Lee Miller: a photography icon

Faroe Islands, the town of Gjogv (photo: Vincent van Zeijst)
June 2nd, 2012 8:11 am| by admin

Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso were all counted among the artist friends of the American photographer Lee Miller. Starting out as a model in front of the camera for American Vogue in 1927, Miller quickly moved behind it to create an individual body of work inspired heavily by Surrealism. The surrealists used visual imagery that showed ordinary objects in strange and unusual ways, in order to create compelling and often emotional art. This exhibition at Øregaard includes photographs from many periods of her life, organised by the Lee Miller Archive in England and the Mjellby Konstmuseum in Halmstad in Sweden.

As a model in New York, Lee Miller had two years of fame posing for renowned photographers including Edward Steichen and Arnold Genthe. Her move to Paris in 1929 to become the assistant, model, collaborator and lover of avant-garde photographer Man Ray changed the course of her work. Together they used new darkroom techniques like solarisation for artistic effect, with an image that is partially reversed in tone. Miller made portraits and satirical drawings, and photographed enigmatic street scenes and elegant near-abstractions. Her creativity and technique during this period resulted in some of the most radical nudes of the time – described as transforming the female torso into a phallus.

From 1932-1934, Miller was back in New York. She developed a close rapport with sculptor Joseph Cornell and exhibited at the pioneering gallery run by Julien Levy. Her work included celebrity portraits, fashion and advertising work, done with an eye for odd juxtaposition and humour. She soon moved again, however, spending the rest of the decade travelling. Miller lived in Cairo with her first husband, Aziz Eloui Bey. She worked in the Egyptian deserts in Egypt, producing works with abstract titles such as Portraits of Space. In 1937, while visiting in Paris she fell in love with the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose and travelled with him in England, France and Romania, documenting the journeys extensively.

When World War II officially broke out, Miller was living in London with Penrose and chronicling the blitzed city for Vogue. She wrote feature articles along with her photographs, which included documentary, fashion and portraiture for the magazine. In 1942 she managed to become an accredited field correspondent with the US Army, an impressive step considering that the British were not accepting any women in this position. Her dispatches on field hospitals in Normandy, the Liberation of Paris, the fighting around the German-occupied citadel in St Malo, and the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald used surrealist imagery to portray the horror of what had actually and unbelievably happened. Her work spotted the absurd horrors of war and its leaders with striking and memorable visual style as well as content.

When she and fellow war reporter David E Scherman found themselves in Munich in Hitler’s old apartment around the time that he committed suicide in Berlin, they lived there for three days. The resulting portrait, Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bath, was reprinted around the world and caused endless debate about what it meant for the journalist to be in the Führer’s personal bath. With this creative use of imagery and ideas, Lee Miller broadened the definition of photojournalism and expanded the notion of documentary. In the elegant space of the Øregaard Museum, each of her selected works pops out with the force of the personality that was at work behind the camera.

Lee Miller og det surrealistiske blik
Øregaard Museum, Ørehøj Allé 2, Hellerup 2900; ends June 20; open Wed-Fri 13:00-16:00, Sat-Sun 12:00-16:00; Tickets 50kr, 3998 5790; www.oremus.dk

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