la rotonde

Carolyn Burke

Lee Miller

By Iain Gale, The Scotsman
December 4, 2005

Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke. Bloomsbury, £20

Every age has certain people who, standing on the periphery of the art world, draw to themselves — almost unconsciously and with often dramatic consequences — the brightest stars of their time.

Few, though, could boast of having spanned quite as many decades as the magnetic, enigmatic Lee Miller, now the subject, nearly thrty years after her death, of a welcome and long overdue biography sure to become essential reading for any student of the history of art and photography in the twentieth century.

Miller cast her spell over some of the century's greatest artists, who in turn immortalised her: Roland Penrose, who became her husband; Man Ray, who taught her art in Paris; and the notoriously sex-hungry Picasso, to name only a few. It has been all too easy for her own story to be subsumed by those of her friends and lovers, but Miller was an artist as well as a muse.

Carolyn Burke, building on her illuminating essay for the 2001 Penrose/Miller show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, strips away the myth to uncover not only Miller's artistic achievement, but her true character.

She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in April 1907, into an apparently unremarkable middle-class family.

Her father Theodore worked in the chemical industry, but his interest in photography provides the first hint of Lee's future. Such is the subtlety of Burke's approach to her subject that almost by stealth the reader becomes aware, in a similar way perhaps in which it dawned on the young Lee Miller herself, that she was destined to be something special.

Intelligent, beautiful and fiercely independent, she was forced at an early age to confront her own dynamic sexuality. At the age of seven she was raped, probably by a family friend, and as a consequence contracted gonorrhoea. The effect, both psychologically and physically, was devastating, and Burke paints a picture as bleak as it is revelatory, writing with poignant acuity: "during rape integrity is ruptured, trust in the world undone."

If Miller's outgoing personality and daredevil character were a direct consequence of the rape, perhaps they were a form of compensation, or merely the result of feeling that life just couldn't get any worse. What, after all, did she have to lose?

Burke draws us into the domestic life of Miller's outwardly respectable family, which was in fact deeply troubled. We witness Lee's expulsion from school after school, and experience vividly the agony of her father's serial philandering with other women which led eventually to the attempted suicide of her mother.

Lee's further education seems almost to have been a way out of this claustrophobia. But if her mother hoped for great things, she was to be disappointed, as Lee became by turn a dancer and a lingerie model. By 1925, casting herself as the archetypal "flapper," she was heading for Paris to study art in the city of light characterised by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It was a Damascene experience from which she never looked back, and her return to the States could only yield a drab comparison.

Predictably she escaped to New York City, still only nineteen, yet with a sophistication which belied her years. Here, while she now began to climb the social ladder, she continued at the same time her clandestine involvement in one of the most disturbing aspects of her life.

Throughout her childhood and teens Lee consented to being photographed nude by her father. In particular, Theodore Miller's studies of his daughter in her late teens exude sensuality, and we can only wonder at the motive of both the photographer and his compliant model. Yet there was apparently no hint of actual incest, and the curious bond between the two is typical of the complex and intriguing relationships which Miller enjoyed throughout her life. The detail and care with which Burke treats the whole episode defines a book whose relentless close-ups bring her subject to life as never before.

Naturally, the core of the book concentrates on Miller's relationships with the great and the good of the twentieth-century art world and the international glitterati.

First to appear is Condé Nast, founder of the magazine publishing empire, who in 1927 rescued Miller from being run over in a New York street. Typical of the sort of good fortune which ran throughout her life, the encounter led to the offer of a job at Vogue. By March of that year she was on the cover. Photographed subsequently by the great Edward Steichen, Lee began to wonder whether she might not eventually use a camera.

First, though, she set out to conquer New York café society and was soon rubbing shoulders with Fred Astaire, Cecil Beaton and the Vanderbilts. The rest is history — a romp through the century in the company of its greatest names. To go into detail here would only spoil a book which reads not only as serious biography but often like a picaresque novel, as Miller, initially known for her Surrealist-influenced fashion shoots and brooding, witty images of Paris, goes on to become something far greater than the sum of her parts. What gives Burke's book an edge in telling this tale is the way she reveals that, while leading the double life of mentor and creator, Miller was continually absorbing all she could.

While she might have appeared to epitomise hedonism, Miller worked with a genuine sense of purpose conditioned by a real understanding of the meaning of life. We might have expected her to have excelled at fashion photography — as she did — but her real métier was the battlefield. Miller ranks up there in the pantheon of war photographers along with Robert Capa and Don McCullin.

Fearless and ever hungry to get that one truly great shot, she always made sure she was as close to the action as a woman could then get — from the London Blitz to the bloody siege of St Malo, the liberation of Paris and, most memorably, at Buchenwald and Dachau.

But if she became a doyenne in her chosen field, Miller never quite lost touch with her love affair with the opposite end of the lens. Who but she, after all, could have contrived to have been photographed in Hitler's bathtub in Munich at the very moment when, in his Berlin bunker, the Führer was committing suicide?

More than a biography, this book provides a rare and valuable sideways look at the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde and high society. Written in an easy style, peppered with a wealth of quotes and perceptive comment, it takes the reader deeply and unforgettably into the psyche of the strange little girl from Poughkeepsie who grew to become one of the most extraordinary women of her time.