A model, a photographer, and an artist, Lee Miller’s life was as vibrant and varied as the subjects of her work: sometimes beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking, and often surreal.
Lee’s early life was anything but easy. She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 23rd April, 1907. When she was just seven years old, she was raped and as a result of the rape, contracted gonorrhoea. These were the days before penicillin, so treatment was both painful and complicated. In order to treat her illness, she was forced to undergo vaccinations every week and douches every day, neither of which were easy for a traumatised, seven-year-old rape survivor to deal with. She was forced to continue undergoing these painful treatments for more than a decade.
Compounding the trauma, at only eight year’s old, Lee’s father, an amateur photographer, reportedly began using her as a subject for his photographs, and he often asked her to sit for him while she was nude. This practise continued until she was in her 20s.
At 19, Lee left home and began attending The Art Students League of New York. Things changed drastically for her that winter when she stepped outside onto Manhattan’s busy city streets, and failed to notice an oncoming car. That moment could have been the end of everything for Lee, but she fell backwards, narrowly missing being struck by the car, and was caught by acclaimed media publisher Condé Nast. The strange introduction led to the beginnings of Lee’s modelling career. Only a matter of months later, she was a cover girl for one of Nast’s publications – Vogue.
Lee’s modelling career took off with several high profile photographers seeking work with her. However, a photograph of her was used without her consent in 1928 for Kotex menstrual hygiene. It was the first time a menstrual hygiene advert showed a photograph of a real person, but this was seen as shocking to 1920s America. It effectively resulted in the end of Lee’s modelling career. As it happened though, she wasn’t entirely content to stay in front of the camera anyway. Instead, she had been dreaming of a life behind it.
She set off to Paris in 1930, determined to study with acclaimed American surrealist photographer Man Ray. Though Man Ray was initially resistant, Lee wore him down, and, for the next three years, she studied alongside him, developing her skills and helping create a new technique known as solarisation. During this time, they also entered into a romantic relationship. However, when Lee starred as the female lead in Jean Cocteau’s first film ‘The Blood of A Poet’, Man Rey’s jealousy reportedly spiralled out of control. Unwilling to tolerate his behaviour, Lee left him and returned to New York.
She stayed in Manhattan for several years, where she ran her own studio before falling in love with an Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey, and following him to Cairo. Though she was married, a few short years later Lee decided she needed to spend some time in Paris alone. Soon after, she fell in love with the man who would become her next husband – artist, historian and poet, Roland Penrose.
When WWI began, Lee and Roland left Paris for London, where Lee soon began serving as a photographer for British Vogue. Later, in wanting to get closer to the action with her journalism, Lee applied for work as a war correspondent.
Lee was the first female photojournalist to follow the 83rd Division of the US army, and in that role, she took some of the first photographs documenting the Holocaust. She worked behind the camera, capturing visual evidence of the atrocities, photographing the liberation of both Dachau and Buchenwald. It was then, in an act of defiance, that she created the photograph she was perhaps most famous for. She stepped back in front of the camera and her partner photographed her in Hitler’s old house, where she left her muddy boots on his bathmat, caking their dirt into its clean fibres, and posed in his bathtub.
After the war, Lee returned to London, and in 1947, she gave birth to a son. Unfortunately, during this time, Lee also found herself struggling with what we would now diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She sunk into a depression and began self-medicating with alcohol. Although she worked occasionally following the birth of her son, by 1953, she was all but retired.
Lee took solace in cooking and decided to attend Le Cordon Blue culinary school. She loved throwing dinner parties at the farm she and her husband had purchased, and they often entertained other famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, who painted Lee six times. Lee was known to create elaborate, surrealist dinners that could feature anything from green chicken, to blue fish, to whole-roasted pigs.
Lee died of cancer in 1977, and her work as a photographer was soon all but forgotten. However, after her death, her son and his wife discovered tens of thousands of Lee’s negatives and prints in the family’s attic. Her son has worked diligently to preserve and showcase them, and Lee’s work has recently experienced a tremendous resurgence as a result.