Lee Miller, Surrealist, fashion model and pioneering photographer

Today we are celebrating the birthday of Lee Miller, fashion model and Surrealist who became a pioneering photographer and WWII war correspondent for Vogue. Part of our 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series.

Self Portrait, modelling Jean Patou, Paris, France 1930 by Lee Miller

Lee Miller was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie New York, she lived in Sussex from 1949 until her death in 1977.

Every year thousands of people visit the former home of Lee Miller, Farleys House in Chiddingly, which is now a museum. The majority of visitors know relatively little of her life. Perhaps they have seen glamorous photographs of a young Lee modelling for Vogue in 1920s New York, after she was discovered by Condé Nast. Often, they have heard of her in connection with Man Ray, the American photographer and Surrealist, with whom she developed the photographic technique of ‘Solarisation’. They might be aware of Lee’s career as a photographer and her role as a WWII war correspondent for Vogue. Most are surprised to learn that she was an acclaimed Cordon Bleu chef in later life. As visitors are guided around the home she shared with her husband Roland Penrose and son Antony and they hear of her life in more depth, few fail to be profoundly moved by her story and awed by the legacy she left behind.

Shortly after her death in 1977, her family discovered several cardboard boxes in the attic at Farleys, which had remained untouched since Lee and Roland had first moved there in 1949. At that time Lee was suffering badly from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting from witnessing the horrors of war. She had packed away everything pertaining to her work as a war correspondent and her previous life, hiding it all in the attic. Opening the boxes, they couldn’t believe their eyes; inside were all of Lee’s wartime reports, her equipment, personal papers and thousands of photographs and negatives. It was an emotional time for Antony, who knew little of his mother’s life as he was growing up. Here was proof that she had not only been an accredited war correspondent, but a combat photojournalist reporting under fire from the frontline, most notably from the Siege of St Malo, where she was the only reporter for miles around.

‘Bridge of Sighs’, Lowndes Street, London, England 1940 by Lee Miller [GG0016]
At the beginning of the war in 1939, Lee had just arrived in London. She had parted from her first husband, Aziz Eloui Bey, moving from Egypt, to be with Roland Penrose, a British Surrealist Artist and prominent promoter of Modern Art, whom she had met in Paris in 1937. She joined British Vogue as a freelance photographer, but was frustrated photographing fashion, while British women were getting involved in the war effort. As the Blitz hit London, Lee took to the streets with her camera, her eye drawn to the surreal scenes of devastation caused by the bombing. Her images were later used in a propaganda publication that was sent to America to show how Britain was suffering, also published in Britain under the title ‘Grim Glory’.

Lee became an accredited war correspondent for Vogue in 1942. Her first assignment was to travel around Britain photographing women working for the war effort: Land girls, Wrens, ATS, nurses, aviators and others. As a woman she had access to their bases, capturing them going about their daily lives. Lee could have had little idea how important her pictures would be to future generations as an historical account of the often undervalued contribution of women during WWII.

Women of the Auxiliary Territorial Army operate a searchlight battery at South Mimms, which at times put them at great risk. After this picture had been taken by Lee Miller assisted by David E. Scherman, raiders came over and raked the battery with machine fire.

Lee then followed the US Allies as they made their way through Europe, never staying in the safe zone with other members of the press, but preferring to be with the GIs and as near to the action as possible. She wasn’t just tagging along for pictures; fluent in French, she was often called upon to translate, or help with civilian women and refugees. A fierce believer in freedom and justice, Lee was passionate about showing the world exactly what was going on, from the bloody operating theatres on the Normandy coast, to the newly liberated concentration camps. The images she took at Dachau and Buchenwald are some of the most horrific images to have come out of WWII. Few were able to do it. Lee was determined to expose the horror, so that this could never happen again. Vogue printed Lee’s pictures and words under her title, ‘Believe it’.

Lee’s vast legacy needed to be catalogued and cared for and so the Lee Miller Archives began. As more pictures were printed from her negatives, her contribution to twentieth century photography became apparent.

Lee had run her own successful studios in Paris and New York in the 1930s, exhibited her own Surrealist work and throughout her career shot fashion for Vogue. She had also photographed celebrities, artists and key figures of the Twentieth Century, many of whom were friends and regular guests at Farleys.

Eileen Agar and ‘Golden Tooth’ sculpture, London, England 1937 by Lee Miller [NC0126]
She had a remarkable talent, excelling in every aspect of photography. A master in the studio and also on location. She was unafraid to experiment, not only with new technology but also with her art. In 1929 she created a shocking art statement, so ahead of its time, that it has only been exhibited in recent years. One of her clients was the American Hospital in Paris; Lee had been photographing a radical mastectomy for the surgeons and afterwards asked if she could have the severed breast. Back at the Vogue studios she photographed it on a plate with a knife and fork; her response to the female objectification she had experienced as a woman, a model and Surrealist muse.

Today, the photographs Lee hid away are exhibited all over the world and a growing fascination with her life makes her the frequent subject of publications, documentaries and films.

 ‘As her significant contribution is slowly rediscovered by the world, we enjoy watching how she continues to be relevant to new generations, inspiring equality, strength in the face of adversity and the creative world.’ Ami Bouhassane granddaughter of Lee Miller, extract from ‘Lee Miller’ Modern Women Artists 05 Eiderdown Books 2019

Today, on Lee Miller’s birthday, April 23, her son, Antony will be hosting a Q&A on Instagram @farleyshg

Grim Glory: Lee Miller’s Britain at war by Ami Bouhassane coming out soon and available at www.leemiller.co.uk

To find out more about Lee Miller and view her picture library visit www.leemiller.co.uk

For information on visiting Farleys House and Gallery please visit farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk

Instagram: @farleyshg @leemillerarchives

Twitter: @farleysHG

Facebook: @farleysHG 

Researched and written by Jane Parsons, tour guide at Farleys House and Gallery, Print Room Administrator for the Lee Miller Archives and Museum Assistant at the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

2 Responses

  1. Terence Power

    Jane Parsons has an exceptional talent as a writer and also as an artist in her own right ,and can be justly proud of this study of Lee Miller I enjoyed reading it.
    Terence Power.

  2. Anne

    A well put together account here, in a nutshell, of the many achievements in Lee’s life – which lives on through beautifully written pieces like this and through those whom admire her, read about her and cook her recipes.
    I’ve seen the tour – well worth a visit, and I will definitely be buying more books.
    A lovely tribute to one of the worlds most inspiring female icons!
    Anne

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