Lee Miller’s War

The photography of Lee Miller in the Second World War and in the broader context of war reporting

Essay, 2010

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Surrealism and Fashion

3. Through a Woman’s Eye

4. Conclusion: Miller in Context

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Lee Miller was born in 1907 in the State of New York as the child of a father of German descent and a Canadian nurse. She had a traumatic childhood (she was raped at the age of seven). At the age of eighteen she moved to France, where she soon came into contact with the bustling art scene and the emerging young surrealists. She moved back to the USA one year later and was discovered as a model. Due to her photogenic and elegant appearance she was seen as an archetype of the mid-twenties mode. Coming back to Paris in 1929, she started to live together with Man Ray in an amour fou. From him and other famous photographers and artists of that time she learned whatever she could about photography.[1]

After breaking up with Ray a few years later she moved back to New York, where she worked as a fashion photographer and was again influenced by her artist friends, many of whom were surrealists. Her first marriage with an Egyptian businessman allowed her to live out her adventurous and wild character and to visit wide parts of the world. Eventually, she moved to Egypt in 1934. Despite the beautiful landscape, Miller soon felt a strong longing for Europe and went back to France only three years later, leaving her husband behind. When war broke out in 1939, Miller was in England with her future husband Roland Penrose. She started her career as a war correspondent two years later.[2]

2. Surrealism and Fashion

Some of Miller’s photographs indicate the influence that her surrealist friends had on her. Like the paintings of the surrealists, her pictures were not mere objects to be looked at.[3] One example, which is called Eggceptional Achievement, resembles in its powerful composition rather a painting than a photograph. The surrealistic barrage balloon, sitting on a peaceful meadow which is occupied by geese, is photographed trough barb-wire. Thereby, Miller contradicts the harmonic and poetic background and gives the beholder the impression of the threat of war. The beautiful balloon seems to be in danger of getting pricked and burst by the dangerously sharp barb wire in the foreground. It may be seen as a symbol of vulnerable Britain under the threat of German bombers. With photos like this Miller aimed at the American public, whom she wanted to make aware of the hardness the British had to endure during the Blitz. She assembled some of her most impressive photographs in a book called Grim Glory: pictures of Britain under fire.

Even if we do not know whether Miller was really influenced by her surrealist friends, some of her photographs, like for example The Grounds of Schloss Linderhof, let one assume that she was. The contradiction of statues mantled with military camouflage netting and the surrounding peaceful landscape creates a strong feeling of eeriness and irreality, and adds to the exceptionality of this picture. The frequent appearance of such unusual settings in her pictures was, according to her second husband, the outcome “of a ‛keen searching eye’ and a ‛good judgement’ in choice of subject.”[4] She finally found endless opportunities for exceptional photos in what should become an intrusion of apparent surrealism into real life when she was among the first to enter the Dachau concentration camp.

Even if she was hardened by what she had seen before, the unthinkable atrocities she witnessed there haunted her for the rest of her life.[5] Somehow Miller managed to keep up her professionalism and took astonishing photos. Surrounded by death, she managed to show the hideousness of the camps not primarily by photographing the dead bodies directly, but instead by showing the terror in the unbelieving faces of battle-hardened GIs or by leaving it to the imagination of the beholder to imagine the crimes by picturing the heaps of shoes that had belonged to the killed inmates. But then some of her photographs also show that she still sometimes could not escape the weird fascination of dead people.

This fascination is demonstrated by a picture of a murdered Dachau prison guard. It is not only a very powerful picture but also a demonstration of Miller’s exceptional character. Even if she was nauseated by the crimes the Nazis had committed[6], she was still able to depict the offenders as human beings in a somehow graceful, even artful manner[7]. The dead guard looks like he has been lying in the water for a long time, like a figure arisen from a fairytale, who is sleeping a very deep sleep and is waiting to be woken up. No wounds or bruises are visible, and the figure looks almost peaceful. This atmosphere stands in a stark contrast to the crimes which had been committed and which were being paid back to the guards after the camp had been liberated. Miller recalls that "the small canal bounding the camp was a floating mess of SS, in their spotted camouflage suits and nail-studded boots"[8].

