Famously known for being photographed in Hitler’s bathtub, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller (April 23, 1907 – July 21, 1977) was one of the most complex, interesting, and diverse photographers of her time. Her life was outstanding to say the least: she was once a model, she joined the surrealist movement in Paris, she picked up fashion photography, then became a war photographer during World War II, and later in her life she took up gourmet cooking. Through her complex history, her images have become extremely important in the history of photography as a female photographer in a man’s world. Her talent, and determination for photography led her to create some of the most iconic, important images during her lifetime.
Lee Miller was in her forties when she had her only son, Antony Penrose. After Miller passed away and knowing little about his mother’s life as a photographer, Antony discovered around 60,000 negatives, articles, and prints as well as cameras, love letters and souvenirs hidden in the attic of their home. After this discovery, Antony has dedicated a large majority of his life managing her legacy. He has spent much of his time conserving, promoting, and studying his mother’s work. It is because of this that we are able to learn more about the complex and extraordinary life of Lee Miller.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907, Lee Miller was introduced to photography and modeling at a young age. Her parents were Theodore (an amateur photographer) and Florence Miller. At the age of seven years old, a family friend sexually abused Lee: something her son Antony and Husband Penrose did not know about Lee until after she had passed away. Lee had two brothers, but was favored by her father who used her as a model for his own amateur photography. Awhile after her sexual assault, her father started photographing her when she was nude, something her father did until she was roughly in her twenties. Her son, Antony stated in a Telegraph article, “ . . . His photos of her are quite creepy and definitely transgress the child-parent boundaries. I think there was something very odd about Theodore.” It was at age nineteen when Lee tried to step in front of a moving vehicle in New York City, but was stopped by none-other than the publisher of Vogue Magazine, Conde Montrose Nast. Nast saw her potential and helped her launch her modeling career. She became a popular fashion model and was photographed by well-known fashion photographers like Edward Steichen. Though a talented model, Lee Miller wanted to learn more about photography.
This interest in photography led her to Paris in the late 1920’s where she was an apprentice for Surrealist photographer, Man Ray. While in Paris, Lee found herself immersed in the surrealist world, surrounded by many artists; she became friends with Max Ernst, Picasso, and many other artists. Lee eventually charmed Man Ray and soon after they became lovers (Lee being referred to as Madame Man Ray). The curator Phillip Prodger stated in a 2011 NPR interview, “There’s a long history of women not being given their due in the history of 20th century art . . .Lee Miller has often been described as Man Ray’s muse. And even though she was a muse . . .there was something deeper and more important there. They were both powerful artists, and they fed off of each other.” Miller frequently modeled in Man Ray’s photographs as well aided in his studio and darkroom work. During her time with Man Ray she experimented with the solarization technique and together, Miller and Many Ray co-founded solarization. Miller played a vital role in Man Ray’s studio, sometimes even taking over his fashion work.
After living for awhile in Paris, she ended her relationship with Ray to open up her own photography studio in New York City in the 1930’s. Her portrait studio was extremely successful with the help of her brother and assistant Erik Miller, and together they brought in high-end clientele. Erik described Lee as being “ . . . insistent on getting the highest quality.” This work ethic led her to create detail-oriented, wonderfully composed fashion and commercial images. During her studio work Lee met Aziz Eloui Bey, an Egyptian businessman who had traveled to New York on a business trip.
She soon left New York, married Aziz and moved to Cairo where she photographed some of her most iconic surrealist images, such as Exposure: Portrait of Space in 1937. She was just thirty years old when she grew bored of her life in Egypt with Aziz and moved back to Paris in 1937. In Paris she met her future husband, British surrealist painter, Roland Penrose and they moved to London together.
Penrose and Miller were living in Hampstead in London when World War II ignited. She decided to reinvent herself as a photographer and take on photojournalism where she was a war photographer for Vogue. After the United States entered the war in December 1942 she was assigned to the 329th Infantry of the 83rd Infantry Division U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Conde Nast Publications. During her time in the Army she worked with American photographer David E. Scherman who worked for LIFE magazine. Together they worked as a team and were in the front lines in Normandy to Paris and then Germany.
