Lee Miller: Surrealist, Photographer, Cook

Lee Miller (1907-1977) was an American Surrealist photographer and photo-journalist. She lived in Paris, London and New York and is most famous for her collaborations with the photographer Man Ray. Although successful and respected, in her later years she preferred to underplay her achievements, however since her death the standing of her photography and interest in her life has increased. These three books overlap to a degree but they also feature three different periods of Miller’s life and output. Surrealist Lee Miller covers Miller’s photography from the 1920s to 1960s but centres on the 1929 to 1945 period, which was her most creative period as an artist. The Home of the Surrealists covers the period 1949 to the 1960s, when Miller was living in Sussex and in contact with fellow artists and writers, frequently welcoming them to her home. A Life with Food explains her connection with Surrealism and how this fed into her preoccupation with making unusual and arresting dishes inspired by Surrealism, which was her focus in her last decades. All three books have value and offer unique material.

Surrealist Lee Miller is a short guide to the life and work of Miller and an excellent selection of photographs. It presents the most famous pieces and photographs that straddle the line between her private life and the milieu within which she lived. The breadth of her life is seen in the glamour photographs of her as a model in Art Deco New York, picnics with Picasso and the suicided Nazi officials of the defeated Third Reich.

Miller was born into a comfortably off middle class family in New York State. Her father was a keen amateur photographer and instilled in her a love of photography and an understanding of the techniques. In the 1920s she worked as a model for Condé Nast. A trip to Paris led her to think of becoming a photographer and working in the art world. She moved to Paris in 1929 and immediately sought out Man Ray, the American Surrealist photographer. They began a close and fruitful collaboration, with Miller working as muse, model, assistant and – ultimately – partner. At the same time they had a romantic relationship. Miller became a significant but somewhat fugitive presence in the Surrealist movement, mingling with luminaries who would become her friends.

Man Ray trusted Miller enough to deputise her to work on his commissions, relying on her judgment and her understanding of his approach to Surrealism to produce photographs that seamlessly blended with his autograph work. The portfolio L’Electricité (1931) contains pieces by Miller but we do not which. Although some works attributed to Ray were by Miller, it seems that attribution was not automatically a source of conflict. When Ray specifically allocated assignments to Miller (in order for him to concentrate on other projects), it was understandable that Ray was accorded authorship. When it came to the innovation of the solarisation technique, the development seems to have been collaborative but with Miller making most of the situation and recognising the value of the technique. It is understandable that she would want (and rightly deserved) credit for the creation – or at least the recognition and exploitation – of this radical technique. If one has to talk of that advance having a single author then that must be Miller. This matter caused notable friction between the pair.

In 1932 Miller left Paris in order to establish herself as a photographer in New York. The majority of her work was portraits of prominent people in the arts and commercial advertising photography, some of it in early colour processes. Some of the portraits were commissioned but others were unpaid and taken by Miller because she found the subjects engaging. The portrait photographs of Joseph Cornell and documentation of his assemblages are a rare record of Cornell before he became well known. Many of the delicate boxes that Cornell made in the 1930s no longer survive, so it was Miller’s keen eye for the spirit of Surrealism that has provided us with these photographs.

In 1934 Miller married businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live in his native Cairo. The selection of photographs from her Egyptian period in Surrealist Lee Miller is especially rewarding, as this tends to get covered less in general selections that the Surrealist and war periods. Her eye for the incongruous and haunting meant that she produced good work throughout her life but the Paris and Cairo periods are high points in terms of art photography. The life experiment was not a success however. The couple separated soon. By 1937 Miller was chafing at the lack of artistic stimulation, notwithstanding the opportunities to take some remarkable photographs. She met English artist, writer and collector Roland Penrose (1900-1984) in 1937 and they began a romance. Penrose was one of the few early Surrealist acolytes from Britain. He had been married to French Surrealist poet Valentine Boué, though they were separated by the time Miller and Penrose met. In 1939 she moved in with Penrose in his London house.

The war provided Miller was a chance to work as a photo-journalist for American publications, notably for British Vogue. Her documentation of the Blitz is some of the best photography of the period and the natural incongruous juxtapositions of war and destruction mirror her Surrealist outlook. Keen to document the war first-hand, Miller gained press accreditation from the US Army, allowing her to a change to cover the Normandy campaign. She photographed the siege of St Malo and the Liberation of Paris. There are joyful photographs of her reunited with her artist friends, in particular Picasso. On the 30th of April 1945, Miller entered Dachau concentration camp one day after liberation. Miller photographed the scenes of starved survivors, bodies of the dead inmates and the crematorium with remains. She also photographed the corpses of killed camp guards and the beaten camp guards held in custody by the Americans. That afternoon Miller and fellow journalist David Scherman found a place to rest. It was Hitler’s flat in nearby Munich. Scherman photographed Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub; her boots – next to the tub – are covered with the dirt and human ash of Dachau. That day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Subsequently she photographed the burning of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden residence and then travelled to Austria. One of the most powerful sets of photographs is of infants dying in a Vienna hospital – their medicines had been stolen and sold on the black market. She was already suffering from PTSD and sinking into depression. When she returned to England to re-join Penrose, Miller was compensating for her internalised distress through heavy drinking, an activity that would continue for the remainder of her life.

After the war, the couple divided their time between a London house and Farley Farm, near Chiddingley, Sussex. The country house became a haven of Surrealist, Modernist and European culture, with the couple’s artist, writer, journalist and intellectual friends visiting. Penrose became a founding member of the ICA in London just after the war. It meant devoting more energy to other people’s art than to his own. He later wrote one of the first important monographs on Picasso’s art. Penrose had to choose between being an artist and an enabler and ultimately chose the latter; at the same time Miller had also to choose between being a mother and being a professional photographer. In 1947 the birth of Anthony, her only child, put a full stop to Miller’s travelling and marked the end of her career as a professional photographer. When offered uninspiring commissions she preferred to decline rather than engage in journeyman activity, though with her connections she could surely have found more challenging options had she pursued them.

Lee Millers desk p99 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Motherhood (for which she was not suited), isolation from much cultural life, PTSD, depression and heavy drinking took their toll on Miller. Her final years were more sober although she never returned to photography in a sustained manner. There are some photographs of artist friends, many of which are included in the books, especially The Home of the Surrealists. Visitors included Ray, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Tanning, Eluard, Leonora Carrington, Masson, Matta and their partners. Miller and Tanning were particularly good friends and the photographs of Miller, Penrose, Tanning and Ernst taken in Arizona, 1946 show a natural rapport. Miller and Penrose were generous about allowing students and scholars access to their collection – something that had to be restricted when the art became more valuable. The artworks were gradually sold and donated over the years. Some of the art (including many murals painted by Penrose) are still in the house, which has been restored and is available to tour.

Scherman claimed that cooking saved Miller’s life. A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes informs us that together with the reassuring rhythm of the seasons and the delights of nature (generally viewed from a comfortable chair – Miller was not much of a rambler), cooking helped Miller to cope. Miller found the role of grandmother suited her better than that of mother. (Anthony described her as an “arch child-hater”.) The elaborate meals and company of artist friends allowed her to allay boredom and anxiety. Miller and Penrose had a gift for friendship, staying friends with ex-lovers, colleagues and artists who had long left the Surrealist fold.

Dining Room p100 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

In 1953, Miller lost out to Elizabeth David for the position of leading cookery writer for Vogue. They had a common love of French cuisine, recommending olive oil for cooking, but David had greater knowledge of Italian cuisine, which would prove to be so influential in post-war British culture. Miller’s wild imagination and shocking combinations would probably have tested her editor’s patience to the limit. In the late 1950s Penrose paid for Miller to attend a 6-month Cordon Bleu course in Paris. She accumulated a library of over 2,000 cookbooks, won prizes for her dishes and became an acknowledged expert.

A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes reproduces the text of an unpublished cookery article from 1951 (including Picasso’s response to Christmas pudding) and a 1973 article on Miller’s cookery from House & Garden including the photographs. A section of the book includes the recipes in full and there are photographs old and new of the food and convivial meals at Farley Farm. Recipes include champagne and camembert soup, fig and Pernod ice cream, marshmallow-cola ice cream and carrots in whiskey. There is chicken in edible gold and pink cauliflower breasts. Miller’s visual sensibility led her to make dishes that were highly original. Less outlandish dishes include Cretan lamb, summer pudding and olive and mint salad. For modern tastes the cooking may seem at times labour intensive and elaborate but Miller the cook is not overall too controlling and gives readers leeway on many aspects. Miller’s philosophy as a cook is to surprise and delight her guests – engaging all their senses. Tableware included a platter looted from Hitler’s apartment and vases decorated by Picasso.

There is a question about the seriousness with which Miller’s cooking has been treated. Although her cookery is relatively well known there is a common resistance regarding her cookery. Perhaps that is a reluctance to associate a female creator with a minor genre – especially a field associated with women’s domestic activity. Although we should not make too much of this point – for the cookery of any artist and their gastronomical proclivities are not matters of great attention generally – it is worth considering. It is hard to parse the free-wheeling Surrealist, the hard-bitten war journalist and the mischievous cook – with these three roles seeming to undermine each other.

Cookbook 5 v2 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Whenever she was asked about her early work, Miller claimed all the photographs had been lost and was evasive about the past. Following the death of Roland Penrose, Anthony Penrose recovered a horde of photographs, documents and possessions belonging to his mother – material that Miller had insisted no longer existed – and began to reconstruct his mother’s remarkable life and creative output. It is only since then that the extent of Miller’s art has become apparent. Anthony Penrose has written a number of books about his mother. Credit must be paid to the tireless stewardship of Anthony Penrose, only child of Miller and Penrose. His care and candour over the years regarding his mother’s art has been exemplary. He has allowed scholars and the public access to material that frankly shows the difficulties that his mother faced, especially during her years in England. It is Anthony Penrose’s honesty, his intelligent choices about exhibition and publication of Miller’s art which have together allowed Miller’s achievements to come to be fully recognised. Anthony Penrose has fully complemented his mother’s great abilities and unique character. Any artist would wish to have such a judicious legatee. There would be value in a dedicated book of Miller’s letters. The examples quoted are full of vigour, wit and unexpected views of major historical events and figures.

 

Anthony Penrose, The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm, Penrose Film Productions Ltd, 2016, paperback, 144pp, fully illus., £19.95, ISBN 978 0 9532389 1 0

Anthony Penrose, Surrealist Lee Miller, Lee Miller Archives, 2019, paperback, 159pp, fully illus., £15, ISBN 978 0 9532389 34

Ami Bouhassane, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes, Grapefrukt Forlag, 2017, hardback, 352pp, fully illus., £29.95, ISBN 978 09532 38927

(Books distributed by Unicorn Books and www.leemiller.co.uk)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

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