She was no “femme fatale”, she was a “femme différente”, assures David E. Scherman, a great friend of Lee Miller, in the documentary made by French director Sylvain Roumette in 1995 and shown at the Filmoteca de Catalunya as part of the exhibition at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona.
Lee Miller left almost 60,000 images. They were found in a number of shoe boxes in the attic of her Sussex home, Farley Farm House. We are told this by her son Tony Penrose, who presented the documentary and who for some years did not realise that his mother had had a life before becoming a fashion photographer, photojournalist and surrealist. “She was almost a great war photographer. The decisive moment was not hers, like it was for Capa and Cartier-Bresson. But she knew how to capture the extraordinary like nobody else. She could detect incongruence, which is the basis for humour. That’s why she was a great surrealist”, explains Scherman.
Scherman was the American photographer who encouraged Lee Miller to gain accreditation as a was photojournalist for the US Army when, in 1942, living in London with the surrealist painter Roland Penrose, she refused to continue photographing fashion while Europe was collapsing. Miller was born in 1907 close to New York and had started to work as an advertising model when she realised that her place was on the other side of the mirror. In 1929 she moved to Paris to learn photography with Man Ray, to whom she became both muse and lover, but above all laboratory assistant.
As a war reporter in 1944 and 1945 – these are the only years when Lee Miller’s photographs do not show profound sadness – she went round hospitals in the Normandy campaign, she was at the liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald extermination camps (UK Vogue decided not to publish the photographs she sent back, but the US version did) and in Munich, where one of the most iconic images of her was taken: Lee Miller in the bath in Hitler’s apartment. It was taken by her friend Scherman, who covered the war for Life magazine. “While we were taking that photo, Hitler and Eva Braun were committing suicide in their bunker in Berlin”, Scherman remembers. There is another photograph that has not been as widely published. This was taken by Miller and is a second portrait of somebody in Hitler’s bath: Scherman, who was of Jewish.
Lee Miller and Surrealism in Great Britain is on show at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona and includes a good part of Miller’s photographic production. With great fidelity to the title of the exhibition it swings constantly between Miller’s photography and the constellation that made up British Surrealism when it was displaced by the war from Paris to London. Roland Penrose was a decisive figure in that displacement. In 1937 he had met Lee Miller in Paris and the same year he organised a Surrealism meeting at the home of his cousin in Cornwall. Miller was there, alongside Paul and Nush Éluard, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin, among others. Miller’s photographs show very clearly the tendency of the surrealist core members to mix art and life, humour and the absurd, desire and friendship. It was in Cornwall that the Surrealism was consolidated in the Britain, and Roland Penrose and Lee Miller played a central part.
One of the virtues of the exhibition are the things that are shown without being said. With the availability of some exemplary works, it shows how Surrealism operated, like a network of connections and nods of the head; an I’ll-leave-this-here-and-you’ll-take-it-up-later; or, in the words of the surrealists themselves, like a huge cadavre exquis. However, the danger of such a multi-faceted view is that the details are sometimes lost. Who was it that would rather take a photo than be one? What does it tell us about the incongruencies and humour of somebody who rejected being an object to position herself as the subject? Of course, maybe that is a different exhibition. It probably is. But the question remains: who was Lee Miller?
The exhibition Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain can be seen at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona until 20 January 2019.