Gifted, beautiful and unpredictable, Lee Miller's career took her from the fashion pages of Vogue to the front line of the second world war. But while she is celebrated as one of the finest photographers of the 20th century, her great talents as a writer are often forgotten, argues Ali Smith
Saturday September 8, 2007
In occupied Vienna in 1946, Lee Miller photographed an emaciated child dying in a hospital bed. The photograph is both merciless and despairing. The child's bones are clear in a too-tight, too-loose skin. The white folds of the sheets round the child are too rich. Their softness contrasts with the bed's iron frame, which suggests prison bars. The child's look, straight into the camera, is unanswerable. One hand holds the sheet, the other is open.
Miller was one of the first correspondents into the liberated concentration camps. In a fury at the bureaucracy that routinely meant no hospital drugs were available (except to the military), she cabled Audrey Withers, her editor at Vogue, with her Vienna dispatch.
For an hour I watched a baby die. He was dark blue when I first saw him. He was the dark dusty blue of these waltz-filled Vienna nights, the same colour as the striped garb of the Dachau skeletons, the same imaginary blue as Strauss's Danube. I'd thought all babies looked alike, but that was healthy babies; there are many faces for the dying. This wasn't a two months baby, he was a skinny gladiator. He gasped and fought and struggled for life, and a doctor and a nun and I just stood there and watched ... There was nothing to do but watch him die. Baring his sharp toothless gums he clenched his fists against the attack of death. This tiny baby fought for his only possession, life, as if it might be worth something.
Miller's report is a steely, eloquent piece of work in which she watches with awed wryness as the city of art and music ("the music which first cheers then haunts and finally irritates one to a frenzy of abuse") surreally reconstructs itself in its own ruins. The full dispatch hasn't yet been published in its entirety. This is just another astonishing anomaly in the story of Lee Miller's life and afterlife, or lives and afterlives, as her son, the writer and film-maker Antony Penrose, coined it in The Lives of Lee Miller in 1985. The latest book about Miller, The Art of Lee Miller by Mark Haworth-Booth, written to coincide with her centenary retrospective which opens at the V&A this month, is by far the fullest and most satisfying consideration yet of Miller's art and Miller as artist. Beautifully illustrated, with many images that haven't been widely available before, it is a work of proper appraisal, particularly good on areas of her work that have, until now, pretty much escaped critical attention, such as the series of frames she took in Egypt between 1934 and 1937.
But then Miller as artist is something we nearly didn't get the chance to consider at all. This is partly because, in her later years, she disparaged her own art, acted like it didn't exist, tidied what survived into the loft in Farley Farm, Sussex, the art-filled home she shared with her husband (and clearly her soul mate), the surrealist artist and collector Roland Penrose. That she was one of the finest photographic artists of the 20th century was just one of the discoveries her son made when he opened up some boxes in the attic and found original prints, negatives in their thousands, and several official-censor-shredded manuscripts.
We're only now, a hundred years after her birth and 30 after her death, coming to terms with Miller's many lives and gifts, and the one that's been most overshadowed by her photographic talent is that she was also a writer of great grace and force. Her rare later writing about art, about artists, about her long friendship with Picasso and about many other aspects of her life, is always witty and striking. Her war writing is stunning. Her skill was honed under intense pressure, on the hoof, in the war dispatches published by Vogue between 1944 and 1946. It was as she moved through liberated Europe and reported back to the magazine, for which she'd previously been a photographer - and whose editors, astonished at what she was sending, published her visceral text alongside her equally visceral photography - that she became a figure in whose combined eye and voice notions of politics, fashion, liberation and eyewitness met and made history. Her writing, like her photography, is about a lot more than the acts of witnessing and recording truth. It's about the act of composition, about the composition of all things, and about what truth actually is.
How to see Lee Miller? Much of her life would be a negotiation between the act of seeing and the act of being seen. She was born Elizabeth Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907. Her father, Theodore, was a keen amateur photographer who took pictures of engines, bridges, and more and more incessantly of his own daughter, usually nude studies, all through her childhood and well into her young adulthood when he also persuaded friends of Lee's to join the (sometimes rather disturbing) nude tableaux.
