Looking Down on Lee Miller: Carolyn Burke’s Lee Miller: A Life
Looking Down on Lee Miller
Carolyn Burke’s Lee Miller: A Life
by Henry Edward Hardy
Lady Elizabeth Lee Miller was ahead of her time — and in many ways ahead of our time too. Model, actress, surrealist, freethinker and war photographer, Lee Miller was a lifelong champion and exemplar of absolute freedom and self-determination.
Unfortunately Carlyn Burke misses the mark. Her book is ponderous and self-important, with cloying third person references to “the biographer.” Her fundamental idea about Lee Miller seems to be that she was a victim, first of her childhood experiences and then of war trauma. In particular, Burke seems to focus on a supposed rape when Miller was seven. Although she admits “the details of what happened were unclear,” she bases much of her pseudo-psychological analysis of Miller’s adult life on this premise.
Lee’s father made a number of photos of Miller nude, including some very fetching, but not per se erotic, 3-D stereograms of her as a teenager. Certainly by the time she was an adult Miller was accustomed to being photographed naked. Her father worked for a Swedish company and frequently visited Stockholm, where he was influenced by the liberal attitudes there toward nudity and self-expression.
In 1929 Miller saw the surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray in a Paris cafe. Burke quotes Miller’s accounts of their meeting: “I told him boldly that I was his new student. He said he didn’t take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris on a holiday. I said I know, I’m going with you … and I did.” Miller said of Man Ray, “We lived together for three years, and I learned a lot about photography.”
After she refused to continue to live with Man Ray as an obedient “wife, married or not,” as he put it, Lee returned to New York in 1932. With her command of Man Ray techniques which she had improved, or invented, such as “solarization,” — later popularized by Andy Warhol– Miller became a much sought-after photographer in New York City.
In 1934, Miller married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. Bey was tolerant of Miller and her willful ways. Her images from Egypt are stark and magical, very beautiful but desolate.
Miller’s great years as a photographer and the period for which she will most be remembered by future generations, began with Miller’s move from Egypt to England in 1938. Moving in with her lover, the surrealist (and later, second husband and Commander of the British Empire Sir) Roland Algernon Penrose, Miller joined Penrose’s other ‘houseguest’, Man Ray.
As a photographer and correspondent for Conde Naste (who published Vogue), Miller became one of the first accredited female war correspondents of World War II. Her war photos combine tragedy, beauty, irony, a wicked humor and a sense of mystery. The idea of surrealist war correspondent may seem contradictory, but in fact Lee Miller was at her best in the middle of this war and chaos. Her photo of a duck on a battlefield, her pictures of Dachau, and David Scherman’s portrait of her nude in Hitler’s bathtub during a wild party at Hitler’s former house, her combat boots and army uniform beside her, rank as unique works both as war documentary and as art.
Regrettably, Burke’s biography is at times condescending, judgmental and moralizing. She presumes to speak for the reader, which is presumptuous to say the least. Regarding Lee Miller’s father, Theodore Miller’s nude stereograms of her, Burke says, “To us, Theodore’s ‘art studies’ are disturbing … We wonder why a father would take such pictures, why a mother would not intervene, and what long-term effects such sessions would have…” To see Lee Miller as a victim as Burke does is just as dehumanizing as to see her as an object, as many of her surrealist compatriots such as Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Picasso seem to have done.
Burke’s fawning and yet hostile attitude toward Miller perhaps has influenced her selection of photos — she seems to have selected the frumpiest, most out of focus, and least appealing pictures of Miller for the book. Although Miller doesn’t look bad in Burke’s selection, it is quite difficult from this meager ration of images to discern the outstanding beauty who was a “vision so lovely … one forgot the purpose of one’s visit.”
Similarly, the selection of Miller’s own work is curiously lacking. Given Burke’s access to the Lee Miller Archives and the gracious cooperation of Miller’s and Roland Penrose’s son Antony Penrose, one wonders at the paucity of Miller’s best, and best-known work as a model and as a photographer.
Burke’s book rates as not a bad biography of a remarkable intellect and freethinker. But the interested reader would do far better to consult her son Antony Penrose’s book, The Lives of Lee Miller (Thames and Hudson, 1988), which is both more objective and more sympathetic.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy