PARIS.- This retrospective presents the many different facets of the career of this extraordinary 20th-century artist who was by turns a (fashion then artists) model, muse of the Surrealists, companion and assistant of Man Ray and, finally, photographer.
After London, from 2 August 2007 to 6 January 2008, the exhibition is being shown in autumn 2008 in the ground-floor galleries of Jeu de Paume Concorde.
With some 140 works, it brings together for the first time the finest vintage prints by this artist, as kept at the Lee Miller Archives in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and in many internationally renowned collections.
This selection is rounded off by the presentation of original copies of Vogue, drawings and collages, plus a short excerpt from the Jean Cocteau film, Le Sang du poète (1931), in which Lee Miller plays an important part.
Lee Millers early experience as a model (1927-1932)
As a child, Lee Miller acted as a model for her father, an enlightened amateur photographer, for whom she frequently posed nude. This gave her a solid foundation of experience that would be of use to her later on in her professional life.
Miller, who came to be considered one of the most beautiful women of her age, began her career in New York in 1927. Thanks to Condé Nast, the founder and director of the magazine, she became the star model of Vogue, and was soon the muse of numerous photographers, including Steichen, Man Ray, Horst P. Horst, and Hoyningen-Huene.
Posing in swimming costumes, beach outfits or sports dresses, Lee Miller helped Hoyningen-Huene embodied the metamorphosis of women, from subservience to liberation.
Lee Miller and Paris
Steichen inspired Lee Millers desire to become a photographer and gave her a letter of introduction to Man Ray. In the summer of 1929, after a stay in Florence where her career as a photographer got under way, Lee Miller settled in Paris, where she became Man Rays assistant, model and companion.
She continued to pose as a model while learning photographic technique. For French Vogue (called Frogue), she worked on both sides of the lens. She began doing portraits, fashion photographs and, in the Surrealist vein, solarisations a process popularised by Man Ray that called for proficiency in lighting, exposure and development. Lee Miller had learnt her techniques so thoroughly that many of her portraits could vie with the masters.
Lee Miller herself explained the origins of this technique:
Something crawled across my foot in the darkroom and I let out a yell and turned on the light. I never did find out what it was, a mouse or what. Then I quickly realized that the film was totally exposed: there in the development tanks, ready to be taken out, were a dozen practically fully-developed negatives of a nude against a black background. Man Ray grabbed them, put them in the hypo and looked at them later. He didn't even bother to bawl me out, since I was so sunk. When he looked at them, the unexposed parts of the negative, which had been the black background, had been exposed by this sharp light that had been turned on and they had developed, and came right up to the edge of the white, nude body. But the background and the image couldn't heal together, so there was a line left which he called a solarization. (Mario Amaya, My Man Ray: An Interview with Lee Miller Penrose, Art in America, New York, May-June 1976, vol. 63, no. 3, p. 55)
The New York period
In 1932 Lee Miller left Man Ray. Upon arriving in New York in October, she told a journalist that she would rather take a photograph than be one, and added that she enjoyed photography and that this form of expression was suited to the rhythm and the spirit of the times. In partnership with her younger brother, Erik, also a photographer, she set up the Lee Miller Studio at 8 East 48th Street. Financially, the studio was supported by Cliff Smith, heir to the Western Union fortune, and Christian Holmes, who had inherited the Fleischmann Yeast fortune and was a broker on Wall Street.
Clients of the Miller Studio included Vogue, advertising agencies and also fashion houses and purveyors of cosmetics and toiletries such as Elizabeth Arden, Camay, Helena Rubinstein, Saks Fifth Avenue and Jay-Thorpe.
Lee Miller also accepted portraits commissions from Warner Brothers and theatrical companies, and worked for Creative Art, where Alfred Stieglitz was a member of the editorial board. Part of a new generation of talented photographers, she would soon gain in renown thanks to gallerist Julien Levy, who in January 1933 put on her first solo exhibition in his space at 602 Madison Avenue. Levy also promoted her in May 1933 when Jean Cocteaus film Le Sang dun poète (The Blood of a Poet), in which she played several roles, was premiered by the New York Film Society.
In June 1934 Lee Miller married Aziz Eloui Bey in New York. Bey was director general of the Egyptian ministry for rail, telegraphs and telephones. On 1 September she moved to Cairo where she lived with her husband in the family home in a residential quarter on the west bank of the Nile. Aziz Eloui Bey modernised the home in accordance with his wifes tastes, and had a workroom laid out for her. However, there being no dark room, it was hard for her to do any serious photography. But while her at first she stepped back from photography, the desire to use her camera gradually came back and she started taking photographs of the streets of Cairo, the desert, ruins, monasteries, abandoned Egyptian villages and, in a very different register, a cement works, a cotton farm and a pigeon breeder.
Early in summer 1937 Lee Miller stayed in Paris and renewed her connection with the Parisian avant-garde (Man Ray, Dora Maar, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Picasso). This revived her imagination and creativity, and also led to her meeting with the British Surrealist painter Roland Penrose, with whom she spent the summer, and who would become her second husband.
The Second World War
In June 1939 Lee Miller finally left her husband and Egypt and moved to London to be with Roland Penrose. She now began a spell of four years working for Brogue, the British edition of Vogue, at first for free, and then, as of January 1940, as a hired employee. In spite of the harshness of wartime conditions in Great Britain, she produced a sustained output of fashion photographs, portraits and documentary photographs, becoming one of the pillars of the magazine during her years there.
In December 1942 she became an accredited war correspondent for the US Army for Vogue Great Britain but continued to take photographs in Great Britain.
In September 1944 she did a report on the work of the nurses who followed up the Normandy landings, then went on to photograph the Liberation of Paris, and the battle of Saint-Malo, where the Germans had retreated into the old fortified centre. In 1945 she followed the campaign in Alsace and the fall of the Third Reich. Her photographs of the liberation of the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau were published in the American edition of Vogue in June 1945.
The postwar years
After photographing Vienna, Hungary and Romania, Lee Miller returned to London to be with Roland Penrose, whom she married in May 1947. She continued working for Vogue but no longer found fashion photography stimulating. She also contributed to the biographies her husband was writing about Picasso, Man Ray and Tàpies and made some of the periods finest portraits of artists.
In 1949 she and Penrose moved to Farley Farm in Sussex. In this country home they received numerous artist friends and colleagues.
In 1953 Lee Miller called a day on her career as a photographer with the publication in Brogue of a set of photographs entitled Working Guests.