“I would rather take a photograph than be one.” — Lee Miller

Lee Miller, by David Scherman

It’s the birthday of Lee Miller, fashion model, Surrealist artist, and … as if all that wasn’t enough … the only female combat photographer in Europe during the war, taking photos of concentration camps, firing squads, and all the concomitant horrors she saw embedded with the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, documenting the Allied advance from Normandy to Paris, as well as the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald.

Much of her history was erased through decades of obscurity and a total and shameful lack of a proper archive where her accomplishments get proper credit. Her son discovered a treasure trove of over 60,000 photos and negatives, and slowly but surely Miller is taking her proper place. More work needs to be done. There are biographies out now, and art books featuring her photos, and there have been a couple of very prominent exhibitions, heavily covered in the press. Because of her background as a fashion model, her work has also been covered by Vogue (which launched her career), Elle and etc. This little tribute post is the tip of the iceberg of this completely fascinating woman.

Miller’s lifetime was crammed with many lifetimes, through which she was both photographer and a photograph. Miller was a stunningly beautiful woman, but her beauty was the least interesting thing about her. However, her beauty should not be discounted or ignored. It would be an elephant in the room otherwise. What was it like to be her? What was it like to turn heads, the way she did? Consider how she was “discovered”: She was 19 years old, crossing the street near her apartment on West 48th Street in New York and was almost hit by a car. A man pulled her out of the path of oncoming traffic. That man was Conde Nast. You can’t make this shit up. Soon after that, she appeared on the cover of Vogue, in a drawing by George Lepape.

Vogue fell in love with her. Photographers did too. She was in demand. She had the look of the 1920s modern woman. Everyone wanted to photograph her.

Lee Miller, Vogue, 1931. Photographer: George Hoyningen-huene

Considering the weighty sum of Miller’s historic accomplishments as a combat photographer with not just a front-row seat to the horrors Germany inflicted on the Jews – she was actually on the stage – it may strike people as unfair to start off with the beauty/modeling part of her life. That’s fine, write your own piece. I, however, find it fascinating that this woman – so used to being looked at – would end up Looking At some of the worst atrocities of not only the 20th century, but all time. Who better to observe than one so used to being observed? As a model, and as a Surrealist artist (and collaborator of Man Ray – let’s not say “muse” – we’ll come back to that), Miller was woman as Art Object from a very young age. She was also, disturbingly, Child as Art Object. This was all normal for her, and it’s not possible to untangle all of it and I don’t think Miller untangled it either. The Surrealist movement wasn’t about untangling, it was about tapping into the unconscious, the Jungian dreamworld. For such an artist to then stare unblinkingly at WWII reality is one of her many fascinations. For Miller, “being looked at” was the air she breathed from an upsettingly young age, and so of course she would be fascinated by the art of Looking.

Born in 1907, Miller died in obscurity in 1977, broke, broken, and alcoholic, having alienated everyone who loved her, including her family. Her legacy as a combat photographer – all that work – was completely erased – it was as though it never happened – and yet her image – her face and body – was still famous the world over, because of all the photographs Man Ray took of her. SHE wasn’t famous though, she was famous just as the Looked at object of a genius. Another example of this: in 1930, Miller appeared in Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film The Blood of a Poet, where she played a marble statue which – creepily – comes to life, freaking out its creator. The Blood of a Poet is a beloved piece of Surrealist art (released on Criterion, played at festivals, Cocteau a cinema darling). And so there she is, again, immortalized by another genius – and this time in motion – and yet still … Miller, the woman, was in the shadows when she died. It occurs to me that her performance as the statue (her only experience in cinema) is an apt metaphor for her life. Cocteau knew what he was doing in casting her: The marble statue doesn’t behave like a proper statue. The marble statue is disobedient and comes to life. If Miller was a muse, she was a very unruly one.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Part of the fascination for me is going through her life chronologically and not leaping ahead.

By the time Conde Nast “rescued” her and put her on the cover of Vogue, Miller had already lived about four lifetimes. Her childhood was extremely dark. She was raped when she was 7 years old and contracted gonorrhea. The treatments for this were brutal and extremely traumatizing. Her father was a photographer and took nude photographs of her (as a child, yes, but also as a teenager and into adulthood). So I am comfortable saying that Miller was raised in an extremely sick atmosphere. She took the secret of her childhood to her grave, she never told anyone, not even her two husbands. She was blessed – or cursed – with extreme beauty, a chilly golden beauty – which drew people to her, but also made men want to control her, own her, pin her down in some way. Her education was erratic. She got expelled from schools left and right. She was a rebel. When she was a teenager, she upped and moved to Paris to study stage lighting and costume design. When she came back to New York, she joined an experimental theatre program at Vassar, and also enrolled in an arts program, studying drawing. Then along came modeling, and she was very successful. Photographers adored her, and loved shooting her. Many high-fashion photographers of the time listed her as one of their favorite subjects. People like Edward Steichen, no less.

