Women in the arts: Lee Miller

Women in the arts: Lee Miller

A life lived in pictures

Site: Yeong Sassall

As beautiful as she was free spirited, model-turned-war-photographer Lee Miller was one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century

Fiercely independent and intelligent, her eye for photography was admired as much as her stunning patrician looks. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York on April 23, 1907, Elizabeth 'Lee' Miller was of German, Canadian and British descent. Her father Theodore, an amateur photographer, would take many pictures of Lee from the age of seven - sometimes even naked. Miller's early years were by no means idyllic - raped at the age of eight, she contacted gonorrhoea and suffered years of awful treatments.

By 1927, her beauty had flourished and she was discovered by the publisher Condé Nast completely by accident - he pulled her off the road to avoid oncoming traffic. And so Miller began her modelling career at the very top - as a Vogue cover girl. While her modelling career and social status quickly skyrocketed, she soon left New York for the delights of Paris.

Women in the arts: Lee Miller (фото 1)

In Paris, Miller's looks attracted more admirers - most notably Surrealist artist Man Ray. Miller initially sought out the artist as his pupil, but by 1929  had acquired muse and lover status, and they shared an intense relationship fuelled by creativity, obsession and desire at the height of the Surrealist movement.

While their relationship gave way to eventual animosity, with Miller sending Man Ray crazy (as she was prone to do to many men), his obsession with her glacial beauty is evident from his many works. Miller also caught the attention of other artists of the time - Picasso painted her portrait six times and Jean Cocteau cast her in his film The Blood of a Poet. Man Ray was said to be consumed by jealousy - his anger can be seen in the violence of some of his portraits, where Miller is reduced to mere floating body parts.

Women in the arts: Lee Miller (фото 2)

Soon, Miller grew tired of being the subject in another's man's art. "I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside," she said. She began taking photographs herself, setting up a portrait studio in New York in 1932 and becoming a Vogue fashion photographer. In 1934, sick of fashion photography, she moved to Cairo and married Aziz Eloui Bey, and began a period of photographing Egypt and undergoing a spiritual transformation.

Related story: Women in the arts: Elsa Peretti

Women in the arts: Lee Miller (фото 3)

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Miller reinvented herself as a war correspondent. Moving to London to live with her lover Surrealist artist Roland Penrose, she was soon on assignment to Vogue, fearlessly photographing and writing articles for the magazine. She captured scenes at field hospitals in Normany, the Liberation of Paris, fighting around the German-occupied citadel in St Malo, death camps in Dachau and Buchenwald - and famously - inside Hitler's apartment in Munich in 1945. Miller even appears in Hitler's bathtub in one, in a photo taken by  LIFE photographer David E. Scherman taking a bath - and the image remains famous to this day.

Women in the arts: Lee Miller (фото 4)

In 1947, a couple of years after the war ended, Miller married longtime lover Penrose and had a son, Antony. Troubled by what she had seen in her correspondent days, her later years were fraught with alcoholism and depression, and her son Antony recalls a mother who was difficult and often absent. In fact, it wasn't until her death in 1977 that Penrose discovered an attic full of his mother's photographs- some 60,000 negatives, 20,000 prints and thousands of documents - which he has been collating to this day.

Widely misunderstood as a model and yet haunted as a war photographer and artist - the life of Lee Miller is more extraordinary than a work of fiction. In the years since her death, her contribution to war photography and the arts has only grown.

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