Search for content, post, videos

A perfectly bona fide yank from Poughkeepsie : Lee Miller through the looking glass


Kulturhuset in Stockholm, Sweden, presents Lee Miller, War and Fashion, a fantastic retrospective on the American fashion photographer, on view through March 4, 2018.

“Come in, Lancaster. Come in, Lancaster.” It is night over Europe on the second of May 1945 when the voice of an American radio operator in the Women’s Auxiliary Force coalesces with the singular voice on a burning Avro Lancaster heading back to British soil after a bombing raid over Berlin. Peter Carter (David Niven) knows he is doomed. “I’ve got no parachute,” he tells the wonderfully helpful and empathic June (Kim Hunter) in The Archers’ celestial war romance A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Peter recites poems and asks June to take a goodbye message to his mother and begs her not to be frightened (she is not frightened) when he will come and see her as a ghost, and he wants to know her whereabouts and where she comes from – “I love you, June. You are life and I’m leaving you” – and they chat for all they are worth till her voice cracks because all of this is nonsense, is it not? “No, it’s the best sense I ever heard. I was lucky to get you,” the airman assures her before he bails out to eternity.

These phenomenal women in the Auxiliaries and in the Voluntary Service (they were a quarter of a million and almost a million strong respectively in the UK), and of course all possible female home-front bravura, were the best sense a nation could ever wish for during the Second World War in its battles against a schizophrenic country’s ideas of a master race with a Final Solution and a Thousand Year Reich.

After the end of the war, a very angry woman with a big pair of scissors walked into Vogue’s studios in London and began destroying the negatives of the pictures she had taken in Dachau, the consummate hell outside Munich, in the morning of April 30, 1945. “And she said, ‘I don’t want anybody to witness what I saw, but I am going to leave just enough that there can be no doubt that it happened.’ They tried to stop her but in the end they couldn’t. I so regret that she destroyed these negatives – I would have wanted every single one of them today. It is very hard to say but probably between forty and fifty negatives were destroyed, and there is about the same number left. The ones that are left behind, they are very tough. But if she was destroying the worst ones, it’s hard to imagine what they could have been like,” says Antony Penrose, the only child of the legendary Lee Miller (1907–1977).

Two Mid-Century Modern chairs in one of the Brutalist exhibition spaces at Kulturhuset (the House of Culture) in Stockholm will be a station for an hour’s conversation just before the opening of Lee Miller – War and Fashion. This British gentleman who used to play with Picasso as a child but at the other end of the story had to endure his mother’s lack of basic maternal instincts and her alcoholic tantrums during his upbringing – “She could do all the damage she wanted with words – and she was very vivid with words” – is a man who so much rejoices in the stories about Lee Miller and her unparalleled work (especially her WWII photography). And here we are in the exhibition he calls “a very bold take” and a “really inspired choice”. It is the day before he turns seventy and Mr Penrose is as delighted as if he had just received the birthday present of his life.

“It is one that has really engaged with Lee Miller as a personality. And I think it will bring a lot of new understanding about Lee herself, and I am grateful for that. Lee was able to fit fragments of life together, into a meaningful pattern, and that I think we can see here. Wherever she is – if it is on the streets, or in Paris during the war, or in London in the postwar years, in Vogue’s studio or whatever – we see this excitement about improvising, about making something out of nothing,” he says. “Now, it would have been easy to fill half of this gallery with combat images from the war. But I think what Karina is saying is that people have seen that stuff before. Just because we don’t see explosions and guns and bombs doesn’t mean to say that the war isn’t present in these photographs.”

Karina Ericsson Wärn is the Director of Art, Design and Fashion at Kulturhuset and the curator of this unexampled exhibition in Gallery 3. “For me, Lee Miller belongs to the same family as Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Schiaparelli and in more modern times Miuccia Prada and Vivienne Westwood. None of them is a photographer but it doesn’t matter – it is more of an attitude towards the outside world and an individual expression that unite them. While I was working on the exhibition, I became more familiar with Lee Miller and found a woman who was very fragile, who was carrying a sonorous tone of sadness,” she tells me. “If I say that in my eyes she was really a mediocre fashion photographer, it seems quite crazy. But Lee Miller’s photographs are so much more than individual fashion shots, they are a litmus paper of their time, and she is highlighting a woman who can empower others. She is also a pioneer, she took the models to the streets and placed them in everyday situations.”

