At the age of 19, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was stopped from walking in front of a car on a Manhattan street by the publisher of Vogue, a serendipitous moment if there ever was one. She appeared on the cover of the magazine in their March 15, 1927 edition in an illustration by George Lepape, and became one of the most sought-after models in New York, photographed by Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, and Nickolas Muray, among others. Her modeling career ended two years later when a photograph by Steichen was used to advertise Kotex menstrual pads and caused a scandal.
At Steichen’s recommendation, Miller traveled to Paris that year to study with Man Ray. At first he insisted he did not take students, but Miller became his model, co-collaborator, and muse. Their partnership lasted until 1932, where she learned photography in both the darkroom and the studio. As Miller recalls, “He had taught me to do fashion pictures, he’d taught me to do portraits, he taught me the whole technique of what he did.”
Miller, who had worked as a model in New York, appears in many photographs, revealing the ways in which she was able to be on both sides of the camera at the same time. These beautiful lyrical images transport us to a visual Eden where the practice of art is a kind of ethereal paradise, a matter of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure and contemplation that act as a kind of dialogue between man and woman, artist and model, mentor and student at a time when Surrealism was primarily the province of men.
Lee Miller, a beautifully edited monograph of her work, was published by Hatje Cantz in conjunction with an exhibition of Miller’s photographs at Albertina, Vienna. A fascinating subject unto her own right, Miller produced a body of photographic work in only 16 years that includes fashion, travel, portraiture, and war correspondence. As one of just a handful of female photojournalists, Miller began to photograph the disastrous consequences of the Second World War in 1940, documenting the attack on London by the German Luftwaffe, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald, as well as creating a very surreal series of photographs taken in Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich.
Miller’s photographs from Buchenwald were featured in three articles in Vogue, and included a statement from the photographer, who would later go on to suffer severe episodes of clinical depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Of what she witnessed, Miller wrote, “No question that German civilians knew what went on…. I don’t usually take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town and every area isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel that it can publish these pictures.”
The war photography stands in sharp contrast to Miller’s earlier work, the vast darkness of the human soul a harrowing thing to witness, to document, and to expose. Miller arrived at Buchenwald only a few days after liberation and in Dachau she was among the first press photographers to enter.
After the war, Miller retired to Farley Farm House in East Sussex, Britain, which became an artistic mecca in the 1950s and 60s for visiting artists including Picasso, Henry Moore, and Jean Duffet, among others. Although she continued to do the occasional photo shoot for Vogue, her career had come to an end, and what remains of her life in photography is this incredible compendium.