The multiple lives of a muse
Carolyn Burke’s ‘Lee Miller’
Vogue model turned photographer, bobbed muse of Man Ray and ‘unofficial’ surrealist, Lee Miller makes a challenge to her biographer that is not dissimilar to the challenge she made to those who knew her. Who was this woman of “multiple lives” who played the moderne and out-played her men? Who was behind the images she created from both sides of the camera? Who was the woman who drove into Paris for the liberation carrying framboise in a Red Cross jerry can and, after photographing Marlene Dietrich in a satin dress, drove on into Germany “with no soap, tobacco or shampoo” to document the rubble of German cities and the concentration camps?
As the biographer of a woman who lived so much in the gaze of men, and saw more cruelty than most, Carolyn Burke meets the challenge through metaphors of the eye and the lens, a doubled vision that recognises the ‘multiple’ nature of Miller’s experience, while bringing her own inflection to this chameleon-like life.
Carolyn Burke met Lee Miller in Paris in 1977, soon after Miller’s seventieth birthday. The occasion was a slide show on the work of Man Ray. Burke sat next to a woman “badly dressed by Parisian standards”, before she realised who she was. Miller had by then become Lady Penrose, and her husband Roland was giving the talk. On the screen were images of the young Lee Miller: her face, her teeth, her lips, her back, her buttocks, eroticised and beautiful. Burke was living in Paris at the time, beginning the work that would become her biography of the English poet Mina Loy, which was published to acclaim in 1996.
The two women talked briefly: about names (Lee chose hers for its androgyny, “an asset at a time when women artists were not taken seriously”); about the fun you could have with the surrealists, especially Picasso, “if you played it their way”; about the difficulty of moving from one side of the camera to the other; and about the “stench of Dachau”, which Miller never got out of her nose. There, in a sense, was Lee Miller’s life, laid out in a brief and serendipitous meeting. Missing, however, was any mention of her father.
Elizabeth Miller was born in 1907, the daughter of a Poughkeepsie businessman and amateur photographer. Her first role as muse was for the father who photographed her without clothes from the age of four. Shortly before her twentieth birthday he shot her gazing at herself naked in a mirror, at once subject and object; her expression is ‘vacant’, as if her mind is elsewhere. Burke’s doubled vision takes on the full weight of this highly eroticised – though not, she thinks, consummated – relationship. She allows us to see both the importance to Lee of her adored and adoring father, and the legacy of damage that was lived out in eroticised recklessness. And she lets us see how, from a very early age, Lee’s sense of self was refracted through a powerful man, as she learned to see herself as she was seen.
It was a form of double sight that allowed Miller to split her experience of body from inner experience as she manoeuvred for power, playing the submissive while submitting nothing else of herself. It was a way of being made more dangerous when, at the age of seven, she was raped by a family acquaintance, and had to suffer the scrapings and sluicings, administered by her mother, that followed as treatment for gonorrhoea.
“I looked like an angel,” Miller later said, “but I was a fiend inside.” It should not surprise us that 15 years later, in Paris, she took a breast from an operating theatre and photographed it on a dinner plate with salt and pepper, knife and fork. A dark image, even for the surrealists.
Elizabeth Miller would not learn at school. She was expelled from one after another, which she later regretted, learning instead from a series of ‘masters’. Vogue’s Condé Nast literally picked her up on a Manhattan street – she leapt out of the path of a car – and turned her into a model. This brought her under the gaze of Edward Steichen, through whom she began to take control of the camera. She had “the soul of a tinker”, a later lover said, a love of technology that was another legacy from her father, and she knew instinctively how to pull the gaze into the image.
When she left New York for Paris in 1929 she sailed as Lee, leaving Elizabeth behind, and walked up to Man Ray in a reversal of the scene with Condé Nast. Here was her greatest master and collaborator, from whom she learned – took – what she needed, to become the photographer she wanted to be. It is her body that appears in his work from their years together, offered in images of sexual, even pornographic, daring. She lent herself to his creative powers, and in another reversal, stripped the dominant Man of his, leaving him abject at his inability to secure the muse as wife, and furious when she returned to Manhattan and set up a studio under his name. When she spoke of coming to photography from “the back end of the camera”, she was pointing to a truth that Picasso got in his only portrait of her – with the vagina as eye.
Burke uses this potent material with an enviably sure step, letting the narrative build through the words and images of Miller and her contemporaries, without losing the angle of sight that tells a modern parable of the dangers, for a woman, of aligning her creativity with desires of men. There was Cairo to come, a brief marriage to Aziz Eloui Bey, and the start of her affair with Roland Penrose (who also had a penchant for bondage), all before she was 32.
When war broke out in 1939, Miller retreated from Egypt to the comparative safety of Hampstead, Roland and a job with British Vogue. Initially frivolous at the prospect of war, hoarding truffles and spices, once the blitz set in she became frustrated with fashion photography. “It might be good for the country’s morale,” Lee wrote, “[but] it’s hell on mine,” and in 1944, having been accredited as Vogue’s war correspondent, she took off for Paris with Dave Scherman, the Time-Life photographer who was already her lover. Living rough and washing in her helmet, she wrote words to go with her photographs of destroyed cities, and German civilians blank-eyed as they were taken into the camps they had lived beside. She wrote as she lived, in a style that was immediate and uncompromising. General Patton threw up on his first sight of a camp. Miller focused on the personal intensity of suffering. I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. NO QUESTION THAT GERMAN CIVILIANS KNEW WHAT WENT ON. RAILWAY SIDING INTO DACHAU CAMP RUNS PAST VILLAS, she wired to Audrey Withers.
“We cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with entertainment,” a psychiatrist told Miller in the summer of 1949, in a cruel response to a condition, Burke suggests, we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of 1945 Miller had responded to Roland’s ultimatum that if she didn’t return to London and move in, someone else would; she married him in 1947, the year their son Antony was born. At nearly 40, she knew that the strategies that had once powered a life of creative and sexual adventuring were wearing thin. By 1951, at Roland’s insistence, she had given up Vogue, even as occasional photographer and writer; with no work and no man to ‘absorb’ her – her sexual relationship with Roland had ended – she sank into depression and the bottle, presenting her biographer, as well as herself, with a different order of problem.
After two powerful decades, Miller had three more to live. While many women come into their creative lives at 40, Lee Miller, as Lady Penrose, lost hers. It was as if she could not find a way to retrieve the power that had come refracted through the eyes of men. Burke, attuned to her courage and reluctant to reinforce the image of Miller as the drunk who lost her looks, makes a good case for the diversion of her creativity into cooking – something Miller did with characteristic flair and daring – but it’s not entirely convincing. It is, however, perhaps how Miller told it to herself, and by the time Burke met her, she had gained sufficient clarity to face death squarely – she already had the cancer that would kill her – and, through the birth of a grand-daughter, gained some insight into her inability to embrace motherhood when it struck her in 1947.
MY WORK-ROOM IS NOT GOING TO BE A NURSERY, she wrote to Roland before Tony’s birth. It wasn’t, but the calamity for Lee Miller was that after 1951, she occupied neither work-room nor nursery. Tony was raised by nannies, and when he found sixty boxes of her archives after her death, it was as if he was meeting someone he knew nothing of. Not even Roland, he said, had known of the rape at age seven.