London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Lee Miller: Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery

19/01/2005, By

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Lee Miller (1907-77) was one of the most extraordinary photographers of the 20th century. A legendary beauty and fashion model, Miller soon became an acclaimed photographer in her own right. Her relationships with Surrealist artist Man Ray and collector Roland Penrose placed her at the heart of 20th-century artistic and literary circles and, in a career spanning more than three decades, she came into contact with an astonishing range of people. Many of these became her friends and the subjects of her penetrating portraits, which include highly perceptive and sympathetic studies of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Fred Astaire, Colette and Marlene Dietrich.

This exhibition presents more than120 black-and-white portraits from Miller’s life, including intimate studies of friends and lovers as well as memorable portraits from her time as Vogue’s war correspondent during the Second World War. Throughout her career Miller never lost her Surrealist eye and her incisive portraits make characteristic use of doors, mirrors, windows and other architectural features as devices to frame and isolate the subject.

Lee Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York State. At 18 she went to Paris for a year to study lighting, costume and theatre design, and only returned to the US, to New York, in 1926. It was in New York that Miller encountered Condé Nast, who gave her her first modelling job which was for American Vogue. She was to embark upon a remarkable modelling career, working with some of the great American fashion photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen, Nickolas Muray, Arnold Genthe and George Hoyningen-Heune.

In 1929 Miller returned to Paris where she became a pupil of the American dada-surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. As his assistant, lover, and collaborator Miller rapidly developed into a talented and witty surrealist photographer. In 1930 she opened her own studio, undertaking assignments from leading fashion designers of the time such as Schiaparelli and Chanel.

In 1932, ending her relationship with Man Ray, Miller moved back to New York and opened her own studio, producing portraits such as Floating Head (Mary Taylor) (1933) which reflect the Surrealist influence of Man Ray. She returned to Paris in 1937 where she took up with her artist friends and met her future husband, the English painter, collector and champion of Surrealism, Roland Penrose. Together they holidayed in Mougins, in the south of France, staying for a month with Picasso, Dora Maar and other friends. Miller captured the group in a series of informal photographs including a study of Picasso, who painted Miller several times during the holiday

With the outbreak of war, Miller’s work entered a more intensive and morally committed phase as she recorded the effect of the Blitz on London where she was staying with Penrose in his Hampstead home. In 1940 she joined British Vogue and became their war correspondent, producing poignant portraits of women engaged in a variety of wartime occupations such as ATS Searchlight Battery (1943) which shows a female searchlight crew in their ‘big bear coats’, shortly before German aircraft machine-gunned the searchlight.

In July 1944 Miller flew to Normandy, sending back photographs and written reports from the front as she witnessed historic events including the siege of St Malo, the Allied advance, the liberation of Paris, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau and the destruction of Hitler’s mountain retreat. Her photographs of victims and perpetrators of Nazi oppression are some of the most powerful images from the last century.

Miller was probably the first female combat photographer to enter Paris, arriving with the American troops on Liberation Day, 25 August 1944. Over the next few weeks she went in search of friends from before the war. She photographed her old friend Jean Cocteau in the colonnade of the Palais Royal and called on the novelist Colette, photographing her in her apartment for a Vogue profile. Miller’s lens also captured Fred Astaire who danced the first show for the American troops in Paris.

In 1946 Miller finally returned to London, and to Penrose. They flew to the USA to visit family and friends. In Arizona they visited Max Ernst and Miller photographed him as a giant bird of prey in the rocky Arizona desert. Man Ray had settled in Hollywood after leaving France in 1940. Miller took a double portrait of the two most influential men in her life at Man Ray’s studio in Los Angeles.

Penrose and Miller married in 1947 and their son Antony was born later that year. They acquired the 120-acre Farley Farm in East Sussex in 1949 and began to spend more and more time there. Farley Farm became a place of pilgrimage for friends, artists and art lovers the world over and Miller continued to photograph friends who visited until she died in 1977. Penrose died seven years later.

This exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, from the 3rd February until the 30th May, is curated by Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. All of the works in the exhibition are on loan from the Lee Miller Archives, with the exception of two vintage prints from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

The exhibition is accompanied by two publications: a fully-illustrated catalogue, Lee Miller: Portraits, with text by Richard Calvocoressi and playwright Sir David Hare. 176 pages, over 120 illustrations, published by the National Portrait Gallery February 2005, price £10 paperback; and Thames & Hudson’s original publication on the topic, Lee Miller: Portraits from a Life by Richard Calvocoressi, 176 pages, 157 illustrations, rrp. £27.50 hardback, shortly to be published in paperback at £18.95.

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