Theodore was fascinated by stereoscopic photography, where the same image, doubled, viewed beside itself, creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. It's heartening to look at his double image of the nude Lee Miller at 21 and to see how the possibility of different selves must have fed positively into the young Miller's notions of the seen self.
She was raped by a "family friend" when she was seven and contracted gonorrhoea, the treatment for which was so painful that her brothers had to be sent two blocks away from the house so as not to hear her screaming. She grew up clever, energetic and so anarchic that every school expelled her (one particularly memorable prank was the surreptitious feeding of blue dye to a schoolmate who nearly fainted at the colour of her urine). She longed to be like Anita Loos, the girl scriptwriter on DW Griffith's film sets. Her young energy is re-conjured in one of her most vibrant later pieces of writing, "What They See in Cinema", published by Vogue in 1956:
The first theatrical performance I ever attended was in the Poughkeepsie Opera House. It seems highly unlikely, but is memorable and true that the 'Bill' consisted of Sarah Bernhardt in person, playing the 'greatest passages from her greatest roles', from a chaise longue; secondly, artistic, immobile nudes, imitating Greek sculpture (livid, in quivering limelight); and as a curtain-raiser there was a guaranteed, authentic 'Motion Picture'. The Divine Sarah dying on a divan was of considerable morbid interest to me . . . Though I understood no French, her Portia, pleading, seemed urgent enough (she was propped up vertical for that); the nudes were just more ART. But the 'Motion Picture' was a thrill-packed reel of a spark-shedding locomotive dashing through tunnels and over trestles . . . The hero was the intrepid cameraman himself who wore his cap backwards, and was paid 'danger-money'. On a curve across a chasm, the head of the train glared at its own tail ... the speed was dizzy, nothing whatever stayed still and I pulled eight dollars worth of fringe from the rail of our loge, in my whooping, joyful frenzy.
Never mind boring old nudes (look at the glorious, throwaway "livid, in quivering limelight" or the line of "Divine . . . dying . . . divan" - Miller loves assonance and alliteration and the slightly louche effect they have on rhythm). Never mind "just more ART". Miller saw herself as in love with life, with the dangerous way it moved, with the real thing. If you could capture that, you'd be heroic.
A visit to Paris, where she shook off her aged chaperones (and instead rented a room in what turned out to be a maison de passe and much enjoyed watching the comings and goings of the clients), gave her a love of the city's style and freedom. Back in the States, she was discovered - the legend goes - by Condé Nast when Nast himself hauled her back to safety after she stepped off a sidewalk into oncoming traffic one day. (She was so in shock that she babbled in French.) Nast took one look at her and signed her up as a model on American Vogue.
But she returned to France as soon as she could, in 1929, with an introductory letter for the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray given to her by the photographer Edward Steichen, for whom she'd modelled; the model had decided to become the photographer and knew exactly which teacher she wanted. She tracked Man Ray down in a Paris bar. "I told him boldly that I was his new student. He said he didn't take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris for his holiday. I said, I know, I'm going with you - and I did."
She helplessly stood for the new age. She was "the look of the moment", as art critic Richard Calvocoressi says of her modelling for Vogue in the 1920s. Then she was "the universal muse of the surrealists", as Angela Carter wrote (and it's interesting that even as late as 1990 a cultural writer as fine as Carter was still unaware of Miller the artist). Her very beauty was blinding, perhaps; certainly it became the focus for some extraordinarily modern face-offs. In America a portrait of her by Steichen had, by chance, become the first ever picture of a real-life woman on a sanitary towel advert, which caused a mini-scandal. In Paris, with eyes painted on top of her eyelids, she played the beautiful armless statue in Cocteau's 1931 surrealist cult classic film, Blood of a Poet. Her breasts were used by one French glass company for modelling the shape of its champagne glasses.