Perhaps it must be stressed again and again that the Second World War was not a spurious little Catalonian revolution of credulous flag-waving and nationalist sentiments but history’s worst and bloodiest conflict, a six-year-long carnage in which the world population was decimated by three per cent, or in human numbers seventy million people. Lee Miller pulled rabbits out of hats and totally excelled at British Vogue during the WWII, a war that she lived and photographed like no other. In a letter to her parents in the United States (dated December 14, 1941), Miller confided that, “It seems pretty silly to go on working on a frivolous paper like Vogue, though it may be good for the country’s morale, it’s hell on mine.” Simultaneously, in Lee Miller: A Life, Carolyn Burke considers her “levelheaded response to the charge of frivolity made against the industry. While she agreed that ‘seductive clothing has little to do with the starving bodies behind the scenes,’ she pointed out that it had ‘a lot to do with the starving souls’.”

One must understand that Miller’s fashion photography was produced under dire circumstances but that the war made her glow with anger and excitement – she was after all a natural-born Surrealist – and that these pictures were hugely instrumental to the war effort. Fashion as a disruptor, fashion as an animating force, fashion as bold resistance – they are anything but mediocre. Lee Miller – War and Fashion is a delightful testament to the stuff that women are made of.

What does Mr Penrose like about Lee Miller’s fashion photography? “That it is humorous and unexpected, and we get the quirky, and it’s also incredibly elegant,” he replies within a flash of a second. “She lets the women always look beautiful in quite mundane situations. There is always a story behind the image. Sometimes it is a big story and sometimes a little one. There is always a microscopic episode of life in that moment. The picture with the big blow-up, the woman standing with the feathered hat and behind her the bomb damage – that is such a beautiful image, technically, artistically, and it’s so eloquent. And you have to remember, these photographs were being seen in America, and it was very important for the British propaganda to try and influence America to get them to come into war. Pearl Harbor [December 7, 1941] hadn’t happened.”

At 4:00 pm on September 7, 1940, all hell broke loose when the Luftwaffe launched its Blitzkrieg offensive on London with 348 bombers and 617 fighters that returned two hours later for an attack which went on all night, and this continued in uninterrupted order for fifty-seven nights (the Blitz persisted till the following spring) and the Brits dreaded German encroachment. The only blunder in the show is the lack of a print of Lee Miller’s probably most deliciously poetic fashion shot (which was published in Picture Post), Model Wearing Digby Morton Suit, Shot through Arch Revealing Bomb Damage, 1941, the blow-up on the wall that Antony Penrose is talking about and in which elegance and defiance triumph over rack and ruin. The model is as gorgeous as Bowie sings in “Wild Is the Wind”: Don’t you know you’re life itself?

Geraldine Howell describes in Wartime Fashion: From Haute Couture to Homemade, 1939–1945 how “Certain uniforms, such as the Women’s Royal Navy Service Standard Dress, had been conceived partly in imitation of the civilian dress fashionable at the time. That the smart two-piece skirt suit very quickly established itself as a ubiquitous wartime style for the duration not only reflected a desire for relatively practical and durable clothes, but also for a smart look that, like uniform, signified a war-ready attitude. The authority and sense of purpose invested in a business suit or uniform now became a focus for women’s civilian wear, emblematic of new responsibilities and a changing sense of status and role within society.” Digby Morton (and other British couturiers) furthered that imitation back to the fifteen per cent of the production scheme which allowed for non-utility clothing, and pronounced that he wanted to create “the simplest smart line – spruce-like, slick, a general sort of trimness”, the sharp aesthetics that blazes in the Miller shot.

“I implore you to believe this is true,” Miller cabled Audrey Withers, the great force behind British Vogue, when her pictures from Dachau reached the magazine in London. Withers, with her highbrow instincts and wonderful regard for human issues, published much of Miller’s wartime photography, including the unspeakable scenes from the extermination camps. Her colleague Michel de Brunhoff decided to suspend the Paris edition of Vogue during the war (“There was no honourable way of publishing a magazine under the Germans, there was no way without compromise and collaboration. I stalled and formed slippery answers to the Germans,” he explained), but Withers went the other way to aid the government. Her magazine provided British women with a true voice of encouragement, guidance, leadership, and “that touch of brightness and hope for tomorrow”.

