Writing on photography

Review – Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at Imperial War Museum

It’s hard to know how best to frame a review of the work of Lee Miller. A fashion model, turned artist’s muse, turned fashion photographer, turned photojournalist, she played a significant part in both documenting the vital and diverse roles played by women during the Second World War. And yet she seems to have always worked ‘without concession to her gender’ and one senses she probably would have resented being pigeonholed in these terms, reduced to the historical oddity of having been a female photojournalist in an era when such a thing was exceptionally rare. A Woman’s War, the new exhibition of Miller’s work which has just opened at the Imperial War Museum in London seemingly has no qualms about viewing Miller primarily in terms of gender. In some ways this is understandable, since whether Miller liked it or not, almost every stage of her life seemed to have involved grappling with what the expectations other people had for her as a woman, and maybe there is a relevance in it given how deep the gender divide remains in photojournalism.

As a model and muse to a series of artists including Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Roland Penrose, Miller was hardly the passive background figure one might expect, but rather someone who was obviously constantly watching, learning and absorbing. In 1937 she joined vogue as a volunteer studio assistant, progressing to a photographer by the outbreak of war. Viewing her early photographs, it seems clear that she had been systematically gathering ideas from the people who had variously painted and photographed her, ideas which she now re-employed, sometimes more or less verbatim, sometimes with her own style put on them. For example for a 1942 Vogue feature on underwear Miller created a stark solarised image. Where Man Ray’s ‘rayograms’ now often feel very dated and the product of their era this image remains strikingly contemporary, the depersonalised, headless model giving it the jarring ring of works by much later feminist artists like Barbara Kruger.

Miller spent the early years of the Second World War in Britain, shooting a mixture of fashion and editorial photographs for Vogue which often filled a dual role as propaganda or wartime social engineering. One fashion feature she photographed was intended to popularise shorter hair hairstyles, a question of safety as much as fashion at a time when more and more women were taking on roles in factories and other sites operating dangerous heavy machinery. If Miller wasn’t already well aware that women were able to fulfill far more roles than society had traditionally permitted them, this period must have made it clear to her, as she photographed women involved in everything from heavy manufacturing to home guard duties. Her 1942 photograph of the Polish fighter pilot Anna Leska seems a fitting example of this. Seated in a Spitfire, Leska purposefully looks out to the left of the frame as if scanning the skies for enemy aircraft. Despite the desperate need for pilots, Leska’s gender meant she spent the war shuttling aircraft around the country.

In 1943 the start of female conscription offered Miller new opportunities and she began to work as an accredited photojournalist attached to American military forces, one of only four women to do so. Another in this small group was Margaret Bourke-White, a photographic veteran and a trailblazer in many more senses than simply because she was a female photojournalist in an age when that was rare. Still despite the pedigree of this group remarkable restrictions remained on what they, as women, were allowed to witness or document. They were largely kept away from the front-line and from significant battles, and, with the exception of Martha Gellhorn who stowed away on an American ship, no female journalists were permitted to be present at the 1944 Normandy Landings, one of the decisive moments of the war.

After the invasion of France Miller found herself behind the lines much of the time, with the exception of a chance misdirection which led her being sent to St. Malo, then under siege. This fluke resulted in some of her few photographs that directly document conflict. One gets a sense that Miller really came into her own as a photographer during this time, and all her influences from her time spent with surrealist artists, to the constant crushing expectations of gender appear to coalesce in her photographs. In one brilliantly surreal image from St. Malo two American soldiers lie on the bed of a hotel honeymoon suite, directing mortar fire on to German positions in the city. In another photograph a soldier holds a long pole with a child’s doll mounted on the end, which he had been using to draw fire from enemy snipers. Later following the liberation of Paris, Miller documented life returning to the city, including photographing the sole operating hairdresser, the Salon Gervais in a bizarrely brilliant vertical diptych. In the top photograph a row of women sit serenely having their hair done in electric dryers. The bottom image shows the basement below the salon, were four shirtless men taken turns riding a tandem bicycle to generate enough power for the salon’s hairdressing equipment to keep operating.

As the war progressed into Germany it’s increasing depravity took a toll on many, including it seems on Miller. The total aerial destruction of German cities like Cologne, the hostility, complicity and desperation of German civilians and the discovery of the concentration and extermination camp system must have been a watershed even in the context of this hugely destructive war. One of her photographs in the exhibition shows the aftermath of the suicides of committed Nazis and their families. Arranging symbolic objects around themselves before committing the act, these carefully thought out deaths have a terrifying composure about them. Miller was also among those present at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, where at least thirty thousand people had been systematically worked to death. In one of the final and perhaps best known photographs in the exhibition Miller returns to her role as model, as well as photographer, as she appears washing herself in Hitler’s bath in a symbolically charged portrait that seems to signal her need to get away from the conflict.

Following the end of hostilities Miller gradually abandoned photography, left Vogue and suffered badly from depression and alcoholism. Marrying her long term partner Roland Penrose in 1947 and settling with him at Farley Farm in east Sussex, she began a far more domestic existence as Lady Penrose, a life which seems a jarring contrast with the worlds she had moved in before and during the war. The exhibition ends with a large colour photograph showing a relatively elderly Miller in the kitchen at Farley Farm, an image which is less Battle of Britain than Great British Bake Off. All in all this exhibition covers a remarkable career and span of work, and leaves one with a sense of Miller as someone who in the end perhaps found herself overwhelmed by some of the very same societal contradictions that her photographs had seemed designed to challenge.

(Critical transparency: exhibition seen with a press ticket during normal hours)

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography