Lee Miller, born in New York State in 1907, probably has the most interesting story of any artist on this list. Miller was born to an engineer and amateur photographer, Theodore Miller. At seven years old, she was raped and infected with gonorrhea. About a year later, her father began to photograph her in the nude up until she was in her twenties. Antony Penrose, Lee Millers son, found her prints and negatives in their attic in East Sussex after Millers death and has been making light of her work and has spoken about the photos Millers father has taken and has described them as “Quite Creepy”. He has also said that he feels his photos of Lee go over a child-parent boundary and that he believes something was very wrong with Theodore.
At nineteen years old, as an art student in New York, Lee was almost killed after stepping into oncoming traffic. The man who saved her was Condé Nast, the founder of Vogue. After saving Miller, he recognized her beauty and launched her as a Vogue Cover Girl in 1927 and she later became on of New York’s top models. Antony has said that she loved it at first but quickly became bored of the lifestyle of modeling and found the profession incredibly shallow.
After her modeling career ended, Lee traveled out to Paris to convince the Surrealist Man Ray to teach her the practices of photography. She used her beauty to get what she wanted and later became Man Ray’s lover, muse, and collaborator. After becoming aquatinted with Ray, she became friends with famous artists Pablo Picasso, and Max Ernst. After her relationship with Man Ray ended, she returned to New York to set up her own photographic studio. Not long after, in 1934, she met and married a rich Egyptian and moved to Cairo, but quickly got bored and returned to Paris in 1937. This is when she met Roland Penrose.
Lee was living with Roland Penrose when the war broke out. She began to reinvent her self as a photojournalist and began documenting the London Blitz and later became a war correspondent in 1942. Miller became a part of the 83rd Infantry Division of the US Army and was in the front line of the Allied advance from Normandy to Paris and eventually into Germany. She became the only female combat photographer in Europe during the war.
On April 29th of 1945, she walked through the gates of Dachau as it was being liberated by American forces. During this time, she captured the most raw and disturbing photos of the evidence of Nazi’s extermination of Jews. Later that day, one of the most famous photos in history was taken. Accompanied by GIs into Munich, they discovered Hitlers apartment where Lee had herself photographed in Hitler’s bath. “I think she was sticking two fingers up at Hitler. On the floor are her boots, covered with the filth of Dachau, which she has trodden all over Hitler’s bathroom floor. She is saying she is the victor. But what she didn't known was that a few hours later in Berlin, Hitler and Eva Braun would kill themselves in his bunker.”
At the age of forty, Lee Miller found out she was pregnant with Roland Penrose’s child. During this time, she became an alcoholic and became depressed due to the horrors she witnessed at Dachau. Antony Penrose has said that he believes she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Antony Penrose has gone on to speak of his relationship with his mother and the hardships of being raised by a mental unstable and alcoholic parent. Their household was very different than most and many artists visited this home. One of them being Picasso who Miller had an affair with. Antony grew up in this household of strangers visiting often and frequent ménages á trois. After coming of age, Antony put as much distance between him and his mother until she began to recover. Years later, Miller overcame her struggles by becoming a, “gourmet Surrealist cook”. She would serve her guests blue spaghetti, green chicken and pink cauliflower breasts topped with nipples and pink sauce.
Lee Miller and Antony Penrose eventually came together and Lee even got to meet her granddaughter, Ami, just a few weeks before dying from cancer. Shortly after Lee’s death Antony’s wife, Suzanna, discovered the stash of negatives and prints in the attic of the “Farley Farm” in East Sussex.
Antony Penrose was able to see a side of his mother he had never seen before after discovering his mothers artwork. He has now forgiven his mother and has gone on to write biographies of both his parents and put together exhibitions of his mothers work. It has now become his life work to preserve the memory of his mother he never quite got to know.
Fashion / Surrealist work:
Photos from wartime in Europe.
Portrait in Hitler's bathtub in Dachau hours before his suicide in Berlin.
I truly do not even know where to begin on how Lee Miller is an inspiration to me. I can start with the fact that she was a Woman Warrior and the epitome of a trailblazer. Being the first female as a combat photographer is an inspiration in itself, but then you add in the fact that she is also a victim of rape and a survivor of abuse. She was a survivor of mental illnesses and alcoholism and she still was able to be an incredible artist. Whether it be her Surrealist portraits or her blue spaghetti, she truly is a Jack of all trades.
Along with all of this, she is the woman who got in Hitler's bathtub, got naked, and implied a big, fat, "Fuck you" to Hitler himself. Not only does that make her a badass of all sorts, but the symbolism behind it is fascinating. And of course, it is my favorite photo because it is in a bathtub. This may just be the most interesting and disturbing bathtub photo of them all.
All work courteous of Lee Miller.