FFI (Forces Francaise de l’Interior) worker, Paris, France" (1944), a photograph by Lee Miller on display at the Imperial War Museum in London. (Lee Miller Archives, via Imperial War Museum London)
In 1927, a chance encounter on a New York sidewalk with the media mogul Condé Nast made the gamine beauty Lee Miller a magazine cover girl and modeling sensation. Later, as the lover and muse of the artist Man Ray, her face and body were preserved in some of the most striking solarized portraits of the Surrealist age.
But Miller’s place in history was ultimately secured by her work on the other side of the lens, first as a fashion photographer and later with her documentation of life in Europe during World War II.
Appointed Vogue’s official war photographer in London, Miller, who died in 1977 at the age of 70, captured scenes from the Blitz and intimate snapshots of life on the British home front. Later, as one of a handful of female front-line photographers, she accompanied American forces to document the D-Day aftermath, Allied advance and eventual liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Her candid and devastating photographs of victims and perpetrators of Nazi oppression were widely circulated, while a haunting shot of Miller, naked and filthy, snapped by a Life magazine photographer as she symbolically washed away the horror she had witnessed from the bathtub of Hitler’s abandoned Munich apartment became a seminal liberation image.
Those pictures, and many more, have been included in “Lee Miller: A Woman’s War,” a current exhibition of her life and work at the Imperial War Museum in London, and an accompanying book with the same name, by Hilary Roberts. As their shared title would suggest, the two retrospectives focus specifically on her vision of gender during the war, her exploration of the role women played throughout the period and the impact it had on their position in society.
“In many respects, Miller’s life before the Second World War had been defined by her femininity,” said Ms. Roberts, who is also curator of the exhibit. “She may have belonged to the first generation of women entitled to vote but was well aware she lived in a man’s world. Photography offered Miller an outlet for her personal frustration and a means of taking control.”
Most of Miller’s subjects throughout her body of work displayed are women, and many of the 150 photographs featured have not been published before. Her prewar catalog experiments with complex lighting systems creating artful and abstract shadows, while sculptural nudes with separated limbs and portraits of women and their lovers are clearly dissections of female subjugation.
From 1940, Miller regularly produced glamorous shoots for British Vogue tinged with her early Surrealist leanings. As the war progressed, the magazine then became a critical strategic conduit for government ministries on persuading women how they could and should behave during times of conflict.
“It seems pretty silly to go on working for a frivolous paper like Vogue,” she said, then added, “It may be good for the country’s morale, but it’s hell on mine.” But over time, her work moved from the studios, where she had documented how to dress stylishly amid rationing and how shorter hair could be chic as more and more women began working in factories, to raw photographic essays on life on the home front.
From nurses in uniform caring for the wounded, to female searchlight crews of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British army, in their big bear coats and female fighter pilots seated stoically in their cockpits, Miller reinforced that in her sympathetic view, plucky, feisty and levelheaded women were the backbone of the war effort at home.