A statuesque beauty, whose face graced the cover of international fashion magazines. A talented artist, whose surrealist photography inspired the likes of Pablo Picasso. Lee Miller was both.
Ignoring the pain of repeated personal tragedy and the prescribed gender roles of the 1930s and 1940s, Lee Miller became one of the most innovative photographers of her generation. On Feb. 11, in Weston 10, Anthony Penrose presented a lecture and slide show entitled “Lee Miller: Muse and Surrealist Artist.”
The lecture, which chronicled the turbulent life of this influential artist, was sponsored by sponsored by the Williams College Museum of Art, the department of Romance Languages and the department of Literary Studies.
As a child, Anthony Penrose had little contact with his mother. Miller’s career left her little time to spend at home raising a family, and at such a young age, Penrose did not appreciate his mother’s artwork.
It was not until his wife encouraged him to do so that Penrose established a relationship with his mother. This was an extremely important event in Penrose’s life. As an adult, he discovered a great respect for both his mother’s photographs and her career. Although their relationship had once been weak, a devoted friendship quickly developed between Miller and Penrose.
From this friendship, Penrose was inspired to educate the public about his mother’s private life and public career. He produced several biographical films, compiled an archive of her artwork, and traveled internationally giving lectures about her tragic yet inspired life.
In 1907, Lee Miller was born into a large family in Poughkeepsie, New York. As a child, she learned about photography from her father, an amateur, who had his own darkroom.
Although she loved learning about the art of photography, Miller’s childhood and adolescent years were anything but happy. At age seven, Miller was raped and contracted a venereal disease. During her teens, Miller’s first love died in a boating accident. This tragedy was compounded when Miller’s second serious boyfriend also died accidentally.
At 19, Miller became a model for Vogue magazine. After three years of modeling in New York City, Miller moved to Paris. There, she met Man Ray, a professional photographer. Together, Ray and Miller opened a studio where they created surrealist art, concentrating in photography. While in Paris, Miller also made her movie debut in Jean Cocteau’s, “Blood of a Poet.”
When Miller returned to New York, she opened another studio. However, this studio closed when she married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. Miller continued her photographic career in Egypt until 1939. That year, she left her husband and began a relationship with Roland Penrose, whom she later married.
World War II brought abrupt changes to Lee Miller’s life. Working closely with Time-Life photographer David Scherman, Miller photographed some of the most devastating stories of the war. Her war-time photo-journalism was published in Vogue and in several American newspapers.
After the war, Miller no longer had any interest in fashion photography. The trauma of her experiences as a war correspondent had left her battling both severe alcoholism and depression.
In 1947, Miller gave birth to Anthony, her only child. After his birth, Miller tried to recapture her passion for photography by rededicating herself to her career. Leaving Anthony in England under the care of his nanny, Miller traveled throughout the United States, Egypt and Europe, where she continued her work in professional photography. Although Miller’s interest in photography remained strong, her artistic vision was tarnished. Throughout the rest of her career, she struggled against the horrors she had witnessed in war-torn Europe.
On July 27, 1977, Miller died of cancer. In the years following her death, Roland and Anthony Penrose, compiled Miller’s photography and artwork. Currently, this collection is housed in The Lee Miller and Roland Penrose Archives, which is located in Farley Farm House, East Sussex, England.
The archives are open to students researching Miller’s life but are not open to the general public. Miller’s more popular photographs can be viewed at http://www.leemiller.co.uk/ on the World Wide Web. The internet site also includes a short biography that chronicles Miller’s life.