How Lee Miller photographed a woman’s war
- Credit: Archant
Bridget Galton talks to Hilary Roberts, the curator of an exhibition exploring the impact of World War II on women through the photographs of Lee Miller.
Photographer Lee Miller moved to Hampstead on the day World War II broke out.
As one of only four female photojournalists accredited as US war correspondents, the six-year conflict would both make and break her; bring her a liberation and career few women of her era could dream of, then wash her back up with post traumatic stress as the glass ceiling crashed back down.
“The war granted her the opportunity to fulfil her potential and gave her a sense of freedom she never had at any other point in her life,” says Hilary Roberts curator of a new exhibition on Miller at the Imperial War Museum.
“She paid a price for it. Afterwards she sought medical help for depression but they were apparently unsympathetic. One doctor said: ‘We can’t keep the country at war just to make you happy’. You can understand why alcohol became an alternative and why it became unbearable for her to revisit the past.”
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War features 150 photographs taken before, during and after the war for British Vogue, exploring her unique insight as a woman photographing the contribution of women, and the impact of conflict on their lives.
Roberts draws parallels between the evolution of women’s efforts throughout the conflict, and Miller’s own experiences.
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“Of course, Lee Miller was a woman and the impact of the war on her is also a story.
“She was an exceptional woman for her period - what she did and her creative abilities - but in terms of her response to war she was representative of women as a whole.”
Born in 1907 Miller was a top New York model in the ‘20s before departing for Paris where she became the lover, model and assistant of surrealist photographer Man Ray.
After meeting surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose, the couple moved to Downshire Hill at the outbreak of war.
Keen to support herself but with no work permit, Miller volunteered as a studio assistant at British Vogue and was soon photographing celebrity, fashion and lifestyle stories.
But as rationing and public attitudes decimated the fashion industry - and the Blitz cut off electricity to her studio - Miller increasingly ventured outdoors to capture the war on the home front.
One image shows the opening of her local air raid shelter in Downshire Hill. Another taken in Highgate by Life photographer David Scherman depicts Miller nude, under a net, covered in camouflage paint.
“Penrose was a camouflage instructor for the British Army and used the image in his lectures which suddenly became extraordinarily popular!”
As America entered the war, Miller was accredited as a US war correspondent photographing female Polish pilots, ATS wardens, and nurses, then crossing into Europe after D Day.
“Miller is particularly known today for her hard-edged photojournalism on the frontline with American servicemen fighting their way across Europe, and horrific photographs of the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald.
“But the majority of her photographs during WWII were of women. Some in the exhibition haven’t been seen for 70 years.
“There was no difference between her and her equivalent male photographers in ability. What her gender could offer was privileged access to women.”
Images of ATS recruits changing uniform with underwear drying could never have been captured by a man, points out Roberts.
“She understood how a woman could send a subtle message through her appearance, and as a pioneer in her field had a natural empathy for those making a bid for equality and freedom of choice.”
Miller stayed on to photograph the aftermath of war but reluctantly returned home in 1946; shattered and emotionally traumatised. After their son Antony was born, she and Penrose moved to Sussex. Miller all but abandoned photography until her death in 1977.
“There’s a photo of her just before she went to Europe looking like a fashion plate, then one a month after D Day in the ruins of St Malo looking, as David Scherman said, ‘like an unmade bed’. You can see the difference between reporting from a distance and from the frontline,” says Roberts.
“After the war she could find no role that satisfied her to the same degree, and pretty much had to give photography up. She could only cope by putting the memory away. Consigning her work to the attic so her son knew nothing about that part of her life until he found the archive after her death.”
Antony has since campaigned to restore Miller’s reputation which Roberts believes is richly deserved.
“One poignant image in St Malo in August 1944 shows an elderly woman peeping out of a doorway to see if it’s safe to come out. It has the symbolism of the doors of the prison re-opening. You can take Miller’s photography at face value or delve into its hidden meanings. It’s an immensely rich, rewarding and modern body of work.”
Lee Miller: A Women’s War runs until April 12 2016. Visit iwm.org.uk