Lee Miller The Beginnings of photography

Elizabeth "Lee" Miller, Lady Penrose

(April 23, 1907 – July 21, 1977)

She was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, she was first a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris, where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer.

Her career life started with modelling, which evidently was a rough start in life, she caught a break by a chance encounter with the publisher of Vogue but 2 years later her modelling career ended badly. She sought out the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray in Paris in 1929. At first he insisted that he was not looking to take on a student, but she eventually became his model and collaborator as well as his lover and Muse.

She began her own photographic studio and took over allot of Man Ray's Fashion assignments so her could focus more on his Painting. Allot of the photos credited to Man Ray were in fact taken by Lee.

Solarisation & the surrealist movement

Lee Miller and Man Ray rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation.

She was also an active participant in the surrealist movement, with her witty and humorous images. Amongst her circle of friends were Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard, and Jean Cocteau.

In 1932 she left Man Ray and returned to New York where she started a Portrait & commercial Photography studio with her brother Erik as her Dark room Assistant.

During 1932 she was included in the Modern European Photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The following year, Levy gave Miller the only solo exhibition of her life. Some of her portrait clients were the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, actresses Lilian Harvey and Gertrude Lawrence, and the African-American cast of the Virgil Thomson–Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934.

She then gave up her studio to marry Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. During this time she was not working as a professional Photographer, but the Photos she took during this period later became some of her most striking surrealist work.

Lee Miller - Portrait of Space, final version, 1937

She soon grew bored with her life in Cairo and she returned to Paris in 1937, where she met the British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose, whom she later would marry.

World War II

The only female combat photographer in Europe

Lee was living in Hampstead London with Roland Penrose when the War began. When the bombing of London began she ignored the pleas of her friends and family to return to the United States and began her Photojournalism career as the war photographer for Vogue, documenting The Blitz.

A bombed chapel, 1940. Photograph: Lee Miller, © Lee Miller Archives

She then joined the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from December 1942.

Lee teamed up with the LIFE correspondent David E. Scherman an American photographer on many assignments. She traveled to Paris and documented the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

A photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler's apartment in Munich is one of the most iconic images from the Miller–Scherman partnership.


She photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, the peasant life in post-war Hungary, and the execution of Prime Minister László Bárdossy.

After the War she continued to work with Vogue for two years. When she returned to England she began to struggle with her mental health which was later discovered to be post-traumatic stress syndrome. She traveled to U.S. with Roland Penrose, discovered she was pregnant with his son, obtained a divorce from Aziz Eloui Bey so she could marry Roland on May 1947, their Son Anthony Penrose was born in September 1947. They bough a farm in Essex which became o mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst.

She continued to do a small amount of work for Vogue and some Biography portraits that Roland wrote about Picasso and Antoni Tàpies. But she abandoned Photography for cooking.

The atrocious images from the War haunted her and she entered a downward spiral of depression.


Lee Miller's Portrait Photography


Allot of Lee's Portrait Photography was shot whilst working for Vogue. But she is also well known for her Portraits of famous artist one of which was Picasso (seen in bottom tight corner with his painting)

Her photos including her portraits, either captured some of the most poignant and dark realities of her time or the most liberated creative geniuses she came in contact with.

She was an artist first and a documentary photographer second, this is powerfully suggested in her work, even her documentary work was a powerful work of art despite it often being dark and tragic.

Her portraiture can be classified into very distinct groups, firstly her sophisticated studio portraits of actors, film stars models and famous figures in society. Secondly her Vogue work of Artists, writers, scientists and other intellectuals shot on location in an informal relaxed atmosphere. Thirdly are her private personal portraits of friends who were usually artists and their partners either together or individually. Fourthly are her powerful images of people engaged in war work or in action. Fifthly are her images of civilians, often survivors or victims of the Nazi Oppression, Images that were seared into her mind and began her struggles with mental health. Her smallest collection of work are more in direct, capturing the essence of a person without them being in the image using items deeply associated to them.

But she is most famous for her surrealist images.

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