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THE WEEKLY MUSE - Lee Miller: American Photographer

“Other people tend to value the way you value yourself.”

Lee Miller came of age in the 1920s when the collision of photography and Surrealism provided the perfect platform for her ambitions to develop. As model, photographer, and journalist, she became an essential part of that artistic collision, while confronting the gender bias of her day and going on to influence a generation of artists.

"It is difficult to think of another woman who has had such a far-reaching impact on a group of artists and their work. We see Miller’s image and influence as interpreted by others, and then see the source of that power in her own creative vision. Miller’s legacy is all the more compelling because she made her presence felt at a time when women were still struggling for equal rights."— Deborah Gribbon, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum [2003]

Miller was born in 1907, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Expulsions from a number of schools disrupted her early education; patterns of change that were to regularly punctuate her personal and professional life. In 1925, aged eighteen, she spend a year studying theatre production in Paris. Back in New York the following year, after a chance encounter with Vogue owner Condé Naste, Miller began a brief professional modelling career. Suddenly she found herself a—reluctant—fixture on the New York social scene. “I looked like an angel,” she said, “but I was a fiend inside.”

Turning away from modelling in 1929—"I would rather take a photograph than be one.”—Miller returned to Paris to work with American Surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. She started her own studio and worked closely with Ray, as his muse and assistant but also as his key creative collaborator on many innovative and experimental art projects. Together, they pushed the boundaries of photography, making significant contributions to the Surrealist movement as they did so. Miller returned to New York in 1932 to set up a new commercial studio.

While living in England during World War Two, Miller became the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the nightly attacks on London. In 1944, she landed in France less than a month after D-Day, traveling with the US Army as the only female combat photographer in Europe.

She photographed eyewitness accounts of the liberation of Europe with an economy and honesty rarely seen. Her artistic and commercial experiences combined to give her work character and authority. Whether of ranks of people cheering at her, or close-ups of exhausted prisoners looking through her, her images delivered a persuasive authenticity to the viewer. She described her approach to taking photographs as a matter of “getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you.”

After the war, Miller continued to work for Vogue, covering fashion and celebrity, but struggled to adapt back to a peacetime life, suffering depression and turning to alcohol for comfort. She found pleasure by reinventing herself as a Surrealist chef, but although her friends—many of the great artists of the day, including Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Leonora Carrington, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, and Dorothea Tanning—visited her home in southern England, her artistic career was largely put to one side.

Perhaps because of this continuing need to move on and not dwell on the past, it was only after her death—in 1977 when her private archive was found and gradually made public—that it became possible to reassess her work and reestablish her reputation as one of the most remarkable photographers of the twentieth century.

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