She made history during her time in the war not only as a photographer, but also being a woman where many women weren’t allowed. In 1944, Miller set grounds in Normandy where no female correspondents were allowed. Miller once stated in the Poughkeepsie Evening Star that photography was “ . . . Perfectly suited to women as a profession . . . it seems to me that women have a bigger chance at success in photography than men . . . women are quicker and more adaptable than men. And I think they have an intuition that helps them understand personalities more quickly than men.” During her first assignment during the war, she photographed American Army nurses. On the front lines, Miller also photographed compelling images of other women and their roles during the war. One of her most famous images is one of a French woman who was accused of collaborating with the Germans.
After Normandy and Paris, Lee Miller and David Scherman traveled with allied forces to Germany and discovered the horrors of the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau. She photographed very powerful images of the people and conditions in these camps, images that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
A couple hours after Miller and Scherman left Dachau they traveled to Hitler’s apartment where Miller shed her clothes and army boots to take a bath in his bathtub—the leftover dirt on her boots from Dachau staining the carpet. From an article in The Guardian Blake Morrison writes, “It’s a memorable picture, one that can be read in various ways: as a celebration of the overthrow of a dictator; as a subversion of classical nude portraiture; and as an assertion of her own triumph in a male-dominated world.” The photograph, taken by Scherman, is one of the most iconic photographs she was affiliated with. Miller’s son Antony states in a telegraph article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/lee-miller-woman-hitlers-bathtub/), “I think she was sticking two fingers up at Hitler. She is saying she is the victor. But what she didn’t know was that a few hours later in Berlin, Hitler and Eva Braun would kill themselves in his bunker.”
After her time in Germany she continued her photojournalistic work and traveled to Vienna where she documented dying children in a hospital. Later, she continued to work for Vogue, photographing fashion and celebrities, but grew tired. She then returned to Britain where she started to experience episodes of depression and post-traumatic stress most likely due to her time in the war and her early childhood. It wasn’t soon after that Miller realized she was pregnant. Lee and Roseland married each other before she gave birth to her only child, Antony Penrose, in September 1947. Antony, Roseland, and Lee then moved to East Sussex and bought the Farley Farm House. During her time at the farm house, Lee photographed less and cooked more—learning how to make gourmet, surrealistic food. At the Farley Farm House, many artists such as Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Picasso, and Man Ray visited her frequently. Though haunted by her time at war and traumatic childhood experiences, Lee Miller began to excessively drink and when she was seventy years old she was diagnosed with cancer, which led to her death in 1977.
Lee Miller did not speak much of her experiences during the war or the emotional impact it had on her. It was Antony who discovered her work from the war and other adventures in the attic at the Farley Farm. Antony talks about the impact of finding her negatives; he states in an article published by Telegraph, “Until then, I’d seen her as a booze-soaked, hysterical woman. I had to re-evaluate my entire attitude to her.” Antony has dedicated his life’s work to preserving his mother's legacy as well as managing her archive. During her lifetime, Lee Miller had her work exhibited in different museums and galleries such as the iconic “Family of Man,” which was curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. Since her death, Miller’s work has been collected by many different museums as well as most recently exhibited in the Imperial War Museum in London and in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. Her work has inspired artists such as Alexander McQueen and Ann Demeulemeester.
There is no doubt that Lee Miller was fearless, strong-willed, talented, and passionate. From fashion to war, Lee Miller has forever imprinted her mark as a successful woman in the history of photography. Alex Beggs writes about the diversity of Lee Miller’s archive in a 2015 Vanity Fair article stating, “It can be a startling mix: images of Miller, topless on a beach, family photos of her son hanging out with Picasso at his studio like it’s grandpa’s house, glamorous fashion photography, and then boom, a literal stack of dead bodies piled like firewood, awaiting burial at Buchenwald. You can immediately get a sense of all the moments in her life, stewing and brewing inside of Miller, images that both she never wanted to forget alongside the ones she couldn’t as hard as she tried.”
Written by Alexis Hagestad
Image Copyright: Lee Miller Trust (unless otherwise stated)