la rotonde

Carolyn Burke


Troubled Witness

By The Economist
December 1, 2005


Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke. Knopf; 426 pages; $35. Bloomsbury; £20

Lee Miller was a bold, 22-year-old beauty from Poughkeepsie, New York, when she tracked down Man Ray in 1920s Paris and told him she was his new student. The American-born surrealist painter and photographer replied that he did not take pupils. But, as Miller explained decades later, "I guess he fell for me. We lived together for three years and I learned a lot about photography."

Miller became a master of the surrealist image who then came into her own as a photojournalist during the second world war. Her photographs — of the liberation of Paris, of bombed-out Aachen and Cologne, the suicide of a prominent Leipzig family in 1945, or a Dachau prison guard floating dead in a canal — are hard to forget.

Until relatively recently, however, Miller's fame, as a flawless beauty, photographic collaborator and model, overshadowed her artistic legacy. This first full-length biography, by Carolyn Burke, an Australian-born art critic, shows how Miller's complex nature contributed to this neglect. Her photographic career was sporadic, with spells of intense activity alternating with bouts of lassitude. Also, unlike many artists, she rarely promoted or even showed her photographic work to those who might help her.

Miller was born in 1907, the only daughter of an engineer, inventor and keen photographer from whom she inherited a fascination with the technical intricacies of image-making. Ms Burke shows how their exceptionally close relationship is there to see in the nude photo sessions of Miller as a child and as a young woman, as well as in Man Ray's photographs of her sitting in her father's lap. She was also raped at the age of seven — an event which left the child with lingering gonorrhoea and chronic psychological difficulties, which were particularly visible in her relationships with men.

Miller's steadiest commitment was with photography. An art student and cover model for American Vogue, Miller moved to Paris in 1929, where she started her own studio, photographing still lives and portraits. Ms Burke describes Miller's affair with Ray, and her friendships with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard, all in careful detail. But the biography truly comes to life when, basing herself in a room overflowing with guns, camera equipment and crates of cognac at the Hotel Scribe in Paris, Miller became a war correspondent. This was an exhausting period that culminated in a famous image of her posing in Hitler's bath after weeks on the road with the troops.

Miller cuts a lonely figure in later life. An adventurer at heart, she was not suited to marriage, motherhood and English country life with her second husband, Roland Penrose, a connoisseur and art collector. Gourmet cooking, fashion assignments for Vogue or taking photographs for Penrose's books on Picasso and Antoni Tàpies left her unfulfilled. Her delicate features marred by drink and depression, Miller was often "out of sorts," alienating her closest friends as well as her son Antony. Penrose meanwhile enjoyed a string of open love affairs with other women. "We cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with entertainment," Miller's doctor argued. Lack of adrenalin was only part of the problem. Miller was also haunted by flights of wartime memories: "I got in over my head," she explained to Ms Burke when they met briefly in 1977, adding that she could never get the stench of Dachau out of her nostrils.

Miller died of cancer later that year, leaving behind 60,000 negatives and photographs carelessly stuffed in cardboard boxes in the attic, as well as a further 20,000 documents, journals, cameras, love letters and Nazi relics. As he catalogued his mother's work, Antony Penrose said he realised he had been "cheated out of knowing someone exceptional." Carolyn Burke's sympathetic tribute sheds further light on the lives of this highly original, often misunderstood woman.