Another example for the role that death and on the other hand art played in her work is the picture of the daughter of the mayor of Leipzig, who had given poison to his whole family, fearing reprisals from the Russians. The girl, which a biographer of Miller appropriately described as "part L'Inconnue de la Seine and part discarded female anatomical model"[9], resembles in the way Miller photographed her strikingly the famous statue St. Theresa in Ecstasy. Miller’s laconic remark under the photo reads: “Leaning back on the sofa is a girl with extraordinarily pretty teeth, waxen and dusty.”[10]

Highly stylised pictures like this were a speciality of Miller, who avoided shooting heroic pictures, which were only meant to display the alleged glory of war and would have been used for propagandistic reasons (the only exception being her work in Britain). Instead critics praised Miller’s war photography for Vogue for establishing the possibility of integrating the “seeing subject”[11] into her work, thereby pressuring the beholder to think about the moral and ethical implications that arise from her pictures. This is especially worth mentioning as her target group were mostly female civilians, who were not directly exposed to the hardship of war. No doubt this picture had a strong influence on them.

It was strange enough that Miller’s pictures even made it to the British and American Vogue, magazines which used to focus on fashion and lifestyle, but definitely not on pictures of atrocities. Zox-Weaver thinks that

somewhere in Vogue's editorial consciousness was a willingness to defy the protocol of standard content and to take a risk that would mean disrupting familiar constructions of smooth, pleasurable consumption. The startling nature of the images, their absolute incongruity in the pages of a fashion magazine, and the obvious risk of offending the bourgeois viewership converges as a complex commingling of death and consumerism, elegance and evil.[12]

It was a daring move of the female editors of the Vogue to bring the frontline to their readership, but it worked so well that the editors even showed Miller’s photos of the concentration camps under the headline Believe It. The readership was probably more familiar with the surroundings in one of the most famous photos of her, which shows her sitting nude in Hitler's bathtub in his Munich apartment. But appearances are deceitful. The subliminal content of the picture makes it eerie and multilayered at the same time. On the one hand, we see the beautiful nude Miller brushing herself in an orderly clean bathroom, with a classical nude statue standing on the table beside the bathtub. On the other hand, we see the picture of Hitler in an imperious posture on the left side of the bathtub and Miller’s boots standing on the carpet, which is dirty all over by the dust she brought with her from the concentration camp, and which may consist of the ashes of human beings.[13] Her absent stare, which gazes into the distance, gives her an appearance of being miles away in her mind, maybe reflecting the barbarous things she had seen.

Sim says that such images are as important as the ones of the atrocities of war, as they do not force the beholder to look away involuntarily and "therefore pass over the underlying meaning or history of the image." Moreover, they "are socially powerful and morally important due to their capacity to make the viewer not just look upon the horrific evidence of Nazi violence, but also reflect on the ideologies that underscored and motivated it"[14] ; a thought that did not cross the minds of most of the other war correspondents.

But not even Miller could escape the morbid fascination and bizarre beauty of warfare. This is illustrated by her photograph of the bombardment of German-occupied St. Malo, where Lee witnessed the first use of Napalm.[15] This photo reveals again that art played a big role in her way of photography. Taken from inside of her hotel room, the walls serve like a frame for the picture, much like the early paintings of Matisse and Picasso used to look like. The view through the window onto the subject of the picture channels the view of the beholder, but still makes aware of his safe standpoint.[16]

Calvocoressi is also of the opinion that Millers photography was more artistic than documentary. Arguing with a statement in which she announces that she always "wanted to be an artist", he writes, that "in terms of composition, lighting and choice of subject, her photographs powerfully suggest someone who looked and thought instinctively as a painter"[17]. Her friendship with surrealists "gave her a sharp eye for the telling but overlooked detail, odd pairings or combinations of unrelated objects, and dramatic or quirky viewpoints".[18]

3. Through a Woman’s Eye

An important point that has to be taken into consideration is the fact that Miller was a female war correspondent. And even if she “had to be as competitive, adventurous and hard-headed as the men”[19] to survive in this tough business, she still managed to bring a lot of her femininity into her pictures. Her photograph Revenge on Culture is typical for the way she pictured the war. She did not focus on dead bodies or raging battles but instead showed the impact of warfare on individuals and on society. One reason for this distinction might have been that she was aware that the intensity of the atrocities cast upon the British would have appalled her readership. She addresses the latter directly in Grim Glory, writing that "the pictures are selected with great discrimination. I would have shown you the open graves of Coventry - broken bodies with brown dust looking like rag dolls cast away by some petulant child, being lifted in tender hands from the basements of homes."[20] Instead, she left it to the reader’s imagination to get a feeling for the terrible destruction the bombings caused by subtly composing a thought-provoking ambiguity in her pictures. At the same time, this ambiguity reflects the influence her own character had on her photos.

