Lee Miller: The Real Surrealist
January 22, 2005 9:40 AM   Subscribe

From muse to master Lee Miller started out as a Vogue model, but by 1930 she had moved behind the lens to take piercing photographs -- culminating in her rage-fuelled portraits of Nazi kitsch. The "Lee Miller: Portraits" exhibit is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from February 3 until May 30. More inside.
posted by matteo (15 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
from the main link:
Miller's work draws its spark from her extremes of experience, the reincarnation of the top model and fashion photographer as front-line reporter. She lived the glorious irony of being on the battlefront as the representative of Vogue. Her portrait of the Leipzig burgomaster's daughter, who committed suicide as the Allies took the town, is essentially a corpse as fashion shot - statuesque, soigné and beautifully lit. Miller's photograph is alarming in a way that Bourke-White's more straightforward reportage of the same scene of suicide is not.

It is Miller's high style that reveals the full banality of the Third Reich's leadership. In Munich, finding herself in Hitler's former residence in Prinzregentenplatz, she has herself photographed nude in Hitler's white enamelled bath, surrounded by his kitsch. Moving on to Eva Braun's former lodgings, a few streets away, the one-time photographer of Vogue's "Choice of the Month" casts aspersions on the décor, castigating Hitler's girlfriend for her department-store taste. Her revulsion at the dowdiness of evil gives her portraits of the Nazis a particular intensity of rage.
posted by matteo at 9:43 AM on January 22, 2005

Thank you so much for that. The contrast between her fashion/Hollywood work and her images of WW2 (especially Dachau) is breathtaking. Wonderful imagery.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:10 AM on January 22, 2005

Nice post about one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Be sure to check out the very strong website Surrealist Muse: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, and Man Ray from a show at the Getty a few years ago. Also well worth a visit is the commercial (but well done and generous with the photographs) site The Lee Miller Archive .
posted by portage at 10:19 AM on January 22, 2005

Cool. I have something to add on this post.

Lee Miller, as you may know, was also the subject of a painting by Picasso. She also lived for many years with the more well-known photographer Man Ray but eventually married the art patron Roland Penrose. Quite a life she lived for a girl from Poughkeepsie, New York.

In most biographies of her you will only see casual mention of her two brothers. You might see mention of her brother Eric but you will almost see no mention of her younger brother John. This was because of a family rift whose personal details I am aware of but hesitate to really go into more detail here.

Anyways, her brother John is quite famous himself. Here's an article about him in Aviation History magazine. He was a test pilot and the first man to fly an autogiro, preceding Amelia Earhart's flight.

The reason I know some family details is that John's grandson (son of one of his two daughters) is one of my best friends. He and I have been friends since elementary school. I've met John Miller and have been lucky enough to get some family gossip. An incredible family. His great-aunt Lee was an incredible woman.

Also, here's my earlier post about this :)
posted by vacapinta at 10:23 AM on January 22, 2005

I don't really think that a photograph of a dead girl qualifies as "Nazi kitsch," was that link supposed to be to the bathtub shot? I really like the photos, but I think that the writing at that guardian link is offensive.
posted by mokujin at 10:24 AM on January 22, 2005

vacapinta: I was just about to mention your earlier great post. I remember that post from 2002. To my mind at least the kind of post that made metafilter great and the web interesting.
posted by portage at 10:29 AM on January 22, 2005

Me too (as the dittoheads say). I loved that earlier post, and just went and looked it again. The bathtub photo was just a terrific idea, what with its original owner being so 'dirty' and all.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:24 AM on January 22, 2005

For those interested in more pictures *of* Lee Miler, here are a few.
posted by bingo at 12:59 PM on January 22, 2005

Wow. That "Freed Prisoners" photo in the Guardian link is fantastic. It imbues Dachau survivors with a dignity I've never seen in other documentary photos.

*And* she documented the first use of napalm? How on earth have I missed this woman's work? Thanks, matteo, vacapinta, et al; I'm totally captivated.
posted by mediareport at 8:26 PM on January 22, 2005

I wasn't a member when the first Miller post was made. So glad that I can now offer a belated thank-you to vacapinta, thanks to matteo.
posted by of strange foe at 12:14 PM on January 23, 2005

Wow, what an amazing woman, and what an incredible life.
posted by orange swan at 5:38 AM on January 24, 2005

mokujin, what was it at the Guardian that you found offensive?

Lee Miller is fantastic, glad she made a few new fans in this thread. :)
posted by dabitch at 5:54 AM on January 24, 2005

dabitch, I really dislike the notion, mentioned in the text quoted at the beginning by matteo, of "revulsion at the dowdiness of evil." As if everything would have been okay had the Nazi's simply pursued a more highbrow aesthetic?

I was also kind of aghast at matteo's apparently accidental linking of the words "Nazi kitsch" to a picture of a woman who had killed herself (from the Guardian: "corpse as fashion shot - statuesque, soigné and beautifully lit," that seems to me to be in worse taste than any of Eva Braun's knick-knacks). I think that he probably meant to post to the famous bathtub picture. I guess that I just don't think that pointing out the "kitsch" and bad taste of the Nazis is either in itself meaningful, or the reason why these pictures are important, powerful, and interesting. I don't really like the reduction of everything to aesthetics that photography and writing about it so easily becomes.
posted by mokujin at 1:16 AM on January 27, 2005

images are about aesthetics. otherwise one would pick up a pen and a blank sheet of paper instead of a camera.

oh, and the link wasn't a mistake, I meant to link exactly to the suicide shot
posted by matteo at 4:48 PM on February 1, 2005

"I meant to link exactly to the suicide shot"

Then you must not know exactly what "kitsch" means.

"Images are about aesthetics."

No problem though, because you also don't know what journalism means.
posted by mokujin at 4:30 AM on February 2, 2005

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