It is hard to pick just one claim to fame for Lee Miller. The photographer was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. When she was eight, she was raped while staying with a family friend in Brooklyn. At the age of 19, she was about to cross a busy road in New York City. Seeing that she would have stepped in front of a speeding car, a man pulled her out of the street. In twist that would have been appallingly cheesy in a movie, the man turned out to be Arthur Turnure, founder of Vogue Magazine, proving that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Not content to be the mere subject of photographs, Miller traveled to Paris where she met the legendary surrealist Man Ray. He rejected her desire for an apprenticeship, saying that he did not take students – but soon enough Miller was his co-collaborator, muse and business partner, taking over his fashion photography. She was a key figure of the surrealist movement, seeking to redefine art with an impressive group of friends including Pablo Picasso, Paul Eluard and Jean Cocteau (in whose films she appeared).
The breakout of World War II sent many ex-patriots living in Europe removing themselves to America, but Miller was not amongst them. Though her family and friends implored her to return to the United States, she instead embarked on a career in photojournalism as the official Vogue photographer for the war. Teaming up with David E. Scherman, a LIFE correspondent, she travelled to France less than a month after D-Day, recorded the first use of napalm, the battle for Alsace and the liberation of Paris.
Continuing her collaboration with Scherman, her most iconic images come from right at the end of the war. She was the first to photograph the horrific condition of concentration camp survivors. The most famous photograph of hers is one where she appears in Hitler’s bathtub after his death, a chillingly domestic setting for an individual often abstracted through monstrosity.
Miller was always more dedicated to the quality of her work than self-promotion and advertisement, and it is perhaps because of this that she has hardly the recognition she deserves today. Her son, Anthony Penrose, has been the primary instrument in the conservation of her work – recognising its importance before the wider world. She died after a long battle with cancer, her later years haunted by images of the concentration camps a deep depression. Recognition of her work, both artistic and photojournalistic, has only grown since her death.
Note: I have not included her works involving nudity, or the more disturbing concentration camp photographs in the slideshow. If you are interested in these works, please leave a comment and I will be happy to point you to good resources.