You may have seen the recent BBC documentary ‘Lee Miller – A Life on the Front Line’, a fascinating and sometimes disturbing account of the life of this extraordinary photographer. This week, we were privileged to welcome Hilary Roberts who presented a talk that focused mainly on the ways Lee photographed women and womens’ experience during the Second World War. Hilary is Research Curator of Photography at the Imperial War Museum, has curated an exhibition of Lee’s work at the Museum and published a book on the subject.
Lee was strikingly beautiful with the kind of face and figure that fitted the fashion vogue of her time and she began her career as a model. One of her fashion photographs was sold on to Kotex for a sanitary towel advert and this was considered unseemly at the time and brought her modelling career to an abrupt end. By this time anyway, she was thinking she would be much happier behind the camera and taught herself how to operate one. According to the BBC documentary, she turned up at the studio of the great surrealist photographer Man Ray and introduced herself as his new assistant. Clearly, he was charmed and convinced, and took her on. There is no doubt that they both benefited from a very close collaboration producing what are now considered iconic masterpieces of avant-garde photography. She became his ‘muse’ (where can I get one of those?). Her photographs of women were empathetic showing them as positive self-determined people rather than the traditional image glammed and prettied up for the camera.
Around the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, she offered her services to Vogue magazine. Turned down at first, she was taken on voluntarily as an assistant and found she got on well with the magazine’s editor. Vogue, at the time was not just a fashion magazine but published photojournalism and the work of surrealist artists. Being a non-combatant she could not visit the front lines but set about chronicling the vital role that women played in the war effort. She struck up a relationship with the war photographer David Sharman which was key to her being offered a job as war photographer/correspondent for Condé Nast Press. She took many pictures of women in uniform in various roles, and in particular a series to help recruitment of women into the ATS. Although lacking any training in journalism, she found she could write engaging text to accompany her photos for Vogue.
Lee was never happier than when she was socialising with her friends in the arts scene in Paris and returned there again and again. There are notable portraits of her by Picasso and Roland Penrose, her second husband. They show her vivacious and engaging personality but hint at a dark depth that some have attributed to very traumatic experiences as a child. She struggled with exhaustion and PTSD after covering assignments to record post-war Europe, particularly the Nazi concentration camps. To help her recuperate, Roland Penrose moved them to Farley Farm in Sussex where eventually she recovered and discovered a new interest in Cordon Bleu cookery. She never talked about her experiences, and it was after her death in 1977 that her son, Anthony, discovered in boxes in the attic an archive of her photographic work.
Thank you Hilary for an absorbing evening about the life of this amazing woman. The BBC documentary is still available on the BBC iPlayer in case you missed it. If you want a day out in the Sussex countryside, Hilary strongly recommended visiting Farley Farm which is now a museum and art gallery https://www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk/. And why not treat yourself to a copy of Hilary’s book ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’ – all 5* ratings on Amazon.