Illuminating life of the once-renowned model, photographer and traveler who drew few distinctions between life and art.
Born to a well-to-do industrialist, Lee Miller (1909–77) was raped by a family acquaintance at the age of seven; or so, writes Burke (Becoming Modern, 1996), it “must be inferred from the patterns of her later life.” Whatever the unknowable but inferable facts, Miller seems to have regarded herself as damaged goods; it probably did not help matters when her father’s nude photograph of Miller, “December Morn,” was published, becoming, in its time, “as famous, or notorious, as the Mona Lisa.” Later traumas would come, and Miller, a free spirit bound, would process them between what she called her good and bad sides. As a disciple of Alfred Steichen and devotee and lover of Man Ray in Paris, she played the ingénue a little but was more knowing than all that; indeed, she recalled, she was a bit of a fiend. Ray came eventually to regard her as a threat, though it was likely for the ever-deepening quality of her work as a photographer rather than any conflict she herself set in motion. She posed for Picasso, spent pleasant hours with the surrealists, knew Hemingway and Gellhorn, had the kind of life that the present-day bohemian can only aspire to; yet Miller fully came into her own as a combat correspondent (for Vogue) in Europe during WWII, photographing the liberation of Paris and the conquest of Germany. She later recalled, “I got in over my head. I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils.” Wealthy (she married an English nobleman), well traveled and well connected, Miller became progressively less well known as the years rolled on and her life became less tumultuous, if always more complicated than other people’s lives.
Burke’s graceful biography restores Miller to attention; students of art photography, in particular, will want a look.