Lee Miller at the V&A. November 2007.

The V&A has a large retrospective of the model and photographer Lee Miller, marking the centenary of her birth and thirty years since her death.  I was familiar with her pictures – I went to a show of her work several years ago (in Amsterdam, I think), and found them captivating.

She had an interesting – and disturbing – life: she grew up being photographed by her father, and became a model; she moved to Paris where she sought out the surrealist photographer Man Ray and became his associate and lover.  With Ray she helped develop some startling images, and discovered solarisation, producing startling, burnt-out images.
She moved back to the States, setting up her own studio in New York, before moving back to Europe, marrying (for a while) and travelling around Europe and the Middle East, all the while taking stunning images – seeing the surreal in the every day.  Her eye for detail – caught in the exhibition in a series of pictures that only remain as contact images (the same size as the negative)– was immaculate.

Portrait of Space – from the Falmouth Art Gallery website.

Her most powerful images were taken in the second world war: the world gone mad, all she had to do was point the camera to catch her glimpses of the unreal.  The horrors of her pictures from Buchenwald – piles of shoes; piles of bodies – are still resonant.  There is a famous image of her bathing in Hitler’s bath after the fall of Berlin.

After the war, she remarried the art collector Roland Penrose (whose collection forms the basis for the Dean Gallery’s rich archive of surrealist pictures) and in the 1950s she stopped taking pictures; I read somewhere that her son Anthony Penrose was unaware of her body of work until her was sorting out her affairs following her death.

This was a brilliant show, capturing Miller’s influential vision: it was full of beautiful, compelling images, spanning fashion, portraiture, architecture – and war.

I have only one quibble: one of Miller’s most stunning, startling images wasn’t on show.  Picturing bricks pouring through the door of a bombed out church, this photograph has a strong pull on my imagination. 

Non-Conformist Chapel – from the Columbia University alumni magazine website.

The Lee Miller Archive contains many of the images from the exhibition, including the pictures I have linked to here.


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