Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, Lady Penrose, was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris, where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer. During the Second World War, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue, covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.
Lee Miller was born on April 23, 1907, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her parents were Theodore and Florence Miller (née MacDonald). Her father was of German descent, and her mother of Canadian, Scottish and Irish descent. She had a younger brother named Erik, and an older brother named John. Theodore always favored Lee, and he often used her as a model for his amateur photography. When she was eight years old, she was raped while staying with a family friend in Brooklyn and infected with gonorrhea.
Her father, Theodore Miller, an engineer, inventor and businessman, introduced Lee and her brothers John and Erik to photography at an early age. She was his model – with many stereoscopic photographs taken of a teenage Lee in the nude – and he also showed her technical aspects of the art. At age 19, she was stopped from walking in front of a car on a Manhattan street by the publisher of Vogue, Condé Nast, thus launching her modeling career when she appeared on the cover of the edition of March 15, 1927, in an illustration by George Lepape.
In Hitler's Bathtub
For the next two years she was one of the most sought-after models in New York, photographed by leading fashion photographers including Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe, Nickolas Muray and George Hoyningen-Huene. A photograph of Miller by Steichen was used to advertise Kotex menstrual pads, causing a scandal and effectively ending her career as a fashion model.
In 1929, Miller traveled to Paris with the intention of apprenticing herself to the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Although, at first, he insisted that he did not take students, Miller soon became his model and co-collaborator, as well as his lover and muse. While she was in Paris, she began her own photographic studio, often taking over Man Ray's fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. In fact, many of the photographs taken during this period and credited to Man Ray were actually taken by Miller. Together with Man Ray, she rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation. She was an active participant in the surrealist movement, with her witty and humorous images. Amongst her circle of friends were Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard, and Jean Cocteau (she appeared as a statue that comes to life in Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930)).
After leaving Man Ray and Paris in 1932, she returned to New York and established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. During this year she was included in the Modern European Photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. In 1933, Levy gave Miller the only solo exhibition of her life. Among her portrait clients were the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, actresses Lilian Harvey and Gertrude Lawrence, and the African-American cast of the Virgil Thomson–Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).
In 1934, she abandoned her studio to marry Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey, who had come to New York to buy equipment for the Egyptian Railways. Although she did not work as a professional photographer during this period, the photographs she took while living in Egypt with Eloui, including Portrait of Space, are regarded as some of her most striking surrealist images. By 1937, Miller had grown bored with her life in Cairo and she returned to Paris, where she met the British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose, whom she later would marry. Her photographs were not included in another exhibition until 1955, when her work was displayed with "The Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
World War II
At the outbreak of World War II, Miller was living in Hampstead in London with Roland Penrose when the bombing of the city began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the US, Miller embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the Blitz. Miller was accredited into the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from December 1942. She teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a LIFE correspondent on many assignments. Miller traveled to France less than a month after D-Day and recorded the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. One photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler's apartment in Munich is one of the most iconic images from the Miller–Scherman partnership.
During this time, Miller photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary, and finally, the execution of Prime Minister László Bárdossy. After the war, she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.
After returning to Britain from central Europe, Miller started to suffer from severe episodes of clinical depression and what later became known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. She began to drink heavily, and became uncertain about her future. In 1946, she traveled with Roland to the United States, where she visited Man Ray in California. After she discovered she was pregnant with her only son, Antony, she divorced Bey and, on May 3, 1947, married Roland. Their son, Antony Penrose, was born in September 1947. In 1949, they bought Farley Farm House in East Sussex. During the 1950s and 1960s, Farley Farm became a sort of artistic Mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. While Miller continued to do the occasional photo shoot for Vogue, she soon discarded the darkroom for the kitchen, becoming a successful gourmet cook. She also photographed for biographies Roland wrote about Picasso and Antoni Tàpies. However, images from the war, especially the concentration camps, continued to haunt her and she started on what Antony describes as a "downward spiral". Her depression may have been accelerated by her husband's long affair with the trapeze artist Diane Deriaz.
Lee was investigated by the British security service MI5 during the 1940s and 50s, on suspicion of being a Soviet spy.
Miller died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex, in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread through her herb garden at Farley Farm House.
Her son Antony Penrose, known as Tony, owns the house and offers tours of the works of Miller and Roland Penrose. The garden exhibits art items such as Fallen Giant, Sea Creature, and Kneeling Woman, and the house is home to the private collections of Miller-Penrose, their own work and some of their favourite pieces of art. In the dining room, the fireplace was decorated in vivid colours by Roland Penrose.
Throughout her life, Miller did very little to promote her own photographic work. That Miller's work is known today is mainly due to the efforts of her son, who has been studying, conserving, and promoting his mother's work since the early 1980s. Her pictures are accessible at the Lee Miller Archive.
In 1985, Antony Penrose published the first biography of Miller, entitled The Lives of Lee Miller. Since then, a number of books, mostly accompanying exhibitions of Miller's photographs, have been written by art historians and writers such as Jane Livingstone, Richard Calvocoressi, and Mark Haworth-Booth. A 1946 radio interview with Miller can be heard on the audiobook Surrealism Reviewed, published in 2002. In 2005, Miller's life story was turned into a musical, Six Pictures Of Lee Miller, with music and lyrics by British composer Jason Carr. It premiered at The Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex. Also in 2005, Carolyn Burke's substantial biography, Lee Miller, A Life, was published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf and in the U.K. by Bloomsbury. In 2007, Traces of Lee Miller: Echoes from St. Malo, an interactive CD and DVD about Miller's war photography in St. Malo, was released with the support of Hand Productions and Sussex University.