Miller was far from being neutral. She hated the Germans for bringing so much destruction to her loved Paris, and was altered by all the atrocities she had seen during the course of war. One of her photos, which shows a dead German soldier, is underwritten by her: "This is a good German, he is dead. Artery forceps hang from his shattered wrists"[21]. But others reveal how she tried to keep her humour despite the dreads around her and which appears in some of her photos which show for example ammunition trucks "with cynical names such as ‛Sudden Death’, ‛Amen’ or ‛You've had it’"[22].

Her special role as a women photographer was analysed by Miller herself: "Women are quicker and more adaptable than men. And I think they have an intuition that helps them understand personalities more quickly than men...”[23]. Maybe this intuition helped her to develop an eye for stories that other correspondents would have deemed not worth reporting about. She was also more focused on photographing women and thus highlighting the role they played in the war than the average male war correspondent.

The fact that she was a brave and talented photographer who was not afraid of being at the frontline, gained her acceptance by the foot soldiers and gave her the chance to get close to them and shoot some rather intimate photos. Some critics argue that her feminine and beautiful appearance was another reason for her acceptance among the GIs[24], and that Miller was well aware of that and used her femininity quite self-consciously for her personal success.[25] Her appearance may also have influenced the subjects of her pictures, some of whom started to act tough when they saw that Miller was photographing.

But she was not interested in showing heroes of the war or to colour the dirty reality of warfare, which she had came to know when she stayed at a field hospital in the Normandy. There, she had been confronted on a daily basis with wounded who "were not 'knights in shining armour' but dirty, dishevelled stricken figures" which came in "blood-soaked slings ― some exhausted and lifeless."[26] The grave seriousness displayed in the faces of the surgeons in one of her pictures from the Normandy called Operation theater shows at the same time the seriousness of the situation and the implications that war had not only on those who were fighting it on the front line, but also on those in the rear echelon. Moreover, it focuses on the fate of individuals.


[1] Cp. Penrose, A. (2005). The Lives of Lee Miller. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., p28

[2] Cp. Ibid. p7-96

[3] Cp. Sim, L. (2009). A different war landscape: Lee Miller’s war photography and the ethics of seeing. Available: http://www.js-modcult.bham.ac.uk/articles/issue7_sim.pdf. Last accessed 01.11.2010, p52

[4] Spencer, R. (2001). The Surrealist and the Photographer. Available: http://www.studio-international.co.uk/reports/miller_lee.asp. Last accessed 01.11.2010.

[5] Cp. Penrose, A. (2005), p139

[6] "I drove through Germany encased in a wall of hate and disgust" in Calvocoressi, R (2002). Lee Miller. Portraits from a Life. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., p11

[7] Cp. with Magritte’s painting Le sens de la nuit in Whitfield, S. (1992). Magritte. London: The South Bank Centre. p18

[8] Calvocoressi, R (2002), p116

[9] Mellor, D A. (2004). Lee Miller. In: Bartana, Y. Wherever I Am. Oxford: Modern Art Oxford. p59

[10] Mellor, p59

[11] Sim, p49

[12] Zox-Weaver, A. (2003). When the War Was in Vogue: Lee Miller's War Reports. Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 32 (2), p141

[13] Cp. Sim Penrose, A. (2001). The Home of the Surrealists. Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd, p56

[14] Sim, p61

[15] Cp. Penrose, A. (2005). p120

[16] Cp. Mellor, p60

[17] Calvocoressi, p8

[18] Calvocoressi, p8

[19] Chamber, D., Steiner, L., Fleming, C. (2004). Women And Journalism. London: Routledge. p203

[20] Penrose, A. (2005), p103

[21] Ibid. p134

[22] Ibid. p134

[23] Penrose, A. (2005) p54

[24] Cp. Chamber, D., Steiner, L., Fleming, C., p203

[25] Cp. Honigman, A. (2007). Lee Miller was not just a pretty face. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2007/sep/17/leemillerwasnotjustapret. Last accessed 03.11.2010.

[26] Penrose (2005), p118

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Lee Miller’s War
The photography of Lee Miller in the Second World War and in the broader context of war reporting
University of Lincoln  (Media and Humanities)
War and the Media
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
438 KB
Lee Miller, Second World War, Zweiter Weltkrieg, Fotografie, war reporter, Kriegsberichterstatter, Surrealism, Surrealismus, Blitz, Germany, Bombers, Great Britain, Dachau, concentration camp, Konzentrationslager, GI, Vogue, Hitler, Munich, war, atrocieties, dead, Kireig, Tote, Gräuel, Nazi, SS
Quote paper
MA Urs Endhardt (Author), 2010, Lee Miller’s War, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/179463


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