Lee Miller. Photographer: Edward Steichen

One of Steichen’s fashion photographs of Miller was used in an ad for Kotex menstruation products, and the controversy ended her modeling career, which had only just begun. Probably a blessing in disguise. It got her to Europe, where she needed to be, where she found “her people”.

I mean … Periods are still controversial to this day. It’s so ridiculous. It’s a normal bodily function experienced by half the planet. Get over it.

Miller’s restlessness meant she wouldn’t have been satisfied with modeling for long, anyway. From the jump, she took self-portraits, experimenting with lighting, framing, and placing figures in the frame (an important element of her later work). This woman who had been “looked at” constantly from the moment she appeared on this planet turned the camera on herself.

Self Portrait, New York, 1932

Miller arrived in Europe in 1929, when Modernism was busy knocking over the pillars of the 19th century, and the work of Freud and Jung had made such major inroads that the Surrealists flourished in its wake. Miller’s childhood was a literal nightmare. One doesn’t wonder at Surrealism’s draw: reality was a pale shadow, a lie, really. In Paris, she knew where she wanted to be: with Man Ray. His work spoke to her. She approached him, out of the blue, and basically informed him that she was his new assistant, apprentice, and lover. He had no choice, really.

Man Ray and Lee Miller

Here’s a good article about Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship, artistic and otherwise.

Let’s go back to the “muse” thing: To call her a Muse for Man Ray is incorrect. She collaborated with him, yes, and he took many photographs of her, photos that are now famous, but in they influenced each other. She finished his projects sometimes if he was too busy, and she had her own studio where she did her own thing. Because of the enmeshment of these two, and because of the erasure of Miller’s place in the history of Surrealist art, oftentimes you’ll come across one of Miller’s photos and it will be credited to Man Ray. This has really got to stop. The two of them developed “solarisation” together – one of the visual “tics” by which Man Ray is known. One of his portraits of Miller is a “solarised” one, making her look epic and mythic, like she’s on a Roman coin from antiquity.

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, Man Ray, 1929

Man Ray gets the credit for this. But Miller was just as instrumental in developing solarisation and exploring its eerie almost dystopian-like possibilities, abstracting the human form into Pure Image. Here is one of Miller’s solarised portraits of silent film star Lilian Harvey:

Atomization was a big concept in Surrealism, isolating parts out from the whole, so much so that you can’t even tell what you’re looking at. The human form is chopped up into pieces. Man Ray’s nudes are beautiful, and Miller was often the model. You can see the atomization concept writ large in Miller’s photography as well (this creates a fascinating queasy dovetail with her photos from the concentration camps – where atomization took a genocidal form). Here’s Miller’s “exploding hand” from 1930.

Then there is Miller’s photograph of an actual severed breast, “rescued” from a hospital, and served up for dinner.

That’s atomization to the extreme. She wasn’t kidding around.

Consider also Miller’s “Nude Bent Forward”:

Surrealism was often quite chilly, in its treatment of the human form.

Miller herself was very very CHILLY.

And she drove men MAD.

Here are some of the (many) photographs Man Ray took of his lover and collaborator:

In 1923, Man Ray created something he called “Object to be Destroyed”, a metronome with an eye attached to the swinging arm. He found metronomes tormenting and he did, eventually, destroy said “object.” But people remembered it and in 1933, for an exhibition of his work, he re-created it, only this time he attached a photograph of Miller’s eye. He updated the title, too: “Indestructible Object.”

This was a very fruitful time for Miller…

Pablo Picasso and Lee Miller

… but of course she had to move on eventually. Never stay in one place for too long. She moved back to New York and opened her own photography studio. I wasn’t really aware of this period in her life and I have had fun digging into it. She had many clients, corporate, high-fashion, she did advertising jobs, fashion spreads – using all her modeling contacts – but also was well-known in Surrealist circles, and was in demand as a portrait photographer. She did portraits of many famous people, in art, in cinema. I had no idea she did this very well-known and striking portrait of Joseph Cornell:

Then she gave it all up, married an Egyptian businessman, and moved to Egypt. Because that’s how Miller rolled.

