Lee Miller’s self-reinvention as first unofficial and then official war photographer was a fast and radical one. A celebrated fashion model in America in the early 1920s, artistic collaborator and muse of Man Ray and other Surrealists in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s, then celebrity and fashion photographer in her own right in the 1930s, Miller enthusiastically embraced an entirely new set of artistic and personal challenges when she redirected her camera to scenes of war. The period spanning 1940 to 1945 is regarded by Miller’s biographers and critics to be one of the most creative ones in her career as a photographer.
Lee Miller, Piano by Broadwood, London, 1940
Lee Miller’s war photography is unconventional in several ways. It does not operate in the service of national myths of heroism or the glory of war, avoids the visual conventions of propagandist war journalism, and with the exception of her images of the camps at Dachau and Buchenwald shortly after their liberation in April 1945, often eschews, or figures in unusual ways, the more violent and horrific spectacles omnipresent during wartime (except in those instances where documenting such scenes was an ethical imperative for her).
Much of Lee Miller’s photography of the home front and frontlines instead foregrounds conventionally unprivileged subject matter, thematically engaging with ideas of the ordinary, an approach I argue can be understood in terms of her “ethics of seeing” war. Rarely just indexical in character, and subverting documentary’s claims to objectivity, her war photography mediates between art and documentary. While often shot quickly and in technically difficult circumstances her photographs are quietly composed and semantically multi-layered.
Miller’s photographs of London during the Blitz, published concurrently in Britain in 1941 as Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire and America under the title Bloody but Unbowed: Pictures of Britain Under Fire; and some of the photographs she took on the Continent when working as a U.S. accredited war correspondent for British Vogue in 1944 and 1945, later published in the book Lee Miller’s War (1992).