As Withers wrote in Lifespan, her autobiography of 1994: “Women’s magazines had a special place in government thinking during the war because, with men in the forces, women carried the whole responsibilities of family life, and the way to catch women’s attention was through the pages of magazines which, in total, were read by almost every woman in the country. So a group of editors were frequently invited to briefings by ministries that wanted to get across information and advice on health, food, clothing and so on. And they sought advice from us too – telling us what they wanted to achieve and asking how best to achieve it.”

Mr Penrose is evidently affectionate about his mother’s by far most important editor-in-chief. “Oh god, that woman was amazing! She was really an enlightened person. Vogue’s greatest good fortune was that she was part of that team, and the other incredible piece of great fortune was that no other editor could have done what she did. To get the paper ration, Audrey had to agree with the British Ministry of Information to print a certain amount of work that reflected positive aspects of Britain at war. Also, it was to reflect women’s role in the war, and it was a ‘duty for beauty’ – the women were supposed to look elegant and lovely, which was encouraging morale. They were supposed to always be there to cheer up the men going off to fight and maybe never coming back, to look glamorous in war-torn London. It was also a gesture to the American readership to say, ‘Look, we are not giving in, these are our values.’ And Lee with Audrey collaborated on a book called Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain under Fire [1941] and that was marketed wildly in the United States, and it became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s quite simple really, without all of that Audrey would never had gotten the paper or the ink to keep printing Vogue.”

“A booked return flight, and my own fatigue, finally set the limit as to how many negatives and contact prints I was able to go through,” says Karina Ericsson Wärn who spent some beautiful September days near the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex “in the idyllic little village Chiddingly, which is like an old Agatha Christie setting” where Miller settled down (as much as she could ever settle down) at the Farley Farm House with the wealthy and eccentric Surrealist Roland Penrose in 1949. This is also the place where Miller died and where Antony Penrose and his first-born daughter Ami Bouhassane supervise the Lee Miller Archives, based on the 60,000 negatives and 20,000 prints and contact sheets that were found, purely by chance, by Bouhassane’s mother in the attic at Farley in 1977. Antony Penrose was thirty years old then. He tells me that the discovery of this vast treasure gave him a mother he never even thought of.

“When she died, I remember feeling … not overly emotional. I had put many emotional barriers in the way of her and me. Defensive structures, if you wanna think of it like that. Suzanna discovered the material, and then I began exploring it and writing Lee’s biography. And that was absolutely cathartic because little by little I had to completely reevaluate the person that I had known, the person that I had been so contemptuous of, angry with. It was deeply upsetting, and over a period of maybe eighteen months I began to see her differently. I began to first of all admire her, and understand what she had done is unique, brave, totally remarkable. And then, completely unexpectedly, I began to like her. And then, which was totally unexpected, I began to love her.”

He considers how “there was a conflict in Lee’s life, and a very serious one. Basically, as a woman in a man’s world, she had spent so much of her energy fighting for getting recognised. She didn’t want to go on doing that. She was bored with the whole thing. She wanted to move on, not surprising. So what happened was that at the end of the war, at the end of her career in Vogue in the 1950s, she just put everything in boxes, sealed them up, tied them fourways with string and just put them aside. Nobody bothered with them. In a way she herself knew the historical importance of those images, but it wasn’t going to be her who made them important, who gave them the recognition they now have.”

“She was deeply affected by her war experiences. And she came home with what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder, and this made her into a different person. When people used to talk about the prewar Lee Miller I could not recognise her because she was so different from the deeply troubled, deeply depressed, very changeable, driven-by-alcohol person she was.” The Lives of Lee Miller was published in 1985 as a significant part of his long journey towards reconciliation. “When I started working on it, a great many of Lee’s old friends were still alive and I was just in time to get into them before they died. Of all the people that were key witnesses, only two of us are alive now. It was a case of timing, it was a case of access that these people were prepared to talk to me, and that’s what put the picture together because Lee left very little in the way of diaries or anything like that.”

The walls in Lee Miller – War and Fashion are painted in the same colourway as the Farley Farm House walls: odd pink, odd blue, odd green, odd yellow, odd brown. And just like the war is both there and not there in Lone Scherfig’s decent film Their Finest (2016) – with Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a screenwriter of propaganda films for the Ministry of Information – it is mostly referenced in the seventy-one photographs in the exhibition (they are all new silver gelatin prints and a smaller number of c-prints from the original negatives, all black and white and mainly in the Rolleiflex format). It is a pretty exciting thing to consider that forty-two of these were printed and shown for the first time.

Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England, 1941 is a wonderfully wanton piece of Surrealism with two masked Vogue models – one wearing a helmet, the other clasping a whistle in her perfectly manicured hand – fully equipped to go down the rabbit hole of an air-raid shelter – a pink and blue make-do shelter that Roland Penrose dug out in the garden of their Hampstead home at the beginning of the Blitz – to hole up at a masquerade party? It is a humorous piece but what it is really saying, what the women are saying, is: We are not frightened. Miller, in Roland Penrose’s words, “innocently enjoyed the stimulus provided with the danger”. The reply she got from her dear friend Dr Goldman when she told him that she felt jaded and depressed was that “There is nothing wrong with you, and we cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with excitement.”

Lee Miller, the quicksilver girl, was a highly intelligent, highly daring individual who craved the trouble spots of life (warfare, risky adventures, promiscuity) to supply her unusual creativity. She had to do these things to sail on from the childhood trauma that she kept quiet about all through her life. “The rape was traumatic in itself, a dreadful event,” says Antony Penrose, “but what followed was in a way even worse because she was infected with gonorrhoea, and this was in 1914 and the invention of the drug needed to cure was fifteen years away. And particularly, to begin with, she had to carry that disease at a clinical level, receiving treatments by her mum who fortunately was a nurse. And they were highly invasive, highly painful, and this was a seven-year-old child! We don’t think she was cured until the 1930s in Paris. Then she went to the American Hospital and there was a guy there called Dr Dax, and we believe that she then was cured by the use of some early antibiotics.”

A monitor in Lee Miller – War and Fashion shows her covered with thick white paint in Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet from 1932, in which she plays a statue that comes alive to tell the artist that the only way out of the studio is through the looking glass (and from there he enters the Hotel of Dramatic Lunacies). Miller habitually went into these mirrors herself; explored, discharged something precious. Ten years later, when the alliance between the United States and Britain finally took hold, she met the cheerful American photojournalist David Sherman from Life magazine with whom she would roam the European continent as a US Army correspondent for Vogue: “The two phenomena, no-Kleenex-in-the-midst-of-plenty and the threat of being left out of the biggest story of the decade almost drove poor Lee mad until I suggested that she too, a perfectly bona fide Yank from Poughkeepsie, apply for accreditation.”

In the evening of April 30, 1945, Lee Miller soaked in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub. “Mein host was not home,” she messaged Withers. Miller had been photographed in a bathtub before, at the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm in December 1930 by her engineering father (who worked for the Swedish company DeLaval), a Lewis Carroll of the day with a stereoscopic camera and a weakness for naked young girls and Lee as his Alice Liddell. Miller and Sherman were doing things in the Führer’s bed in his plain old nine-room apartment at Prinzregentenplatz 16 in Munich when the news came on the BBC at midnight about Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker. Mr Penrose calls these most peculiar events sequenced in the twelve Rolleiflex pictures on the contact sheet “something of a Surrealist poem in itself”.

“So this is a Sherman shot, he takes six pictures of her,” Antony Penrose says as he describes the bathroom setup. “This is a little sculpture by Rudolf Kaesbach. It is hideously kitsch. And this is her way of saying, ‘If this is your choice of art, it’s shit.’ This is a photograph of Hitler by Heinrich Hoffmann who was Hitler’s pet photographer and it’s actually a hugely important portrait because that image was used on the Nazi posters that went all over Germany: ‘Ein Volk, ein Rich, ein Führer.’ And to put the photograph on the edge of the tub was a fabulously clever idea.” So was the boots on the tiny floor space. “These boots carried Lee Miller around in Dachau that morning so now they are staining the nice, clean bath rug. We know that Sherman is second in because his uniform is on top of Lee’s. You see, she tilted the camera up to include the showerhead. Now, that’s really important because the shower baths were the gas chambers. Sherman was Jewish. He is sitting under Hitler’s personal shower – I wonder if that one would squirt Zyklon.”

Cleanliness was one of the derangements of the Deutsches Reich. Olga Lengyel wrote about the young SS guard Irma Grese, the satanic Hyena of Auschwitz, in her memoir Five Chimneys (1946): “Her immodest use of perfume was perhaps the supreme refinement of her cruelty. The internees, who had fallen into a state of physical degradation, inhaled these fragrances joyfully. By contrast, when she left us and the stale, sickening odour of human flesh, which covered the camp like a blanket, crept over us again, the atmosphere became even more unbearable.”

