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Lee Miller: A woman for all seasons

Review by Melanie Abrams

Nowadays it is commonplace for people to change career or re-focus its direction, even in their 50s and sometimes 60s.  Indeed as the pension age increases and the job market is continuously “re-structured”, re-developing a career is perhaps becoming a necessity.

100 years ago, career changes were not that common, jobs were “for life” and for women the opportunities were even less.  However, this proved not to be the case for the photographer, Lee Miller, a woman perhaps ahead of her time, who forged a multi-faceted career, spanning New York, Paris, Egypt, London during the Blitz, war torn Europe and finally Sussex, pushing boundaries, experimenting with technique and setting trends. 

Lee Miller
Nude Bent Forward c 1930
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2007

It is this versatile career which makes the new book, The Art of Lee Miller, so compelling.  Beautifully researched and compiled by Mark Haworth-Booth to celebrate the centenary of her birth, the book seems to take us by one hand and Lee (as she is referred to throughout the book) by the other, through each twist and turn of her career and life’s journey. From budding lighting designer to model and muse for Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, to photographic assistant and collaborator to fully fledged surrealist photographer, studio photographer to war photographer and correspondent, and latterly to a cordon bleu cook and food stylist.   

The reasons behind Lee’s change of focus will no doubt strike chords amongst many of us.  These include a chance meeting, for example, with Condé Nast who, on the streets of New York, recognised in Lee the look of the moment.  Like so many of us, she felt frustration with her current job - in her case, the confines of modelling which she depicts as being pinned to a photographer’s backboard by a collection of daggers in Model with Daggers (c1930) or as a specimen enclosed in a jar in Under the Bell Jar (c1930).  Political and social upheavals, including as World War II, and even love, brought new avenues for her to explore - notably Man Ray, who kept her in Paris and inspired her Surrealist sensibilities, Aziz Eloui Bey who took her to Egypt and Roland Penrose who brought her to London.

There was also no shortage of perseverance and diligence in her quest for a career change.  For example, even though she was very well known as a model and had contributed to British Vogue in the early 1930s, in order to get full time employment with the magazine in 1939/40, according to Anthony Penrose, her son, she turned up every day without pay, making herself as useful as possible and making friends with her colleagues.  By January 1940, with staff members leaving to join the forces, a space was found for her. 

Corinne Day

Kate’s flat, 1993 by Corinne Day
British Vogue, June 1993 © Corinne Day


Staphanie Cardon

Stephanie Cardon, Sgraffiti


Jenny Matthews

Jenny Matthews, Selling in the market after the
departure of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan


Lee was perhaps one of the first people to make the move from in front of the camera to behind it and, more interestingly, possibly one of the first women to do so.  Even today, this transition is not easy.  If we look at movie making, there are a plethora of actors who have turned director - Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, and more recently Robert di Niro to name but a few.  But how many women have done similarly? Jodie Foster and Sofia Coppola spring to mind, but certainly there are not as many as the men, even with regard to producing.  This emphasises Lee’s triumph in not just becoming a photographer but to break out of the relative comfort of the studio, the street and the surrealist world and become the only woman photo-reporter active in combat areas during the Second World War and therefore possibly, the first female embedded war photographer.

If Lee was alive today, she may have been proud of some of the women photographers currently showing in London who have perhaps followed the path that she set.  Namely, Corinne Day, another model turned photographer, who is the sole female photographer in the National Portrait Gallery’s major exhibition, Faces of Fashion, displaying her iconic images, notably of Kate Moss, that created a new anti-glamour, documentary approach to fashion photography in the 1990s.  

Similarly the group of women photographers showing at the Hoopers Gallery in London, such as, Roberta Bondar, who is a neurologist, scientist and Canada’s first woman astronaut as well as a photographer and Gina Glover an educationalist, curator, co-founder and director of the Photofusion Photography Centre in London as well as a freelance photographer and artist.  Or those who are experimenting with photographic technique, such as, Marlene-Luce Tremblay who created the pintography technique which combines photography and painting by transferring black and white images onto the canvas and then over-painting them in acrylic or oil paint and Stephanie Cardon whose photographic collages mimic the action of poster-ripping to manifest the energy and constant change of Venice and its architecture and the decorative technique popular in the Italian Renaissance that striped away one layer of white plaster to reveal the black wall beneath.  Or those who highlight conflict issues such as Jenny Matthews, who brilliantly captures cultural contradiction in her Selling in the market after the departure of the Taliban in 2001 Afghanistan and Karen Robinson, with her Protest against the Namada River Dam project, India.

Like these women, Lee Miller was clearly never afraid to try something new in her art and her career.  And neither should we.

27 March 2007

Celebrating Women is at the Hoopers Gallery, 15 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0AA until 2 April 2007. Face of Fashion is currently at the National Portrait Gallery until 28 May 2007
The Art of Lee Miller by Mark Haworth-Booth will be published by the V&A on 2 April 2007. £35 hardback. A major Lee Miller retrospective of the same name will take place at the V&A 15 September 2007 – 13 January 2008

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