedded with the US military to chronicle the harrowing events of World War II — and posed defiantly in Hitler’s bathtub on the day of his death.

Lee Miller was an American artist who remade herself many times without straying from the principles that guided her life and career. When she died in 1977, her photographic work had largely been forgotten; her own family was unaware of the scope of her practice, and what she witnessed in the war, until they found her cache of negatives. Now, five decades later, she’s the subject of the Kate Winslet-led biopic “Lee,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, as well as a recent monograph of her work and an ongoing exhibition at mega-gallery Gagosian in New York, where some of her prints are for sale.

Her son, photographer Antony Penrose — whose father was the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose, whom Miller married in 1947 — has made it his life’s work to bring attention to his mother’s legacy. He co-directs her archive with his daughter, Ami Bouhassane, and has authored multiple books about Miller, including the most recent, “Lee Miller: Photographs.” For the past decade, he’s consulted on “Lee” as it came together, and has finally begun its run in both the United Kingdom and Spain. (A US release date has yet to be confirmed.)

“There were movies proposed and very nearly made before,” Pentose said in a video call with CNN. “This is the one that we’ve been waiting for, because I feel it is a brilliant rendition of Lee’s life, values and personality.”

He still recalls how “bewildering” it was when he and his late wife, Suzanna, found some 60,000 of her negatives and prints in their attic shortly after Miller’s death. She had developed a unique surrealist way of looking at the world, capturing everyday eccentricities that play with the viewer’s perception: a scratched-up door at a jewelry store becomes a small explosion of sparks; tar spilled on the street glistens darkly like some deep-sea or cave-bound creature.

But her range was staggering. Here was Elsa Schiaparelli supine among two cheetah sculptures, and Marlene Dietrich posing in dramatic sun in the designer’s ruched house coat. Here was a crowd of people spitting on four women, their heads shaved, as they went to trial for accusations of associating with Nazis. Here were the bodies of concentration camp victims in Dachau, and the liberated prisoners standing over a pile of human bones.

“None of us — and that includes my father — knew the scope of Lee’s work, particularly her war work,” Penrose said of his mother. “She deliberately didn’t tell him what was going on, because she didn’t want him to be worried.”

After the war, Miller struggled with depression and alcohol dependency, decades before post-traumatic stress disorder — and its symptoms — was officially recognized. When the occasional curator or art historian would turn up to better understand the depth of her work, Penrose said Miller would deflect the focus and downplay her career. It’s only been through her archive that he was able to understand the life she lived.

“It was a voyage of discovery,” Penrose added. “It was like finding a person that we had not known before — way beyond our kind of understanding and knowledge.”

Reinventing herself

For many years, Miller was remembered primarily for her modeling work in New York and with the reductive label of “muse” during her time in Paris. She sat for Pablo Picasso as he painted her in lurid yellow and green, illustrating her “extraordinary wit and liveliness… and a very bold, confrontational approach to life,” according to Jason Ysenburg, a director at Gagosian and co-curator of the gallery’s show “Lee Miller and Friends”, in a video call.

She was also often remembered — but not credited — for her portrait collaborations with Man Ray, with whom she was romantically involved and remained friends throughout her life.

“Those images of Lee were as much by Lee as by Man Ray,” added Richard Calvocoressi, the show’s other co-curator, on the call.

Miller has been described by many as a supermodel on the cusp in her early twenties, a period just before she met Man Ray. But she was seemingly blacklisted by fashion clients overnight, after a portrait of her by the photographer Edward Steichen was licensed for a Kotex ad promoting menstrual products.

“She absolutely came to a crash stop. Nobody wanted the Kotex girl modeling their frocks,” Penrose said. “She didn’t even know that the photograph was going to be used for that purpose — it was bought through an agency.”

Though Miller used the setback as a sign to shift her practice, sexist social structures continued to shape her career. Art historians and curators of the 20th century relegated female surrealists — many of whom appear in Miller’s images, like the painter Leonora Carrington and the photographer Dora Maar — to the sidelines of the movement when they were, in actuality, crucial figures; Penrose recalls that his own father referred to them more as “muses” than artists in their own right, despite their prolific outputs.

But despite the imbalances within their group, Miller’s time with her friends ahead of World War II was seemingly idyllic. She’d left Paris in 1932 for New York when her relationship with Man Ray ended, and then unexpectedly married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo. When she spent the summer of 1937 back in Paris and met Penrose, it sparked a two-year affair (and series of love letters when they were apart), that eventually resulted in the dissolution of her marriage.

Some of Miller’s emblematic images of the period show their vacations across the south of France from beach outings with Penrose, Picasso and Maar and the model Ady Fidelin, to a picnic that has drawn comparisons to Édouard Manet’s famed painting “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” as a topless Fidelin is pictured alongside Man Ray, the poet Paul Éluard and artist Nusch Éluard.

But as Ysenburg points out, the tumult of the era had already begun — Nazism brewed in Germany and the Spanish Civil War broke out, prompting Picasso’s monumental and career-defining work “Guernica” which was painted the same year Miller returned to Paris.

“It was a community that in the sense that they were friends and lovers,” Ysenburg explained. “It seemed a very carefree time for them in a world that was changing very quickly.”

She saw ‘what we’re missing’

Many artists fled Europe in the 1940s, and Miller could have gone back to New York to safety, Penrose said. But she’d settled down with Roland in London and refused to leave, instead becoming a photojournalist for British Vogue, documenting women who were contributing to the war efforts, and taking both fashion and street images during the Blitz.

Later, she was accredited as an official correspondent with the US armed forces — one of just four such female photographers. During this period, in Normandy and in Munich she worked closely with the Life photojournalist David E. Scherman. Together, they entered Hitler’s apartment with soldiers on April 30, 1945, the same day that Hitler shot himself in his bunker in Berlin. Just that morning, Miller and Scherman had taken photographs in Dachau; Miller tracked mud from the concentration camp all over the apartment’s floor before stripping down to pose in the bathtub. She took the same photo of Scherman, who was Jewish, as well.

“Those boots carried her that that morning around the concentration camp, and now she’s grinding the filth of that place into Hitler’s nice clean bathroom,” Penrose said. “They prove that she’s not there as a guest in his house. She’s a victor.”

Even as Miller faced the harrowing effects of the war across Europe — sights that would take a toll on her in its aftermath — she still maintained her keen artist’s eye. After all, she believed there was nothing “more surrealist, more mad, more nightmarish” than the war, according to Calvocoressi.

“Even in the most dangerous and demanding circumstances, she’s still looking out for weird, quirky images,” Penrose said. “I find that that so endearing — the hallmark of her artistry is just to see what we’re missing.”

Miller took her last assignment for Vogue in the early 1950s, as Penrose notes that she could no longer meet deadlines because of her declining mental health. But she didn’t stop photographing, taking some 1,000 photographs of Picasso as Roland worked on his biography, which published in 1958.

Penrose said that throughout the course of her career, she was always “looking for the metaphor” in her surroundings. Of the many poetic moments she captured, one took place in front of the Vienna Opera House in Austria’s capital in late 1945 amid the lingering destruction of war. Framed by twisted metal support beams and rubble, the soprano Irmgard Seefried is photographed singing an aria from the Italian opera “Madame Butterfly,” in what Penrose believes to be an image set up by Miller — who captured her with arms outstretched, completely in silhouette.

“In a way, it’s a reversal, because you would have expected the singer to be beautifully lit from all kinds of sources.” Penrose explained.

“Gone is the costume. gone is any kind of glamorization… what we have is this absolute passion, about the triumph of art over destruction.”

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