October 5, 2023

The captivating Life of Lee Miller: a War Photographer and Fashion Icon

When thinking of Lee Miller, more than one talent comes to mind. She was a successful model, a fashion journalist, a pioneer of the surrealist movement and, above all, a well-respected and incredibly skilled photographer. Still today, she is held in high esteem for her uncompromising and brutal documentation of the conflicts and impacts of the Second World War. After the Liberation of the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, she was among the few documenting the unimaginable horrors that awaited there. In the upcoming film “Lee” by Ellen Kuras her incredible journey will be captured, and the photographer will be portrayed by the Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet.

Becoming a photographer 

Lee Miller, born on April 23, 1907, in Poughkeepsie, New York, began her journey as a photographer and model due to her father's passion for camerawork. In 1925, she moved to Paris to study fashion and art, later returning to the United States to explore theater and painting. Her fateful encounter with Conde Nast, the editor of Vogue magazine, on the streets of Manhattan paved the way for her modeling career, gracing the magazine's cover and making her one of New York's most sought-after models. 

As her presence in the fashion world solidified, Miller's interest in photography grew. Upon her return to Paris in 1929, she crossed paths with artist and photographer Man Ray, whom she regarded as one of the field's great masters. Miller became Ray's muse, collaborator, and lover, immersing herself in surrealism and experimenting with light and shadow, embarking on a journey of self-photography.

Documenting World War II  

After spending some time in the US and Egypt, she moved to England together with the British painter Roland Penrose, whom she later married. With the breakout of the Second World War, Miller started to capture photographs of historical events such as the “Blitz” in 1942. Her images of the Nazi Bombing in the UK were later used in the propaganda booklet “Grim Glory: Britain under Fire” to encourage the US to join the war effort. Miller later convinced Vogue to send her to the field as a photojournalist correspondent. She started to publish several photographic reports for the fashion magazine. In 1942, she became an official photographer of the United States Army, documenting war images all around Europe. 

As a US Correspondent, Miller travelled to Europe's most prestigious Liberation events. She published photographs of the Liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace, and the liberation of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. It was above all the images of unimaginable forms of violence that were the most striking ones.   

One of her most famous photographs, however, was done in collaboration with photographer David E. Sherman. The two were present when American soldiers raided Hitler's apartment in Munich on April 30, 1945. It was there where Sherman took the famous picture of Miller posing in Hitler's bathtub. As they learned later, this was the same day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. 

Life After the War  

With the end of the war, Miller continued to work with Vogues, covering Fashion and celebrities. But after some time, she began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, following the atrocities she had witnessed during the war. According to her family, she often turned down invitations from journalists and archivists who wanted to spotlight her work. Her granddaughter Ami Bouhassane later said: “She wanted to move on. She wanted to forget.” In 1977 she died of cancer at the age of 70.  

Even decades after Lee Miller's death, her legacy is still treasured. Even though Miller refused most of the publicity during her lifetime, her work gained lots of public recognition when her son Antony Penrose discovered over 60,000 negatives in the family home. Today, most of them can be viewed online on the Lee Miller Archives website (www.leemiller.co.uk).  

The upcoming movie “Lee” tells the story of her remarkable life and is based on the book “The Lives of Lee Miller” written by her son in 1985.   The director Ellen Kuras and the British actress Kate Winslet, who plays the leading role, will be paying tribute to Lee Miller's incredibly valuable work, not only as a photographer and war correspondent but as a human being.