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Laurène Becquart

University of Westminster

Lee Miller: From Supermodel to Committed Photojournalist

Lee Miller, famous American Vogue model and photographer, is well-known for her commercial and fashion photography, though it is not her most important work. After the V&A’s exhibition in 2007 dedicated to “The Art of Lee Miller”, it is the Imperial War Museum’s turn to display the photographer’s material, not to depict her artistic work but to feature her role as photojournalist and war photographer during the Second World War. In addition to providing a different light on Miller’s personality and achievement and revealing a number of photographs never publicly displayed before, it also celebrates the seventieth anniversary of the end of the WWII. In the current context where photojournalism and especially war photography develop more within the digital world and involve more photographers and journalists, male and female, throughout regional intense conflicts, it is interesting to explore how women started to invest the field of photojournalism in the days when it was dominated by men. The show offers an understanding of Miller through the way she saw others and above all women of her time. By displaying her work that documents women’s lives, peerless commitment to war effort and shifting social status during this troubled era, the exhibition emphasizes the genuine intimacy with which Miller worked and understood her subjects. The photograph of an exhausted nurse who wears a headscarf and touches her forehead with the hand, looking aside and standing just outside a tent during the battle of St Lô in July 1944 illustrates well Miller’s capacity to perceive genuinely her subjects. Such understanding and interest in depicting women may come from Miller’s own childhood and past as she had mainly been portrayed by men, either in an intrusive and obsessive way by her father or in a caring but objectified manner by her surrealist lovers or friends such as Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and


Laurène Becquart

University of Westminster

Roland Penrose. It is also why in the 1930’s, after a career as model and muse, she decided to move behind the camera to take control of her image. The exhibition gathers 150 black and white photographs, some paintings from Miller’s artistic friends, personal items such as clothes, cameras and letters as well as audio testimonies and a short documentary film, almost all of them coming from the Lee Miller Archives, which are run by her son Antony Penrose. It is arranged into four chronological sections that go through the pre-war, wartime and post-war eras in Britain and Europe and the titles of each part firstly seem to tackle more the women of the time and their ongoing emancipation rather than Miller herself. The first room is dedicated to “Women before the Second World War”, or rather to the vision Miller had of them. Through simple self-portraits and images of other well-known women such as Eva Jessye, the first black woman to win international recognition as a choral director, she represented female strength and femininity in an elegant and genuine way. Her self-portrait “Lee Miller par Lee Miller” in which she wears a bit of make-up, a simple scarf and looks away thoughtfully, is much about delicacy and respect of the female identity and body. Her work stands out against the male artists’ work that portrayed her mainly in erotic and arbitrary manners while relying on what she learned from them, especially in surrealist representation and photography techniques. The second section, “Women in wartime Britain”, covers Miller’s fashion and documentary work for British Vogue between 1939 and 1944. Those images commissioned by the magazine under the control of the British Ministry of Information were primarily soft propaganda. Nevertheless, they provide an authentic account of women’s participation in the war effort and the social consequences for they had more opportunities outside home, while revealing Miller’s evolution of style. The first photographs are fashion or staged images whose only goal was to encourage women to participate in the war effort. A good example of this is


Laurène Becquart

University of Westminster

the best-known photograph of two models wearing protective fire masks and sitting at the entrance of Miller’s air-raid shelter. They then tend more towards documentary work as Miller went into the field to investigate the multitude of roles women needed to shoulder during the war: they successively show female factory workers, drivers, telephone operators, nurses, pilots, etc. The photograph of two women doing evening training for the Women’s Home Defence Corps illustrates the peculiarity of the opportunities in their new positions: their formal civil suit, flat shoes and elaborate hairstyle contrast with the firearms they are holding. The images of the third room, “Women in wartime Europe 1944-1945”, are all about contrast and extremes: scenes of joy and celebration of the liberation face desolate landscapes, ruined buildings, dishevelled refugees and German prisoners. For instance, a medium-sized print of four German women cooking and eating in the middle of a devastated street in Nuremberg is hung above another photograph of a group of displaced Russian women and children eating on chairs and a table inside a house formerly owned by the SS in Munich. That section in particular shows Miller’s talent for observation, composition, symbolism, empathy and interest in evocative images, revealing her finest eye for photojournalism. She explored the physical and emotional consequences of war on women in a very intimate way as proved by the strong and compassionate close portrait of a French shaven-headed woman accused of collaborating with the Germans. The largest piece however, is undoubtedly the symbolically arranged photograph taken by David E. Scherman showing Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, her boots covered with mud from the Dachau camp dirtying the place. Being one of the only four female photographers accredited to cover the WWII, it is natural to consider Miller as a pioneer in photojournalism. She found inspiration in other colleagues’ work such as Life photojournalist and US war correspondent Margaret BourkeWhite. Her originality however comes from her surrealist touch and her sensitive way of representing women. As Antony Penrose points out about the accomplishment of the show, “it


Laurène Becquart

University of Westminster

leads to an understanding as to why her pictures are so compassionate and involved because she won the confidence and trust of the women”. The exhibition intends to show that the fact that Miller was a female photographer documenting women’s lives made her noteworthy for her time. “Being a woman enabled her to have a good understanding of women’s insight and get access to particular places and subjects inaccessible for a male photographer,” explains the chief curator Hilary Roberts, before talking about Miller’s photograph of US Army nurses’ laundry drying at a window in their living quarters in Churchill Hospital in 1943, as an example of that particular gendered access. The final section entitled “Women and the Aftermath of War” focuses on Miller’s travelling through Eastern Europe to document the consequences of war: her pictures expose the reality of the immediate post-war era characterized by destitution, austerity, emotional shock and the difficulty of recovering. The show juxtaposes images of refugees, looted places and poverty, like the photograph of two homeless girls in rags in a Budapest street, testifying to Miller’s empathy for the leftovers. The well-arranged and exhaustive exhibition praises Lee Miller’s talented and sensitive but less-known photojournalistic work as well as women’s significant contribution to the war effort. Nevertheless, the initial intention to use the photographer’s life and performance to represent her whole gender’s commitment and social life may also be criticized, for in fact Miller is not typical of the generality of the women of her time and had a very unusual path.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum until 24th April 2016. Adult: £10, Concession: £7, Child: £5, Member: free

Lee Miller: from Supermodel to Committed Photojournalist  

An art review about the exhibition "Lee Miller: A Woman's War" at the Imperial War Museum (London, from 15/10/2015 to 24/04/2016)

Lee Miller: from Supermodel to Committed Photojournalist  

An art review about the exhibition "Lee Miller: A Woman's War" at the Imperial War Museum (London, from 15/10/2015 to 24/04/2016)

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