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The Art of Lee Miller (January 26 – April 27, 2008)
Lee Miller (1907-1977) was one of the most original and ambitious photographic artists of the 20th century. She performed with unique success on both sides of the camera, starting her career as a fashion and art model in New York, working as a studio assistant to Man Ray in Paris, independently creating haunting, surrealist-inspired images as well as portraiture, and serving as a war correspondent during World War II. In early 2008 the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present The Art of Lee Miller, a selection of some 150 images, mainly vintage photographs, celebrating Miller's remarkable life and her art, and how each reflected and influenced the other. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum on the occasion of the 2007 centenary of her birth, the exhibition will span her extraordinary career as a photographer and is the first complete retrospective, exploring her transformation from artist's muse to ground-breaking artist.
Curated by Professor Mark Haworth-Booth of the University of the Arts, London, the exhibition chronicles the diverse periods of Miller’s career, beginning with her days as a model in the late 1920s and early 30s, into her Paris and New York studio photography years, her marriage to Aziz Eloui Bey and travels in Egypt (1934-39), through her meeting with the British painter Roland Penrose and their travels in Eastern Europe shortly before the outbreak of WWII, to her days as a war correspondent (1939-45), and finally the relative tranquility of the post-war years at home with Penrose and their son Antony in East Sussex, England (1946-64).
An internationally renowned beauty, Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, and studied theater and lighting design at Vassar College before moving to Manhattan, where a chance encounter with publishing magnate Condé Nast opened up a new career in modeling. She began posing for such photographers as Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen and her image appeared in magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair. With her cropped hair, luminous eyes, and fresh complexion, Miller’s looks embodied the ideal of the modern 20th-century woman. Ready for a new challenge, she traveled to Paris in 1928 where she boldly declared herself the new student of artist Man Ray, quickly becoming his apprentice, muse, and lover. The pair collaborated closely over the next few years, as Miller learned studio, darkroom and finishing work, rediscovering with Man Ray the forgotten technique of solarization, a darkroom effect in which positive and negative tones reverse along the outline of a subject, creating a dreamlike, halo appearance. Man Ray promptly adopted this technical error as a surrealist ploy, using it to transform selected photographic subjects into glowing, radiant beings. Miller absorbed these darkroom lessons as well as the spirit of Surrealism and began using them to develop an independent career, producing elegant abstract images and fashion photography.
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 Dorothea Tanning, 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. Clips from the film will be featured in the first section of the show.
She also took inspiration from the documentary street scenes of Eugene Atget, whose dream-like photographs captured Paris and its mysteries, both ancient and modern. Miller’s work from this period combines the skepticism 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.
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 collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are included in the exhibition.
In 1934 Miller married Aziz Eloui Bey, a prominent Egyptian government official, 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 for 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.
In 1942 Miller became one of a handful of accredited female war correspondents, and the only woman photojournalist active in combat areas. She photographed medical teams working frantically to save the wounded shortly after the D Day invasion, and the liberation of Paris in 1945 for the pages of British Vogue. As the war came to its conclusion, Miller traveled east to Luxembourg, Belgium and into Germany where she published shocking first-hand accounts of the concentration camp at Dachau, and disturbing images of Hitler’s abandoned flat in Munich. The images Miller captured in war’s immediate aftermath reflected a disturbing, surrealistic juxtaposition of horror and banality, including her photograph of a dead SS officer submerged in the shallow waters of a canal; the personal effects found on the desktop in Hitler’s Munich apartment; or the pale face of an infant found dead of starvation in Vienna, its face framed by crisp white blankets. These images and her wartime experiences affected Miller profoundly and continued to her haunt her until the end of her life.
In the postwar years Miller continued to work for British Vogue, whose highly talented staff included Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, and Irving Penn contributing from New York. Miller herself seemed to grow disenchanted with the world of fashion photography, perhaps exhausted by her prolific output during the war. In September 1947 she gave birth to a son, Antony, and with her husband Roland Penrose moved to a farm house in Sussex, where she embraced her newfound domesticity with the same imaginative zeal and surrealistic sense of humor that had marked earlier phases of her life, entertaining a stream of art-world friends and colleagues. Her final photographic contribution to British Vogue would be the photo essay ‘Working Guests,’ published in 1953, in which she describes efforts to put her well-known houseguests to work at various tasks around the farm – among them Max Ernst, Saul Steinberg, and Richard Hamilton.
Prior to its showing in Philadelphia, The Art of Lee Miller will be on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from September 2, 2007 – January 6, 2008. The exhibition features extensive loans from the Lee Miller Archive in East Sussex, England, directed by Miller’s son Antony Penrose, among other sources.
In conjunction with the exhibition and the centenary of Miller’s birth, Yale University Press is publishing a catalogue by Mark Haworth-Booth, who is visiting professor of photography, University of the Arts, London, and honorary research fellow at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where he was curator of photographs for thirty-five years.