Miller and Sherman went to Eva Braun’s house the next day. Mr Penrose says that they have her perfume spray at home at the Farley Farm House. “It sat on Lee’s dressing table all the time, ever since I remember, and she never told me where it came from. We have Eva Braun’s powder compact. It is beautifully made, it’s leather-covered, it’s metal, there is a mirror and an ostrich feather for application, and you can smell the powder. When I do that it’s just the most hideous thing because that powder was on the face of the woman Hitler loved.”

Miller described her younger days like this: “I was terribly, terribly pretty. I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside.” Paris was the ideal city for an eighteen-year-old careless flapper with unspecified artistic ideas and a devotion to culture, fashion and the carnal (“I loved everything, I felt everything opening up in front of me”), and she stayed there for seven months in 1925 until her mother came and brought her back to Poughkeepsie, New York, and depression. One day in New York City, while Miller was studying at the Art Students League, a swift hand pulled her back to the curb and rescued her from being crushed by a car. The man who saved her was magazine publisher Condé Nast. In March 1927, Lee Miller was on the cover of American Vogue.

Beyond Miller’s control, a photograph of her taken by Edward Steichen began to circulate in full-page ads for menstrual hygiene pads in the summer of 1928 and onwards. In the eyes of the moral public, Lee Miller was dead. In 1929, she moved to Paris in order to approach photography quite differently, as described by Carolyn Burke in the biography: “To our ears, ‘entering photography from the back end’ is a suggestive way to describe her decision: since Lee’s childhood, the photographic apparatus, the experience of posing, and the darkroom itself were all charged for her with sexual meaning. Becoming a photographer would make it possible to explore much unfinished business.”

A visible mark in Lee Miller – War and Fashion of her few but furiously intense years with Man Ray in Montparnasse are the five solarised photographs from her luxurious New York City studio, which she set up there after breaking loose from Man Ray in 1932, and fromVogue Studio in London a decade later. Man Ray taught her the importance of being very precise about details through all the steps of the process in his miniscule darkroom. There was an episode with a fortunate accident, however, when a rat ran over her feet while she was developing one of Man Ray’s rolls and Miller forgot herself and turned on the lights which, as a consequence, charged the twelve pictures of a nude female model with a Surrealistic tint of reversed order.

“Lee had a huge freeing aspect to Man Ray’s photography,” Mr Penrose explains. “And when she went out cruising with her camera in Montparnasse, the kind of pictures she was taking were what I call ‘found images’, just little moments stolen from place and time, and contain something that is quirky Surrealistic and hard to define. I think that in a way Man Ray was watching and began to see that fraction creep into his work. Also, they collaborated very strongly, and more importantly they fought like crazy because Man Ray was jealous. They had this ‘free love’ idea and he didn’t see why this should apply to Lee, it was very one way. She simply did what she wanted, so off she went – and Man Ray almost went crazy. And he made several works which actually refer to his jealousy in a subliminal way.”

The lips that fill the sky in Man Ray’s Observatory Time – The Lovers, which he painted 1932–34, are Lee Miller’s. “Your mouth becomes two bodies separated by a long, undulating horizon. Like the earth and the sky, like you and me,” he wrote. His work Object of Destruction, made in 1932 and destroyed twenty-five years later, is a metronome with a photo of Miller’s eye secured to the pendulum. It is referenced in one of the six portraits Picasso painted of her – it was likely the first portrait he made after completing Guernica in the summer of 1937 – and you can catch a glimpse of it in Skirts, Downshire Hill, London, England, 1950, Miller’s great fashion shot of a woman split in half by a doorway. “When Picasso painted that they were all sitting on the beach and Man Ray was there, and I can just imagine Picasso teasing Man Ray. And then of course Picasso goes back and puts the metronome in the chest like a ticking heart. That was the kind of way Lee influenced, by creating reaction.”

Miller was carrying a genuine female body part on a plate through the streets of Paris one day. She managed to take a picture of the piece surrounded by cutlery on a clothed table before both she and the breast were thrown out of Vogue’s studio. There is a broken plate on the table in the enhanced little 60s-style kitchen and a broken mirror in the tiny 1940s wardrobe – two lovely and concentrated set designs conceived by a prop master at Kulturhuset’s adjoining Stadsteatern theatre.