She didn’t work as a photographer during this (brief) marriage, but she did take a number of photographs during her time there, striking visuals showing her abstract eye. She never looked at things head-on – she always had a point of view – the world was Art to her:

She also took one photograph of the desert, seen through a ripped piece of netting, that I would classify as a piece of Surrealist art. It is called “Portrait of Space.”

Magritte spoke about how inspired he was in his own work by “Portrait of Space.”

Unsurprisingly, Miller kicked her Egyptian husband – and Egypt – to the curb and moved to England, hooking up with the Surrealist crowd there. She was well-known. She participated in a couple of Surrealist group shows, all as the war clouds gathered over Europe. I mention this only because it’s weird how history is erased. It wasn’t THAT long ago and there’s no reason that she should have vanished so suddenly. She burned a lot of bridges in her later years, and Conde Nast – who owned many of her photos since she was a war correspondent for Vogue – did not take care of the archive, did not highlight the major work she did for them, literally capturing “breaking news” from Germany to Poland to Hungary. Maybe, too, her reputation didn’t travel because her work had been done for Vogue and not, say, Time or Life. Everyone knows Robert Capa’s name.

When war broke out, Miller was dating a photographer named David Scherman (his name will come up again). She was living out in the country, but when the Blitz began, she pulled up stakes and moved to London, to document the Blitz for Vogue.

With no background at all, she became a photojournalist, training her eye on the devastation of London. If you’ve ever looked into the Blitz, some of her photos will be instantly recognizable. Now you know who took them.

Fire Masks, 1941.

Air raid.

To me, her photos don’t look like anyone else’s. She found the small moment, the unique moment. Maybe her work seems too frivolous to her critics. Like: this is war, not a fashion shoot. These don’t strike me as frivolous at all. A Surrealist mindset is often better equipped to look at reality, to react to the insanity. She didn’t have any emotional distance.

Her friendship with Scherman was important. He was a photographer with Life, and he had the contacts necessary to get her hooked up with the War Department. She was desperate to get to the heart of the action. She had no fear. Years later, Scherman said that “being left out of the biggest story of the decade almost drove poor Lee Miller mad.” So instead of just going mad, she made it happen. Condé Nast Publications hired her as a war correspondent, which led to her accreditation with the War Department. This allowed her to join up with the U.S. Army just a month after D-Day.

Miller in 1943 with other female war correspondents in Europe: from left to right: Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, and Tania Long

She was there to capture the liberation of Paris from Nazi control. This is her most famous photograph from that event:

But there are others:

And this one, from later:

She then accompanied the Army into the Axis territories, where the real horrors began. In Vienna, which was almost completely destroyed, she captured German soprano Irmgard Seefried, singing an aria from ‘Madame Butterfly’ in the ruins of the Vienna Opera House.

Lee Miller, amirite?

Mark Haworth-Booth, who curated a show of her war photography, said: “Her photographs shocked people out of their comfort zone. She had a chip of ice in her heart. She got very close to things. Margaret Bourke-White was far away from the fighting, but Lee was close. That’s what makes the difference–Lee was prepared to shock.”

In early April, the Army reached Buchenwald and Dachau. Lee Miller was there.

The remaining SS guards at Buchenwald had been beaten to a pulp by the liberated prisoners. Miller got right up close to take pictures of them.

Klaus Hornig, kapo in Buchenwald, also beaten by the prisoners, does the Nazi salute as Miller snaps his picture.

When the Army arrived, the remaining SS guards tried to fight them off. They were killed, lying crumpled all over the camp. Miller saw a dead SS guard floating in the canal and took the photo:

In advance of the Allies’ entry into Leipzig on April 20, the Nazi deputy mayor committed suicide with his wife and daughter, biting into cyanide pills. The bodies were discovered by the Army in the mayor’s office. Miller, of course, was there, and took numerous photographs of the scene but the most famous one is of the daughter, sprawled dead on the couch, head flung back.

I can see why people may object to this. It looks like a fashion shoot. But, remember, Lee Miller didn’t pose the dead Nazi daughter in this position. It’s not Lee Miller’s fault the daughter is beautiful. Miller just captured what was in front of her.

