A model, a photographer, a war correspondent, and a gourmet chef: Lee Miller certainly lived a life unpredictable.
Born in New York, Miller’s life took a dark turn from an early age when raped by a family friend. Her mother’s administration of a painful and invasive treatment for gonorrhoea damaged their relationship for life, whilst her father soon began using her as a nude model in his amateur photography.
As an adult she was a sought after model before settling into the surrealist circles as Man Ray’s muse, collaborator, and lover. Suffering early traumas before achieving grand successes no doubt destabilised her worldview. Miller took up photography as a way of taking back control, referring to it as “a utopian combination of security and freedom.”
The self-portraits she took between the end of her affair with Man Ray and her marriage to Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey are some of the most sincere celebrations of femininity and empowerment of the inter-war period. Both assured and vulnerable, Miller’s ability to work in front and behind the camera lay the foundations for the sensitivity she was to display during her time as a war correspondent.
Leaving Bey, and the boring and lonely life as an expat wife in Egypt, Miller returned to fashion photography; this time behind the camera.
The outbreak of war saw Vogue transformed into a propaganda tool, with Miller leading shoots that assured women of their place and position in relation to the violence breaking out in mainland Europe.
One feature, titled ‘fashion for the factories’ suggested that well-dressed women work better. Margot Fonteyn modelled a chinese-style hat “as a tribute to her father interned by the Japanese in Shanghai.” As well as enforcing ideas of rationing and nationalism at home, Vogue emphasised women’s role as waiting and serving their men.
Despite Miller’s broad body of work in the magazine, British Vogue received regular charges of inappropriate frivolity at a time of wartime austerity. The editor’s reaction was to commission major and occasionally radical features.
With the introduction of female conscription in 1941, 90% of single women and 80% of married women were helping out in the war effort by 1942. Miller captured the less glamorous side of working the home front: following these women at work on the land, in the factories, and supporting the forces. With tasks varying from the mundane parachute folding, the ‘feminine’ nursing through to the exhausting farming, Miller captures the new ordinary that had inhabited the country. Although the women’s war effort was supposed to remain well away from combat, Miller photographed the Women’s Home Defence unit: one of the only female units allowed to handle firearms.
There’s somewhat of a bluntness to her photos; her heroines are just getting on with the task at hand in contrast to the testosterone-laden images of men fighting for King and Country. Her photos look past glorified ideals of battle and violence, instead looking at individual incidents, ordeals, and people dealing with them the best they can.
Miller initially applied for war correspondent status to get access to the American supplies her fellow expats were receiving. As a woman who obsessed over cleanliness and disease, even her closest friends were surprised with how quickly she mucked in on the frontlines; visiting field hospitals and eating in the canteens with the soldiers.
Miller’s gender allowed her access to areas and to people that men would not have been able to reach. Her sensitive eye and insightful shots allows the viewer that same, semi-prohibited access.
Her female-centric focus continued after the war ended, and provided a different perspective upon the aftermath. One woman accused of spying had her head shaved, and was paraded around town in a show of humiliation. Miller’s portrait depicts a defeated figure, with a stubborn jaw: a woman who is suffering the double crime of being both female and accused of espionage, a woman who has already gone through too much to completely stand down.
Most of Miller’s portraits of this period echo the quiet resilience of woman. From a German woman wearing traditional dress ‘in a mute show of defiance’ during an enforced visit to a concentration camp, to a Viennese woman singing in the ruins of an opera house, through to the infamous image of Miller herself defiantly taking a bath in Hitler’s tub, women showed just as much grit and determination as their male counterparts on the frontlines.
As Miller herself reflected:
Miller was then encouraged to return to fashion photography, focusing on the fashion houses rising from the ashes of wartime. British women would object to these ostentatious displays of luxury during a time of rationing, yet for Parisiens celebrations of fashion had been their mode of resistance during the Nazi occupation.
Ultimately, it was Lee Miller’s ‘finest works’ that proved to be her last. Having provided such intense and emotive insights into the war, the impact of war photography took its toll on Miller. Most affected by documenting the liberation of concentration camps, she retired from photography soon after. Once, a woman in a vacuum, she paved the way for others to embark on a career in front line war correspondence, uninhabited by their gender.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at the Imperial War Museum until 24th April 2016. Tickets cost £5 – £10.