“The kitchen was a carte blanche when I began,” explains Petra Jansson. “I knew I did not want to do a museum installation. The imagination had to fly higher than that. Naturally, I did a lot of research on Miller and her life at the Farley Farm, because the room would still have something of her and fit into the exhibition. I considered her connection to Surrealism by engaging it with my own creative process. Nonetheless, the expression eventually landed in a kitchen in the country, and the nods to Lee Miller are many but absolutely not declarative or documentary. Of course, Miller’s gastronomy inspired the ingredients of her Green Chicken to be on the shopping list, for example. Mr Penrose found many references to his mother in the kitchen, even among things that I just added.”

The function of her wardrobe installation is to provide an almost documentary illustration to Miller’s fashion shots from the bombed-out areas in London, and to show that women individually and culturally held on to a kind of femaleness that, in spite of the austerity regulations and the shortages, truly intensified their power and beauty. Jansson: “I think that during the war it became even more important for women to work hard to maintain their position, their value. All this is difficult to convey in a scenography without an actor who embodies how it really was. Therefore I focused on the perception of the wardrobe of a regular woman during the war, colour-wise, fashion-wise and in terms of content. Karina and I picked up a lot from Stadsteatern’s fantastic costume store.”

Roland Penrose paid Picasso fifty pounds for the portrait of Lee Miller with the metronome ticking away between her breasts, and Miller brought it back to Cairo where she was officially living with the wealthy Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey (whom she divorced in 1947). “As for me, I frankly don’t know what I want, unless it is to ‘have my cake and eat it’. I want the Utopian combination of security and freedom and emotionally I need to be completely absorbed in some work or in a man I love. I think the first thing for me to do is to take or make freedom – which will give me the opportunity to become concentrated again, and just hope that some sort of security follows – even if it doesn’t the struggle will keep me awake and alive,” she wrote to the poor man in a letter dated November 17, 1938. “Goodbye darling – and good luck until I return and even if I don’t.”

She alarmed another good-natured lover telling him she was a “faithless hussy”. Men were infatuated with the unsubduable Lee Miller. It was her perpetual good fortune that she was the one who could always harm them and not the other way round. “In terms of deep emotional connection she was very limited, she was what we would call dissociated, but in terms of everyday relationships she was capable of the most incredible warmth and generosity and empathy,” says Antony Penrose. “Lee had a passion for helping those who were less advantaged than her, and she was very generous at that. The working guys, the people who didn’t have that much of a chance, they all loved her. She was not patronising ever, but she always wanted to help.”

Harry Dean Stanton is the old-timer who regards the world with sour bemusement in Lucky (2017). It is that same awareness and lament in here as when the piano lid goes down for good in Johnny Cash’s Hurt, because everyone goes away in the end. Lucky looks up the word Reality for his daily crossword and tells the clientele in the bar that: “Realism is a thing. It is the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.” A man knocks on a door in the excellent thriller Wind River (2017), it is outside and daylight, and another man answers those knocks and opens the door to a loving woman, a night scene, and we are cunningly thrown into a most brutal flashback. And that is how Miller dealt with Reality – she never just accepted it as a plain thing. Lee Miller loved crossword puzzles, she loved to fill up the grids; she loved her whims, her “jags”, her adventures and indulgences, whatever would fill up the void.

“Why all this fuss about a photograph when the country is fighting for its life?” asked Anne Scott-James for persuasive effect in a Picture Post (October 26, 1940) photo essay about Lee Miller’s work in London, a question which she also answered: “Because now standards are more important than ever.” When British Vogue finally hired Miller for eight pounds a week in January 1940, she hadn’t been that active with her photography for a very long time. (Her uninhabited pictures from barren Egypt are laconic, surreal and superb, but they are not that many.) The Blitz totally activated Miller’s creative instincts, her audacity and ingenuity and the rest that made her shine.

In 1983, David Sherman recalled when he was assigned to London as a twenty-five-year-old and how he met “the already legendary Lee Miller”: “I had the eternal good fortune to be invited by Roland to visit his house in Hampstead. Its halls were completely covered with what I thought were absolutely first-rate copies of the work by Picasso, Braque, Miró, Tanguy, de Chirico, Brancusi, Giacometti, Tannard, Max Ernst, René Magritte and a dozen by Roland himself. Only they were not copies, Lee explained to me patiently […] The house was mind-boggling and so were Roland and Lee’s regular soirées, the guest lists of which read like a Who’s Who of modern art, journalism, British politics, music and even espionage, though we did not know about the latter until years later. Communists, Liberals and Tories drank and jostled one another in an amicable mélange that will never be seen again.”

Lee Miller’s war against Nazi oppression was hardcore, trenchant and not without deep elements of MASH-like humanity and farce. She photographed the D-Day (June 6, 1944) casualties and the meatball surgery in some US Army field hospitals in Normandy, the napalm bombings of Saint-Malo (late August to early September 1944), the Battle of Alsace (early in 1945), Buchenwald, the Nazi mass suicides in Leipzig, and she was there with the infantry boys when the rats were discharged from the Berghof stronghold in the Bavarian Alps. Miller’s base during the last stretch of the war was room 412 at the Hôtel Scribe in Paris (this luxury hotel had been the centre of operations for the Nazi press during the occupation) where she typed her stories, developed and printed her pictures in the bathroom, and just tried to hold herself together day by day with devastating quantities of cognac, bennies and sleeping tablets.

In The Lives of Lee Miller, Antony Penrose describes his mother’s hatred of the Nazis after witnessing what was going on in Luxembourg in 1944: “She wrote of the stupid niggling humiliations of Nazi occupation such as not being allowed to speak French; there was a ten marks fine for simply saying bonjour or merci. French family names had to be changed to their nearest German equivalents, cafés were labelled Rathskeller. Intellectuals, teachers and lawyers were shot as traitors. Reprisals were taken against civilians at any opportunity and early on the Jews vanished without a trace.”

In fact, she could not stand the thought of Germans at all by the end of the war: “No Germans, unless they are underground resistance workers or concentration camp inmates, find that Hitler did anything wrong except to lose. I know that I will never understand them. I’m just like the soldiers here, who look at the beautiful countryside, use the super-modern comforts of their buildings, and wonder why the Germans wanted anything more.”

For Miller, however, it was an impossible endeavour to say goodbye, farewell and amen to the war. She travelled to “the suckers and the mugs” of The Third Man (1949) Vienna. She travelled around in Hungary in order to be as close as she could to agony and ecstasy, misery and Moscow. In British Vogue (January, 1945), Miller disputed: “The pattern of liberation is not decorative. There are the gay squiggles of wine and song. There is the beautiful overall colour of freedom, but there is ruin and destruction. There are problems and mistakes, disappointed hopes and broken promises. There is wishful thinking and inefficiency.” In a letter to Roland Penrose (which she never posted) she wrote that, “This is a new and disillusioning world. Peace with a world of crooks who have no honour, no integrity and no shame is not what anyone fought for.” The Second World War did not really end in Miller’s head until more than a decade later when she became a kitchen goddess and a creator of purposefully bizarre dinners, and built a library of two thousand cookbooks.

When Audrey Withers looked at the fashion sense in London compared to Paris she had a clear winner. “We wanted to be ready for anything asked from us,” she argued, as opposed to the Parisians and their quite not similar circumstances: “Occupied by the Germans, its people wanted to cock and snook at them, distancing themselves by being flagrantly unpractical and putting on the most outrageous fashion show they could. So, with no transport but bicycles and a limited metro service, they were wearing shoes with platform soles inches high, and towering hats.” Lee Miller’s fashion shots from post-liberation Paris show Parisiennes on bikes and models wearing Schiaparelli at the Place Vendôme, while facing Hôtel Ritz where Gabrielle Chanel lived and frolicked with the Nazis.

Miller’s photography from WWII Paris was not liked by Edna Woolman Chase, the editor-in-chief at American Vogue, and Miller did what she always did in these cases, she contacted Withers: “I find Edna very unfair – these snapshots have been taken under the most difficult and depressing conditions – in the twenty minutes a model was willing to give of her lunch hour – most of which was being taken up with further fittings for unfinished dresses – or after five o’clock in rooms with no electricity – using the seeping daylight from a courtyard window – with a howling mob around and the amount of daylight that reaches through the couloir to the can. Any suggestion that dames du monde could and should have been used is strictly out of this world. Edna should be told that there is a war on.”