But the embodiment spoke back. The muse had her own muses. The face of modernity had a camera eye, and as soon as she got the chance, she was composing her own self-portraits, Lee Miller par Lee Miller. The woman who modelled Chanel and Patou began doing her own fashion shoots of other women in their clothes in her own studio for Frogue (French Vogue). The woman whose breasts were models for champagne glasses went to take some medical photographs and borrowed an amputated breast from the lab, then photographed it beautifully and bloodily on a dinner plate with a fork beside it, her composition a cuttingly close-to-the-bone comment on the meat market of which she was herself a part. The woman who was a shockingly good surrealist photographer shocked her daring male surrealist friends with her far-too-open attitudes to sexuality. Free love was for the boys; even the surrealists found it too surreal in a girl.
If her aesthetic independence unsettled her teacher/lover Man Ray, her sexual independence drove him nearly insane with jealousy. He took to threatening suicide, walking round Paris carrying a revolver and wearing a noose, then made his famous sculpture Object to be Destroyed - a metronome whose ticking pendulum tip is, revealingly, a photograph of one of Miller's eyes. Meanwhile, she hightailed it back to the States and opened her own portrait studio in New York (doing all the electric wiring herself), where she photographed perfume bottles and movie stars with the same stylish clarity with which she'd re-seen contemporary Paris as surreality. In both her commercial and her portrait work, she put to good use the experimental technique of solarisation, which she and Man Ray had accidentally discovered and perfected.
Haworth-Booth calls solarisation "a perfect surrealist medium in which positive and negative occur simultaneously". There couldn't have been a better dark-light conceit for Miller's own life circumstances. By 1940 she was in England, refusing to go back to safety in the States, instead winging it at Brogue (British Vogue), managing fashion shoots of pretty girls in utilitarian clothes on grimy realist streets (when shoots outside the studio were still quite a novelty). At the same time, she was compiling her own shots of bombed London, like Remington Silent, whose title is a witty play on the brand name of the mangled typewriter, its casing broken, keys splayed, loose ribbon staining the classically carved broken masonry or gravestone on which it sits. Four years after she took this picture, her friend and lover, the Life photographer Dave Scherman, photographed her room, Room 412 in Hotel Scribe, the Paris hotel where the allied press corps holed up (using the facilities that the retreating German press corps had just abandoned). An astute portrait of Miller, whose instinct about when and where to position the subject is central to all her art, it features her Hermes Baby portable typewriter next to the whisky on the table in a shaft of sunlight, lit up in the chaos, and presided over by the composed presence/absence of Miller, visible only in reflection.
A year earlier, she had been in England taking portraits of the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (whom American Vogue was featuring because she was Ernest Hemingway's new wife). A year later, Miller's own dispatches would be making the work of contemporaries such as Hemingway and Gellhorn seem a touch sentimental. Here she is in 1946, on the execution of Lázló Bardossy, the fascist ex-prime minister of Hungary:
Then, accompanied by a priest and some gendarmes and a noise of the silent crowd shifting, a cocky little man jaunted in from a dark archway. He wore the same plus-fours tweed suit, ankle-high shoes with white socks turned over the edges as when he'd been arrested. He held his beaky grey face high and his gestures were taut. He listened to the words of the judge and as he walked in front of the sandbags he waved his hand refusing the blindfold. The four gendarmes who had volunteered for the execution stood in line awaiting the order to fire. They were less than two yards from him. Bardossy's voice orated in a high pitched rasp, "God save Hungary from all these bandits." I think he started to say something else but a ragged tattoo of shots drowned it. The impact threw him back against the sandbags and he pitched to his left in a pirouette, falling on the ground with his ankles neatly crossed.
At the end of the second world war she was the only woman photojournalist to advance with the allies across Europe, "the only photographer for miles around and I now owned a private war". She was one of the first people to take a photo of napalm in action, in St Malo in 1944. Not that she knew it was napalm; her photos were confiscated by the censors immediately she filed them. "It is almost impossible today ... to conceive how difficult it was for a woman correspondent to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, in other words, to the front, where the action was," Scherman wrote. The troops toned down their strong language for her, not knowing that she was toning down her own, for them.
