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The Studio Years


Nude Bent Forward
Lee Miller
Nude Bent Forward, c. 1930
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk.
A lively as well as lovely addition to the Paris art scene, Miller established friendships with the leading figures in the surrealist movement such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Meret Oppenheim, who further influenced her approach to photography. They shared a disdain for the literal meanings given to objects and focused on the undertones and poetic undercurrents they saw all around them, embracing the element of surprise, unexpected juxtaposition and a sense of the world made strange and new. Miller's work was published in French surrealist magazines, and she played a star role in artist Jean Cocteau's poetic and dreamlike film Blood of a Poet (1931), which required the arduous, hours-long effort of keeping her eyes closed and her arms strapped to her sides during shooting.

Miller also took inspiration from the documentary street scenes of Eugène Atget, whose dream-like photographs captured Paris and its mysteries, both ancient and modern. Miller's work from this period combines the scepticism of the post-World War I surrealists with a sense of new creative opportunities, emphasizing the formlessness and mystery of ordinary objects, removed from their specific context. A favorite focus of Miller's was the human hand, which she made frequent use of in her images—gesturing in silhouette from a balcony, or arranging a set of curls at the back of a woman's head.


Portrait of Space
Lee Miller
Portrait of Space, 1937
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2008. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk.
The fruitful but turbulent relationship between Miller and Man Ray ended badly in autumn 1932. Miller relocated to New York where she set up a portrait studio with her younger brother Erik. Using contacts from her years as a model as well as her Paris connections, she established a client list that included advertising agencies, fashion and cosmetics companies, and portrait commissions for the theater. In winter 1933 she enjoyed her first solo exhibition (and only solo exhibition during her lifetime) of photographs at the Julien Levy Gallery, a show that included Paris street scenes, architectural studies and still life, and portraits of figures such as Claire Luce, Gene Tunney, and Man Ray. The show received positive reviews in the New York Times, and the New York Post praised the invigorating effect of her use of "camera plus brains." A number of photographs owned by Levy, now in the Museum's collection, are included in this exhibition.

In 1934 Miller married Aziz Eloui Bey, a prominent Egyptian businessman, and went to live with him in Cairo. She undertook extended trips into the desert and was inspired to make some of her best-known photographs, including the stark, dramatic Portrait of Space (1937). The marriage, and Miller's time in Egypt, did not last. In 1937 she met the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose, who would become her second husband (and, years later, a founder of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts). The pair traveled and worked in Eastern Europe, and settled in north London in 1939. Miller worked frequently for British Vogue, where she published a diverse range of images and subjects, including the Second World War.

 

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