Photographer Lee Miller’s life was both charmed and haunted. She began as a model and muse before becoming an artist in her own right. She worked for fashion magazines, acted in Jean Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet, and then found herself photographing the death camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. After the Second World War she retired into obscurity, taking little care of her photographs and even hiding her previous careers from her son. Her mentor and lover Man Ray is better known, but Miller was the more accomplished artist.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is bringing her back to our attention. The museum is hosting the first major retrospective of her work, a show organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The show emphasizes the extraordinary scope of Miller’s life, taking the viewer from New York to Egypt to Romania to London in the Blitz and, finally, to the Third Reich’s heart of darkness.
Miller’s interest in surrealism infused not only her fashion photography but her war pictures. These pictures are full of disorienting angles and juxtapositions, distortions and concealments of the body. In one image, we see two London women in black fire masks as they turn toward the camera: the Battle of Britain as nightmare masquerade. Surrealism is a genre in which things are always both themselves and the shadows of something larger than themselves. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that a surrealist photographer was one of the artists best able to capture a conflict about what it is to be human—and what it means that we can do almost anything to a living human being.
Three photographs in the Philadelphia show illustrate the continuity in Miller’s style. The first comes from her 1930s Egyptian sojourn: a tent flap is opened to show a vast expanse of desert beyond. The photo’s thick lines and aggressive composition give it an iconic weight. Through this hole in a tent we’re given a glimpse of some otherworldly experience—the desert as sublime. This framed view of a terrible distance appears again in a photo taken in France during the war. A thick black window frame edges our view of an explosion on a distant hill. The physical distance between the viewer and the blast might be expected to confer an emotional distance, but in Miller’s photo we instead get a sense that there’s no escape. We, too, are fixed in place by the window frame.
It’s not clear whether Miller herself ever escaped her war photography. The third window picture shows the Sussex farm to which she retired after the war. There she busied herself with entertaining, cooking, and hard drinking (which the Philadelphia show, perhaps too easily, diagnoses as a symptom of posttraumatic stress). Her photo of, and through, the window of her farmhouse shows a peaceful English hillside, divided in orderly parts by the window frame. The thick black lines of the frame fracture the idyllic scene and remind us of a less happy past.
This is not the best Lee Miller retrospective imaginable. Some of her photographs are now available only in miniature versions. (They appear to better advantage in The Lives of Lee Miller, a well-chosen selection by Miller’s son Antony Penrose, and in the Philadelphia show’s catalog.) The decision to devote one room to every period of Miller’s life does give one a sense of the great historical sweep of her experience, but it also means that her early glamour-girl shots get as much space as the death camps or the Blitz. A few of her best photographs aren’t in the exhibition. “Nonconformist Chapel” is one of the finest examples of Miller’s gallows humor (it’s “Nonconformist” not only in the religious sense, but also because it’s been bombed: shattered bricks pour from its door like unintelligible words from a monstrous mouth), but you won’t find it in Philadelphia. An astonishing silhouetted image of a singer in a bombed-out Viennese opera house is also absent.
But the show also has its strengths. It gives us a good sense of Miller’s playfulness—as in her photo of two priests on a balcony, who seem to be rebuking the sky. The show also includes excerpts from some of Miller’s Vogue articles, including her furious piece on postwar German denial and complicity: “Germany is a beautiful landscape dotted with jewel-like villages, blotched with ruined cities, inhabited by schizophrenics.” The wall captions, despite their inattention to art and style, do convey helpful information about Miller’s life without drawing too many conclusions about the biographical content of her work. Her various marriages and liaisons are treated with matter-of-fact simplicity rather than armchair psychoanalysis.
In the end, a decent Lee Miller show is a good Lee Miller show. The Philadelphia retrospective ought to help a genre-crossing master gain the recognition she has long deserved.