On April 30, they reached Munich, and arrived at Hitler’s secret apartment. Hitler, of course, wasn’t there. He had been in the bunker in Berlin for weeks. Coincidentally, although they had no way of knowing it at the time, Hitler committed suicide on the very same day Miller and Scherman wandered around through Hitler’s apartment – I think a couple of hours before. The two photographers were still covered in the mud of the camps. And because Lee Miller never played by the rules, and because she could not resist, she wiped her muddy boots on Hitler’s immaculate bath towel, took off her clothes, and climbed into his tub. Scherman snapped.

Miller said later, “I took some pictures of the place and I also got a good night’s sleep in Hitler’s bed. I even washed the dirt of Dachau in his tub.” She also curled up in Eva Braun’s bed (there’s a picture of that too). It’s ghoulish in the extreme, “not done” in any way, but also weirdly cathartic. Defiling the monster’s abode. The man had a picture of himself IN his bathtub. Miller witnessed what this man had wrought. The piles of bodies, the ground-up bones, the emaciated men. Fuck his clean bath towel. She was lolling about in his tub as he and Eva Braun are being set on fire in a ditch.

After the liberations of the camps, she sent an urgent telegram to Vogue:

“No question that German civilians knew what went on. Railway into Dachau camp runs past villa, with trains of dead or semi-dead deportees. I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town and every area isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel it can publish these pictures.” — Lee Miller, May, 1945

Vogue published huge spreads in the June 1945 issue, with Miller’s commentary. The headlines, written by Miller, speak to the horrified reaction at the time. Everyone knew shit was bad in Germany, but … this bad?

Headline: “Germans Are Like This”, June 1945 Vogue

Headline: “Believe It”, June 1945 Vogue

Imagine flipping through Vogue in June, looking at spreads of summer bathing suits and spring hats, and coming across that. Miller’s fury comes off the page, particularly “ordinary” Germans considering themselves “a liberated, not a conquered people.” She also writes of all the fur coats (this was Vogue, after all), but with a war-time spin: every German woman, including prostitutes, wore fur coats, all of them “stolen from Paris”.

One of her scariest photos was taken the following year, as the consequences of German war crimes continued to unfold in an unstoppable wave: László Bardossy, the fascist ex-Prime Minister of Hungary, had been extradited to Hungary from Germany in October 1945, and faced the firing squad in Budapest. Leave it to Lee Miller to find such a unique position, where she could capture the whole scene in a birds’ eye view.

Schermer, years later, spoke of Miller’s wartime experience, having witnessed her in action as she walked through the camps, camera to her eye:

“This was a journalist’s finest hour, a story worth crossing Europe for. If she had any emotional reaction at all, it was almost orgasmic excitement over the magnitude of the story. She was, in her quiet, methodical, practical way, in seventh heaven… When, as a journalist, do you get the chance to shoot as fast as you can, left and right, and make a horrible, exciting, historic picture? The emotional breakdown, if any, was in the subsequent let-down after the high of Dachau, and a week later, the burning of the Berghof. The let-down of ‘no more hot, fast-breaking story.'”

So that brings us to the final phase.

After the war, Miller returned to the United States, with a new husband. They had a son. But what she saw in the war altered her forever. She had what we would now call PTSD. She did not seek treatment. It was barely understood as a condition. She drank heavily. Her son had very little good memories of her. She could be monstrous. All of the things she experienced – the rape, the exploitation by her father, the concentration camps – it was a perfect storm of trauma. She was shattered. She continued to do high-fashion photo shoots, on occasion, but the love affair with photography was over. How could anything “go on” after what she saw? She couldn’t forget.

We can’t forget her, either, or the images she left behind, images that live on in the world, still with so much to tell us.

I’ll end with a great quote. Lee Miller, later in life, was asked what photography meant to her. She said:

“It’s a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you.”

You can look through the massive archive of her work here.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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31 Responses to “I would rather take a photograph than be one.” — Lee Miller

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Amazing stuff, Sheila. Thank you for this.

  2. Donna Hill says:

    I had seen and shared the Irmgard Seefried photo just about a month ago, not knowing who shot the photo. The ruins of the Wiener Staatsoper, amazing. I knew of Miller vaguely with Man Ray. I am utterly gobsmacked by this post. What a life, an amazing woman and beautifully written with such understanding and, yes, tenderness.

