Magnificent obsession – Photographer Lee Miller and a life uncensored

Magnificent obsession – Photographer Lee Miller and a life uncensored

Mention Lee Miller’s name and the image of an icy, ethereal blonde comes to mind, her exquisite profile shimmering in the aura of a Steichen frame, or languorously posed in a fashion spread shot by Man Ray or Georges Hoyningen-Huene. Miller could easily have used the gift of her great beauty to ensure a coddled existence, an appendage of some powerful, wealthy man. Yet Miller chose to conduct her life by her own rules, often at odds with the mores of her day, and in the process she became iconic, a muse – and equal – to some of the artistic giants of the 20th century. Other permutations awaited Miller as fashion photographer, visual chronicler of WW II and mother, disillusioned, brilliant, fearless, but always achingly human. Lauren Weinberg was privileged enough to speak with someone who was privy to her fascinating, often unfathomable life, her son, Antony Penrose.

It’s evident from your biography and in interviews you’ve conducted regarding your mother that you never really knew who Lee Miller was until after her death. From the pictures, diaries and letters you discovered in her attic, do you feel you know her now?
Oh yes. Studying her work revealed to me a woman that I never knew. When I was growing up she was very heavily affected by her wartime experiences and she was in pretty poor shape, with her alcohol abuse and depression. But through her work I’ve seen a new person that I never knew existed, who has this amazing talent, and was filled with perception, tenacity and courage.

I want to talk a bit about Man Ray’s influence on Lee and vice versa. How would you describe the type of relationship they had?
It was creative and passionate and symbiotic on every level. Of course, they were lovers and collaborators, and as you know they invented solarisation together. They sparked off each other wonderfully. Man Ray did not always acknowledge Lee’s role, and in fact in many cases he printed her work under his own name, yet she didn’t mind that at the time.

He gave her a fantastic grounding in the technical side of photography. He also released her eye and made her respond to things and find her voice as a Surrealist. It was as though Surrealism was something that was already familiar to her because she had always lived life according to her own rules, and now there were other people doing the same and she felt a great affinity with them.

In Caroline Burke’s biography, Lee Miller: A Life, Burke quotes one acquaintance of Man Ray and Lee, stating that, “The woman was taller than the man and strode along despite being tethered,” yet he seemed “more attached to her than she to him.” Would you say that, despite his being older and more accomplished by the time they met, that Man Ray nevertheless came to be more dependent on Lee?
Totally, and that’s what destroyed their relationship; he wanted to be possessive of her and she wasn’t going to be owned by anyone.

You note in a previous interview that Lee’s image of a severed breast on a dinner plate (taken from a radical mastectomy operation) expresses her outrage at women, including herself, being seen as objects, and as sexual objects in particular. Do you believe she resented Man Ray for his constant fragmentation and objectification of her body in his photographs?
Constantly being objectified and fragmented, and what I describe as being visually abused, may have hardened her resolve to be an independent person; and probably also made her more powerful. She began to find Man Ray impossible, as he wanted to marry her, but she wasn’t about to marry anyone. The point was that Man Ray would not allow her her freedom, creatively perhaps but not in personal or emotional terms. This was ironic because he was a deeply committed Surrealist, and Surrealists were supposed to have rejected all family values such as marriage. Yet something had been triggered within Man Ray which made him excessively possessive of her.

It’s obvious that Lee was a muse to the Surrealists, but how much would you say Surrealism influenced her own work?
It affected her work deeply, because whether it was Paris or later fashion or her combat photography during the war or her portraiture, we see so many elements of Surrealism slipping into it, particularly in her war correspondent work. It seemed that the war had been invented to give opportunities for surreal images. Even before that, when she was travelling in Egypt, she found a way of discovering the surreal in everything that she saw.

One of the key aspects of her work is what I call the “found image” in which she takes an everyday image and uses the camera to snip it out of life and give it back to us out of context, imbuing it with a hidden metaphor and meaning. The most classic example is a photo she took at the beginning of her career called Exploding Hand where it looks like the woman’s hand has gone up in a puff of smoke (an example of what the Surrealists called Convulsive Beauty or the contradiction of l’Explosante Fixe that fascinated them).

Also when she was in Egypt she took a picture called Portrait of Space which is a torn fly screen covering a window within which is a tiny portrait-shaped frame that is empty but framing space. There are so many metaphors and enigmas in that picture and this is why it has become perhaps her most well known photograph, and why so many dissertations have been written on it. It’s both a contradiction and a provocation.

