Lambeth Road SE1 6HZ
Thursday November 19 and December 3 2015
After our incomplete visit two weeks ago we returned to a (far less busy) Imperial war Museum to complete our visit to the totally engrossing Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, which today we had virtually to ourselves, allowing us to savour each caption without feeling guilty. This is a sumptuous exhibition which takes you from the hedonistic and self-indulgent Thirties through the traumas of war and on to the rather austere post war ‘county/country’ England.
The Imperial war Museum has very strong and impressive collections of art (not time today) photography and film over and above the hardware items very evident in the galleries. Lee’s photographs were of course taken on black and white celluloid film with a heavy camera
My difficulty is of course that photography was not allowed in the exhibition nor can I reproduce her photos on the blog – however here is a link to the official archive which has a library of over 3000 images should you wish to browse at leisure or seek something out. Her basic camera was a Rolleiflex (no light meter/ no zoom) and during the war additionally a Zeiss-Ikon, both ironically German cameras. 12 frames per roll of film. Contrast the discipline needed for that with our almost incontinent use of multiple digital snaps. Good negatives will reproduce and enlarge in good quality and there is no pixilation here.
Superficially her early life appears settled – a mother who was a nurse, an employed father, two brothers. However she was raped by a family friend at the age of eight and then had to be treated for gonorrhea, not pleasant for a child in pre-anti-biotic days. Her father introduced her to photography and took nude pictures of her. To say we found this dubious is an understatement and had some speculation of the kind of friends Mr Miller might have had… After this truncated or as we would say today abusive childhood Lee left home early and was ‘discovered’ that is talent spotted on the streets of New York by Vogue who then used her as a model for the next two years. The combination of her stunning profile with beautiful Twenties clothes is everything you might imagine. Lee then headed off to Europe and this is where she got behind the camera more consistently and very creatively. In Paris she joined a community of artists including Picasso and Man Ray, the surrealist artist and photographer – Lee’s lover for a while and they developed photographic techniques together. There and then she also met Roland Penrose the English surrealist, and later life companion.
Rather in the style of the 'English Patient' film/book she went to Cairo, Egypt where she met and married an Egyptian – this relationship was of short duration and she returned/went to the UK to be re-united with Penrose and stayed after the outbreak of war, although recalled to the US.
This is the point where the exhibition really comes alive – Lee offers her services to UK Vogue and after an initial rejection they let her take some photos of ‘suitable clothes and hair for factories’! From 1941 her range expands – there are evacuees, ‘land girls’ 'land girls' (yes it’s been a TV series too) the Women’s Home Defence Corps, the Mechanised Transport Corps, the ATS. Lee was very thorough and made sure she recorded women doing all kinds of war work including packing parachutes. There is a wonderful shot of a Polish pilot, and WRNS in uniform. The captions explain the roles the women would have played and their enormous if long-hidden contribution to the war effort, while acknowledging the wonderful freedoms it gave to many who were taught to drive, to work outside the home, and given the chance to travel. In amongst these shots, Lee photographs probably World War II’s most famous female war correspondent Martha Gellhorn and the lesser known Margaret Bourke White both US citizens like herself.
By 1944 she has persuaded US Vogue to take her on as a war correspondent and her writing proved to be as adept as her photography. From D-Day onwards she was but three weeks behind the advances of the US troops into Normandy through France to Paris and on towards Germany via Alsace. While she does record the fabric devastation of the villages through which both armies fought her main focus remains the women and children from both sides of the conflict – exhausted nurses and anaesthetists at hospitals at the front (the survival rate was very good), later French female collaborators shamed and blamed as the Allies advance. Nuns feature too and as she heads towards Luxembourg there are shots of refugees digging for dandelions.
Paris, which had been so spared from bombing by mutual agreement, soon sprang back and the couture houses were readily re-activated. There is an amusing shot of cyclists pedalling away in order to generate enough electricity to work the hair dryers for a salon – two stereotypes of French culture in one!
Initially Lee had been attached/embedded with a particular Army corps but at some pint round St Malo she went rogue and seemed to be working/travelling virtually alone. There is a short video clip of a male colleague who remembers the pre-war fussy and polished Vogue model completely transformed into a rough and ready photographer who was completely at ease with GIs of all ranks.
From Leipzig she visits both Dachau and Buchenwald and like all those liberators and camera men was deeply affected by what she saw. Her anger is manifest when she arrives at Eva Braun and Hitler’s Munich homes, full of home comforts denied to most of the rest of Europe and where a carefully posed picture sees her using his bath leaving the mud of the camps all over the mat… There is a display of the artefacts she ‘liberated’ from Eva’s dressing table – another woman’s very different war you might say.
Post-war she was asked to stay on by Vogue but not surprisingly after what she had witnessed in that year she became depressed, something she medicated with cigarettes and alcohol. There are very interesting documentary pictures of women in Hungary and Romania (a country she and Penrose had travelled to pre-war and much loved), both a rich Hungarian aristocrat bemoaning the damage to her castle and rural Romanian workers scrabbling to feed their children. She hated Vienna where what she termed the ‘madness of music’ seemed to mask their complicity and history.
In 1953 she leaves Vogue but has a trip back to the US a year later. Her later life is spent with Roland Penrose, whom she has married, in their Sussex farm house – the most surreal (though not in the sense she would have understood it) is a picture of her in apron cooking and carefully posed in her country kitchen for all the world like an early Delia or Nigella. She died in 1977 leaving her son who now manages her archive.
This is an absorbing and compelling exhibition giving us both the best of photography and the best of women – humanity – during conflict.