    • sheila says:

      Donna – wow! I love the coincidence of you sharing the opera house picture! It’s just haunting – I wish there was film of it, so we could hear what she sounded like!

      and I know, the same for me – I knew her face because of Man Ray – once I learned more about her, I was just totally awe-struck. I think it was the photo of her in Hitler’s tub that did it – I saw that and just had to know more. I was like: “wait … she was the statue in Blood of a Poet?? She was Man Ray’s model?” I was familiar with her image because of those things and it was just so great to learn more about her accomplishments.


  3. Dear Sheila,
    I had no idea you loved Lee Miller. I have been obsessed with her for over 40 years. During the past couple of years, I have written a long poem about her called “Escaping Lee Miller.” As the epigraph to my poem, I use the quote that you close your essay. My poem is slated to be published as a chapbook by Ethelzine Press in August. I will let you know about it, if you are interested. I agree with everything you said, and in my poem, I say a little more. Kudos.

    • sheila says:

      Anne! How amazing! I would love to read your poem! Great poem title, too – I am very intrigued.

      • ANNE WHITEHOUSE says:

        Thank you so much, Sheila. Your encouragement means a lot to me. I will keep you posted. My publisher says August. Re: the title–escape and bondage are two of the major themes of my poem (those Cartier handcuffs!). Oddly enough, the image I want to use for the cover is not listed in the Lee Miller Archive. I have written to ask about it. I love your blog entry; you did a magnificent job.

  4. gina in alabama says:

    Also the group photo of the correspondents shows the Last Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, Mary Welsh on the far left. It was interesting to see her on her in a group of her peers and not attached to ” him”.

  5. Nick Newman says:

    I assume you’ve heard that Elie Wiesel stated he is shown in one of the Buchenwald photos (the one with the numbered negative at the bottom right)? There is enough online about it, but some contention as to which he is – look it up. So weird to think about those two face-to-face in the camp, both altered forever by the experience.

    • Nick Newman says:

      The second I posted the above, your blog refreshed & does not show the image now. ???

    • sheila says:

      Nick – it’s so interesting you say this, my sister and I were just discussing that photo! She teaches Night every year to her middle-school class and I believe that picture is on the back of her copy.

      It’s hard to imagine what those prisoners felt – looking at the photographers – let alone a photographer who looks like Miller – but also what the soldiers and photographers felt in those moments. It’s just beyond words.

  6. Desirae says:

    I knew of her but had no idea how many of these pictures she’d taken. Her pictures of the Holocaust are in almost every textbook about the subject and were certainly the first images I ever saw of it. She should be better known.

    Apparently the scratches on the glass door in “exploding hand” are from women’s diamond rings, which itself seems symbolic somehow.

    • sheila says:

      // She should be better known. // I so agree.

      // are from women’s diamond rings, which itself seems symbolic somehow. //


      she was such a rebel. and such a witness to history.

  7. mutecypher says:

    Do you have a recommendation on any of the biographies? I would love to learn more.

  8. My chapbook, “Escaping Lee Miller,” was published by Ethel Zine and Micro Press in 2021.

  9. lily dale says:

    strong recommendation – The Women Who Wrote the War by Nancy Caldwell Sorel, covers the careers of all of the women in that great ‘class picture’ you included. It’s a great read – and important as well.

  10. Clary says:

    I read it again for the 3rd time, and I’m again impressed by the quality of her work, for her boldness, her eye (the Egyptian pyramid is striking) and by your words: “broke, broken, and alcoholic, having alienated everyone who loved her, including her family.” It sounds like a poem.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, she had a very unique eye – it’s disturbing and provocative. I love that pyramid one too!

    • sheila says:

      I just realized saying “a very unique eye” is a propos – considering Man Ray’s metronome!!

      • Clary says:

        You’re right! Funny, I love one-eyes, pirates, the guy from A Clockwork Orange, with make-up on just one eye, surrealist Andalusian Dog with the cutting of one eye, cyclops, etc.
        That in terms of visual, but literarily “a very unique eye” conveys several meanings, I just love that!

  11. OK, this post captivated me in so many ways, and not just because of my unforeseen new passion for photography. Miller sounds like an amazing figure in the history of this art. I can’t wait to learn more about her. I see now that there’s a bio film about her coming later this year with Kate Winslet in the lead.

    • sheila says:

      Oh I did not know this about the bio film! I’ll have to look it up.

      There is also a biography of Miller – which I haven’t read. There’s way more uncovering to be done. She was a pretty big figure in the Surrealist movement and she’s been basically erased. But she knew them all, was a huge part of that world! I mean, Man Ray, amirite??

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