I’ve read several of Man Ray’s letters to your mother from her archive, and I was struck by how, even after their separation, Man Ray still seemed completely besotted by Lee. Yet Man Ray was often a guest at the home of your father and mother. Did you ever feel any tension between these two men who obviously both felt deep love for her?
The obsession developed into a very deep friendship when Man Ray and Lee reconnected in Paris in 1937 – five years after their separation – at a fancy dress ball, where Lee states “we buried the hatchet”. That was also the moment that she met my father Roland Penrose. My father had already known Man Ray for many years; they had hung out in Paris together and Man Ray had photographed my father’s first wife, a French woman named Valentine Boué.

The extraordinary thing is that Roland did not meet Lee when he could have as he had been in Paris since before 1925; Lee was there from 1928 to ’32 and they knew many of the same people. How they avoided meeting I just can’t understand. What I didn’t realise until much later was that many of the key people in my parents’ lives had been lovers of Lee, for example Picasso, Man Ray, David Scherman (an American photographer for Life Magazine), Julien Levy (the famed New York art dealer and collector), and more than just a few others.

What do you think it was that drew Lee to abandon the glamorous and bohemian lifestyle she had been living amongst the avant-garde and as a celebrated fashion model to become a war photographer?
What has to be remembered is that underlying Surrealism was a tremendous commitment to peace, freedom and justice. When Lee found herself in London at the outset of war she wanted to do whatever she could for the war effort, particularly as she had so many friends who were in France that was soon to be occupied by the Germans. Her camera was her weapon of choice, and her photography was her contribution. In those days, using photography in a journalistic sense was a very powerful tool. Photographs were a highly effective means of mass communication pre-television and pre-literacy. This was the way of getting through to people and Lee knew that.

I’m aware that Lee and Cecil Beaton had something of a rivalry at Vogue where both were employed as photographers. Do you know anything else about her relationship with or opinions on Beaton as both a man and as an artist?
They hated each other like poison. Beaton was deeply anti-Semitic and Lee could not tolerate anyone who had a significant prejudice about anyone or anything. When I knew Lee she was still very courageous and I never ever saw her nervous of someone except on the one occasion when Beaton came around to photograph her. I was 14, so this was 20 years after the war, but her hostility towards him was palpable. Beaton was a clever photographer but he was technically inept, relying on people around him to put the film in the camera the right way. Lee and Scherman despised him for that alone, and they hated that he was a false friend to so many because he could toady up to the rich and powerful.

The British playwright David Hare crafted a screenplay about Lee’s life, tailored for Nicole Kidman. At the time Kidman (via her former husband Tom Cruise’s production company, Cruise/Wagner) held the rights to your 1985 biography, The Lives of Lee Miller. However, after Kidman lost the rights due to her separation from Cruise, Cate Blanchett became high on the list to play your mother. Is it still a dream of yours to make her life into a film biopic?
Unfortunately David Hare’s screenplay cannot be made for various reasons, but I regarded the screenplay as having tremendous merit, and I am very sad that it did not succeed in being made because I think the combination of David Hare, and either Nicole or Cate Blanchett would have made a fantastic movie. However, it’s been 30 years since I’ve started working with Lee’s material and there are many occasions when a feature film could have been made but I’ve learnt through the years that the right things happen when I least expect it.

Since you had such a unique perspective on Picasso, as he was often in your childhood home, tell me what is the lasting impression this great artist left in your mind.
He was a person of great warmth and humility and humour, and absolute brilliance, startling brilliance. His fingers were never still. I remember sitting in cafés with him and my parents and he would be breaking up the matchbox and suddenly the table would be filled with little people or animals, or he would burn holes in the serviette with his cigarette and make little masks. It was just a constant stream of invention.

If only one thing could endure of your mother’s legacy, what would you like it to be?
She was a person who above anything else cared about bringing peace and freedom and justice to other people. It’s tempting to write her off as someone who had a lot of sex, sat in the sun, posed for a bunch of artists, and took some great photos. But there was a subtext that drove her through the war, finally to witness Dachau, and later caused her to have the most savage disillusionment when she found that after the war the brave new world had not been delivered.

If you want to understand Lee Miller first understand Surrealism. It is tempting to dismiss Surrealists as just a bunch of hedonists who made great art, but that overlooks what they stood for. At their core was the desire to use art as a form of communication to make the world into a better place, free from the oppression of society and the divisiveness of religion. They wanted a place where we all can live in freedom, justice and peace. We can identify with that aspiration today, and perhaps that is why Surrealism is still so relevant.

by Lauren Weinberg

From the Glass Archive – Issue Four

Image of Antony Penrose and Picasso taken from Antony Penrose’s book The Boy Who Bit Picasso (Thames & Hudson)- a stunning insight into the lives of the surrealist artists who influenced his childhood