Lee Miller: A Woman’s War
Get on the next train to London and go and see Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum… OK, I’ll let you wait till the weekend, but do try to catch it before it closes on 24 April.
Even if photography’s not usually your bag, you can’t fail to be impressed by this sometime Sussex-resident’s life story and her sheer audacity. She was a Vogue model-turned-photographer-turned-war correspondent, was mates with Picasso and half-inched stuff from Hitler’s home!
Her achievements seem all the more remarkable when you discover that she was raped at the age of seven and, no doubt compounding the psychological damage, became her father’s nude photography model the following year. Her later career seems like a bid to wrestle back control.
She modelled for Vogue from 1927 then, using, and sometimes subverting, the techniques she’d learned from the men who had photographed her, she got behind the camera herself, first in the studio, then out in the field.
The exhibition concentrates on World War Two and the content of Vogue at this time is interesting in itself. The magazine’s photographers, including Miller, worked with the Ministry of Information to glamourise the war effort and women’s growing role outside the home with features like Fashion For Factories, Short Hair is News Again and Nightlife Now – a piece on searchlight operators.
Miller was a proponent of Surrealism (she was later painted by Picasso and had a Henry Moore sculpture in her garden). This influence surfaces in her Vogue work with artistic shots of a tree of surgical gloves and women in chic suits posed in front of bomb sites in a workplace feature. Miller herself appeared in a rather risqué camouflage shot which ended up in army training slides.
As the war progressed, impatient to leave the studio behind, New York-born Miller became one of only four female photo journalists attached to the US army – still, somewhat surprisingly, reporting for Vogue. Archive footage of the Vogue production process and a display of censored photographs stamped ‘Admiralty requests publication be stopped’ appear in the exhibition.
Miller was by now a skilled photographer and her images give a unique perspective because most were of women at war. She took intimate shots of WRNS’ living quarters, nurses in a field hospital, shaven-headed collaboraters, enforced Nazi brothel workers, and resistance fighters in Denmark – who presented her with a dress, which appears in the exhibition, made from lining fabric that should have been destined for Nazi uniforms.
Though there are tales you can hear in a film room of Miller at first being prissy about food and clothes, she became naturalised to army deprivations. A Life photojournalist recalls encountering this former fashion model looking like ‘an unmade, unwashed bed’ and Miller was furious to be briefly diverted to cover a haute couture show in Paris.
Miller was one of the first women photographers in Normandy after the D-Day landings and she photographed the Nazi death camps as they were liberated. Fresh from Dachau on the day Hitler shot himself in Berlin, Miller and her unit found themselves near the Fuhrer’s empty Munich apartment. Out of contempt, she took a bath in his tub then slept in his bed, leaving the next day with a few souvenirs.
Despite her boldness, Miller, understandably, struggled with her wartime experiences, suffering bouts of depression and alcohol abuse for the rest of her life.
Towards the end of the exhibition you can see that jaw dropping picture of her in Hitler’s bath, her war boots discarded on the mat, plus a collection of Eva Braun’s personal items she took: a huge scent bottle, a portrait, a half-used powder compact. Don’t miss the phones nearby which you can lift to hear an interview with a rather well-spoken Miller talking about the experience. I found myself returning, almost incredulous, for a final gawp at this array of contraband before I left the exhibition.
If you visit with younger children this school holidays then try to get your partner/parent/friend to take them round the museum itself while you’re browsing the photos. I hadn’t been to the IWM since I was at school and I remembered it as a snore-fest of mannequins in uniforms. It is, of course, much more modern and interactive now and the bit I saw was impressive – I’ve flown on planes smaller than a V2 rocket. There were plenty of young children on my visit but given the subject matter you might want to plan ahead to avoid certain galleries.
Miller ended up settling in Sussex at Farley House Farm, Chiddingly where she, somewhat incongrously, took to baking and appeared in magazine features on gourmet cooking. Her home is now a museum, run by her son and granddaughter, which is dedicated to her life and surrealist art, and has just re-opened for the season. So, if you can’t make it to London do try to discover more about her closer to home. There is also an extensive online archive of her work at leemiller.co.uk
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ until 24 April. Adults £10, concessions £7, children, £5. iwm.org.uk