In front of two portraits that Mr Penrose describes with gentlemanly fervor: “Actually there’s an interesting double here, because this is Elsa Schiaparelli and this is Marlene Dietrich. And this is Paris post liberation. Schiaparelli has returned. Dietrich is there and she is modelling Schiaparelli’s gown. Schiaparelli left Paris because she could not, would not, work under the Nazis. Other fashion designers including Chanel were collaborators and in a gesture of solidarity Dietrich offered to model a Schiaparelli gown and Lee photographed them. She had already known Schiaparelli from way back in 1929 in Paris. There is something very moving about this triangle, and it is a theme that comes back and back and back – how Lee loved to support people who were disadvantaged in the careers arena at the time.”

In British Vogue’s Victory edition of June 1945, Withers – always an advocate for social reform – called for the necessity of maintaining the level of equality gained from the war effort: “And were do they go from here – the servicewomen and all the others who, without the glamour of uniform, have queued and contrived and queued, and kept factories, homes and offices going? Their value is more than proven, their toughness where endurance was needed, their taciturnity when silence was demanded, their tact, good humour and public conscience; their continuity of purpose, their submission to discipline, their power over machines […] how long before a grateful nation (or, anyhow, the men of the nation) forget what women accomplished when the country needed them? It’s up to women to see to it that there is no regression – that they go right on from here.”

Lee Miller’s accomplishments were sealed in boxes, lofted and forsaken, and when she died on July 21, 1977, it was not even worth mentioning in The New York Times. Her last fashion shots in Lee Miller – War and Fashion are some swimsuit pictures, quite a lot of pictures from Sicily and too many from Farley Farm and its surroundings (though the indoor shots still have the verve one would expect). “She was a pioneer even with the Sicily images. Today we are spoiled with photo essays that combine fashion with food and travel, but then it was an unusual recipe. 

Intractable depression, incapability and agony, entrapment in the past is the predicament of any survivor of severe trauma, but those who survive must do more than merely go on surviving. A friend of Miller’s said that she was “in a world of her own, yet totally in the present”. Roland Penrose’s later exploits in celebrity – he founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London together with Herbert Read in 1947, wrote biographies on modernist masters and was knighted in 1966 – overshadowed Lee Miller’s life and work as they grew older together.

“She never talked about the photos in the attic, never. The homes were crammed of art but there were only two photographs by Lee Miller. One was called The Procession and it was the ripples of sand with bird footprints in them, and the other was called On the Road and it was a dead ox in a cart and horns sticking out. I think they may have gone off to some place which is why they were nicely framed, and then they were just stuck on the wall and nobody took any notice of them,” says Antony Penrose.

“As time went on, people began to take an interest in her with her connection to Man Ray. And occasionally I remember young art historians arriving at Farley Farm and they would talk to her and they would say, ‘Tell me what it was like, what you were doing.’ And she would always deflect the questions, ‘Oh, I did not do anything. But, you know, it was so interesting with Man Ray, let me tell you about him.’ She just did not want to go back there, she had done that, closed the door and started all over again as a gourmet cook.”

Since she wasn’t a staff Vogue person, the Lee Miller Archives owns everything that Miller did for them. “And this we had to prove legally at the beginning, and we proved it successfully to Vogue’s satisfaction. They stopped trying to claim copyright for them. It was tough, it was one of the most difficult and acrimonious things that I ever had to do,” Mr Penrose explains. “There are very few prints elsewhere. Some ended up in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institution of Chicago because a very wise and clever curator called David Travis bought them from the estate when [Miller’s New York art dealer] Julien Levy died, and that’s how they ended up there. Otherwise, the only time a Lee Miller comes on the market is when it’s part of somebody’s estate and they died. And they are always far more expensive for us to afford.”

The exhibition at Kulturhuset is all for the glory and perseverance of women – just like French Vogue’s Liberation issue from January 1945: “One essential fact strikes those who are waging war, which will strike its historians – women’s contribution in all areas, social, medical and military – their full participation in the immense effort that each nation is making.”

When Technicolor returns to the world in Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (filmed in the autumn of 1945), the airman wakes up in the arms of the woman who directed him back to life:

“We won,” he throbs.

“I know, darling.”


Tintin Törncrantz

Tintin Törncrantz is an author specialized in photography. He lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden.


Lee Miller, War and Fashion
Through March 4, 2018
Sergels torg
111 57 Stockholm

Lee Miller Archives has an online picture library at Farleys House & Gallery is open for tours from April – October

Create an account or log in to read more and see all pictures.

Install WebApp on iPhone
Install WebApp on Android