The light and the dark. She was one of the first photojournalists into liberated Paris (and the first allied soldier to turn up at her friend Picasso's flat). Then, crossing into Germany, she was one of the first allied photojournalists to enter Buchenwald and Dachau. Astonishingly, she washed the visit to Dachau off in Hitler's own bathroom in his requisitioned flat in Munich, and, with the other GIs, was combing through his and Eva Braun's belongings at almost exactly the time the pair were committing suicide. Scherman's photograph of Miller in Hitler's bath, her filthy great army boots on the floor and her elegant arm mirroring that of the statuette placed next to her, is their dually sardonic and triumphant take on composition itself.
The affectionate story goes that Miller got herself accredited as US army war correspondent because she so envied her American friends in London their smart Savile Row uniforms and their easy access to Scotch and Kleenex. The truth is she'd been badgering Audrey Withers for some time to let her write text for her pictures. So Withers assigned her a short descriptive piece about the US broadcaster Ed Murrow. Miller found it excruciatingly hard. "After all, I've spent 15 or so years of my life learning how to take a picture - you know, that thing that is worth ten thousand words, and here I am cutting my own throat and imitating these people, writers who I've been pretending are démodé." But Withers liked the piece very much.
With her accreditation, in 1944, she flew into France to cover a quiet enough story about some nurses in an allied evacuation hospital and - "I grabbed a pocketful of bulbs and film, and clambered into a command car" - somehow managed to smuggle herself to a field hospital close to the front. Her first lengthy dispatch, "Unarmed Warriors", was a formally deft piece about the re-evaluation of a familiar landscape. "It was France ... it was no longer France." From the liberation of Paris she reported on the first fashion shows and the shaved heads of the girl collaborators, interviewed and photographed the great French writer Colette, covered the arrival of Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich and the press conference Maurice Chevalier held to clear himself of anti-patriotism. When a Vogue editor complained that neither the models nor the clothes in the fashion shots she'd sent were "elegant" enough, she snapped back: "These snap shots have been taken under the most difficult and depressing conditions ... Edna should be told that maybe there is a war on." The shots are real-surreal masterpieces, with their smiling, starvation-thin models next to bullet-riddled shop and cafe windows. "The bullet holes in the windows were like jewels, the barbed wire in the boulevards a new decoration."
Writing never came easily to Miller, who would fortify herself with cognac then batter at her Baby Hermes late into the deadline. "Every word I write is as difficult as 'tears wrung from stone'. I lose my friends and my complexion in my devotion to the rites of flagellating a typewriter," she told Withers in a typically funny and despairing cable. Scherman compared "being present during Lee's creative process to feeding his brain slowly through a meat grinder".
But what a writer. What an eye, what an ear. "A company was filing out of St Malo, ready to go into action, grenades hanging on their lapels like Cartier clips." Arriving in Strasbourg, "it didn't feel like an abandoned, evacuated city, but as if people were breathing somewhere behind walls." In Germany, "leaning back on the sofa" in her father's office, the Burgomeister of Leipzig's daughter, who had committed suicide, has "extraordinarily pretty teeth, waxen and dusty". An opera singer, photographed singing an aria from Madame Butterfly in the ruins of Vienna Opera House, is "perched on a plank across a drop ... her dress was safety-pinned to fit her hungry thinness". Miller's voice is always characterised by a combination of frank immediacy and surreal double-take. Her sense of edit must have come from years of knowing exactly how to retouch photos, where to cut, where to shade, where to lighten.
Great writers have never been strangers to the pages of Vogue (a quick scan of 20th-century writers for Brogue, for instance, turns up Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell, Jean Rhys, Iris Murdoch, Stevie Smith, Angela Carter). All the same, it takes a leap of the imagination now to re-inhabit the world in which even an advanced fashion monthly could house a voice like Miller's, who might write, from liberated Paris: "The entire gait of the French woman has changed with her footwear. Instead of the bouncing buttocks and mincing steps of 'pre-war', there is a hot-foot long stride, picking up the whole foot at once." Or, from St Malo under gunfire: "I sheltered in a Kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead detached hand ... I picked up the hand and hurled it across the street and ran back the way I'd come."
It's not just in her photography that Miller asks you to look again. Her voice is as sharp as her eye. It bouleverses a reader's expectations, turns form and cliché inside out, punctures preconception. Her redefinition over several written pieces, for instance, of not just the concept but the very word "liberation" as she encounters it from situation to situation, becomes a profound attack on all empty, nostalgic or politically manipulative rhetoric. She tore up a Nazi flag and made herself a red scarf. She "liberated" a pair of pinking shears and cut herself (and the boys) blue scarves out of parachute silk. She took this word "liberation" to task, from the joyous, perfume-smelling streets of Paris to liberated Luxembourg where freedom is "the cinema for no purpose; it's the group in the street, laughing; it's trusting your friends and your family; or a newcomer because he has an honest face". But "the word was bound to degenerate. Now we 'liberate' a church when we wreck it, we 'liberate' a bottle of brandy when we beat down a mercenary publican, we 'liberate' a girl when we detach her from her chaperone ... 'I got liberated last night,' means I went on a particularly super drunk." The word degenerates until she compares the Germans she meets, who believe they've been "liberated" from a foolish involvement in a rather badly managed pyramid scheme instead of having been party to a brutal regime, with a dark-eyed couple she photographs who've just been freed from the Gestapo jail in Cologne.
What she saw as the German people's denial of knowledge and responsibility left her with a prescient sense that belief itself would be a war casualty. Her writing as she came through Germany (with nothing except her Rolleiflex lens between her and what she saw) became surgically cool, scathing, ironic; presumably this composure was also her protection. She was always a salty, street-smart, quick-witted writer; there's a deep love of puns and a Blitz-influenced Open-As-Usual humour in what she writes, the humour of anger, a survivor's lightness. It let her coin phrases such as "Gestapo Rotary Club", let her comment bitingly about Eva Braun's flat, its style "strictly department store, like everything else in the Nazi regime: impersonal and in good, average, slightly artistic taste". But her irony congealed into a cold and righteous fury when she reached Buchenwald, where she watched a dead SS man thrown on top of a pile of cadavers looking "shockingly big, the well-fed bastard", and Dachau, where the work-horse stables "full of fat-bottomed beasts" were terrible to the eye "after so many emaciated humans". The bestial shock allowed her some of her most powerful, terrible, cold-eyed work. How do you compose Buchenwald?
My fine Baedecker tour of Germany included many such places as Buchenwald which were not mentioned in my 1913 edition, and if there is a later one I doubt if they were mentioned there either, because no one in Germany has ever heard of a concentration camp, and I guess they didn't want any tourist business either. Visitors took one-way tickets only ... The tourists invited by General Patton fainted all over the place, although some remained arrogant. Even after the place was 95% cleaned up, soldiers who are used to battle casualties lying in ditches for weeks are sick and miserable at what they see here.
How do you compose Dachau? "I don't usually take pictures of horrors," she cabled Withers. "But don't think that every town and every area isn't rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel that it can publish these pictures." Withers published her cable as well as her dispatch. American Vogue titled the photo spreads and the breathtaking text that accompanied them "BELIEVE IT".
"There's something inside a human being that no one has thought of putting into a machine." Not being a machine, and having used up a spirit quota that would have kept 20 people happy for 20 lifetimes, Miller unwillingly returned to England after the war, profoundly disillusioned by its aftermath, and sank herself into the kind of silence that means that every book written about her is thick with detail till roughly 1950. The last three decades of her life always take up a disproportionately slim page-width.
A dismay at the mundane fashion jobs Vogue offered her, a dislike of being stuck in the country, an enervation and a descent into alcoholism commensurate with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, plus a total fear of the typewriter when she sat down to write and a great unhappiness at not being able to write any more, meant that such pieces as "Working Guests", her last text and photo spread for Vogue in 1953, are a rarity.
Its photos are of distinguished friends from the art world visiting Farley Farm. Even Miller's photo captions are gloriously subversive. "Max Ernst plants borders - one entire bed of Indian corn is all his own unaided work. Dorothea Tanning (Mrs Max Ernst), painter, operates as master electrician. Alfred Barr, art critic and director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, feeds the pigs. Katherina Wolpe (Mrs William Turnbull), promising young pianist, paints greenhouse." Maybe she always wanted art to make things work, to be something other than "just more ART".
The text is a typical upending of form. "There are columns of print by experts advising guests and hostesses how to behave toward each other with tolerance ... I've devoted four years of research and practice to getting all my friends to do all the work." Its tone is pseudo-clinical, cold-war totalitarian spiced with a cheeky, spiky violence. "Just in case there is something in the primitive idea of acquiring the qualities of the enemy by eating him, I refuse to have nettles or local snails on our table d'hôte, but we are going to try the curled young shoots of bracken (called fiddle-heads in New England), and without qualm we devour the inimical pigeons, squirrels and rabbits the gun-toters bring here."
It was her last lengthy piece of writing. Not that her creativity went away; it passed, instead, straight into the next passionate incarnation, Lee Miller as gourmet cook, insatiable recipe collector, winner of prizes, famous for gorgeous, naturally surrealist, visually unsettling dishes such as her "Pink Cauliflower Breasts".
It is as if, all her life, the 20th century in its brightest light and foulest dark threw itself at her feet or pursued her, snapping at her heels. Antony Penrose writes about the innate surreality in just flicking through an edition of Vogue from the war years, where "the grim skeletal corpses of Buchenwald are separated by a few thicknesses of paper from delightful recipes to be prepared by beautiful women dressed in sumptuous gowns". From one end to the other, the spirit of Lee Miller looked the surreal century in the eye and answered back.
One of the finest pieces of writing she left us, published in Vogue in 1945, is about the visit to Colette, herself a symbol of changing times and freedoms, whose own writing voice was always all cool but passionate. The spirit of versatility meets its younger/older incarnation in the piece.
The parade of 50 extraordinary years was given to me like flashbacks or cinema trailers. Colette as Colette. Colette, the siren, the gamine, the lady of fashion, the diplomat's wife, the mother, the author ... Colette on top of the Chrysler Building in the St Tropez barefoot sandals which tickled the jaded shutters of New York's cheesecake ship photographers 10 years ago.
Colette, who knew the cost and liberation of transformation, is tucked up in bed on the telephone. Seeing Miller in her army uniform, it amuses her "that I should have been transformed from Cocteau's statue in The Blood of a Poet to a poilu". She and Miller look at photographs together, of cats, of dogs, of Colette, portrait shots by Man Ray, some by Miller herself, who enjoys watching Colette and Maurice Goudeket, her much younger husband, affectionately squabbling. "Her elfin face was 50 years younger while she was haranguing." She records the survivalist persistence in Colette which meant that Goudeket, who was Jewish, survived the war years too. Then Colette "had me write" with her array of pens and pencils. "Hard points for digging, soft, easy ones for first drafts and letters, an old, wise one she trusted when she was completely stuck." When Miller leaves, Colette gives her a souvenir to take away, a piece of paper "with embossed lace edges and coloured cut-outs like an old fashioned valentine ... the holiday paper of her girlhood".
A thin piece of paper. A gift passing between two of the century's kindred spirits. The great writer, Miller tells us, "suffers the same anguish for every paragraph now, after 50 years of experience, as she did on those first four books". Miller wonders at the writing's grace, its "easy intimacy" that comes at no cost to its "mechanical accuracy". "Each of her perfectly poised words ... has survived total warfare."
It stands as a very good description of Lee Miller's own art.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
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