Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller, Lady Penrose (23 April 1907 – 21 July 1977) was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907, she was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer. During the Second World War, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue magazine covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.
In 1929, she traveled to Paris with the intention of apprenticing herself to the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Although, at first, he insisted that he did not take students, Miller soon became his photographic assistant, as well as his lover and muse. While she was in Paris, she began her own photographic studio, often taking over Man Ray’s fashion assignments to enable him to concentrate on his painting. In fact, many of the photographs taken during this period and credited to Man Ray were actually taken by Lee. Together with Man Ray, she rediscovered the photographic technique of solarisation. She was an active participant in the surrealist movement, with her witty and humorous images. Amongst her circle of friends were Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard, and Jean Cocteau. She even appeared as a statue that comes to life in Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet” (1930).
After leaving Man Ray and Paris in 1932, she returned to New York and established a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. During this year she was included in the Modern European Photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. In 1933 Levy gave Miller the only solo exhibition of her life. Among her portrait clients were the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, actresses Lilian Harvey and Gertrude Lawrence, and the African-American cast of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” (1934).
In 1934, she abandoned her studio to marry Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey, who had come to New York to buy equipment for the Egyptian Railways. Although she did not work as a professional photographer during this period, the photographs she took while living in Egypt with Eloui, including “Portrait of Space“, are regarded as some of her most striking surrealist images. By 1937, Lee had grown bored with her life in Cairo and she returned to Paris, where she met her future husband, the British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose. Her photographs were not included in another exhibition until 1955, when her work was displayed with The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Miller was living in Hampstead, London with Roland Penrose when the bombing of the city began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the US, Miller embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Voguedocumenting the Blitz. Lee was accredited into the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from December 1942.
She teamed up with the American photographer David E. Scherman, a Life Magazine correspondent on many assignments. Miller travelled to France less than a month after D-Day and recorded the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. She also travelled to Kahla, together with other war correspondents/photographers (Margaret Bourke-White) and made the pictures of the factory.
In close cooperation with the Lee Miller Archives, I was able to correct the origin of those very important photographs, as well as the exact date of their visit to the underground factory.
One photograph by Scherman of Miller in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich is one of the most iconic images from the Miller-Scherman partnership.
During this time, Miller photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary and finally the execution of Prime Minister László Bárdossy. After the war she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.
She died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated, and her ashes spread through her herb garden at Farley Farm House. Her son Antony Penrose, known as Tony, owns the house and offers tours of the amazing work of Miller and of Roland Penrose. The garden exhibits art items such as “Fallen Giant“, “Sea Creature“ and “Kneeling Woman“, and the house is home to the private collections of Miller-Penrose, their own work and some of their favourite pieces of art. In the dining room, the fireplace was decorated in vivid colours by Roland Penrose.
Throughout her life, Miller did very little to promote her own photographic work. That Miller’s work is known today is mainly due to the efforts of her son, Antony, who has been studying, conserving, and promoting his mother’s work since the early 1980s.
Her pictures are accessible at the Lee Miller Archive.