Muddy Must-see – Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

When I first started in journalism, I worked for a small regional newspaper in country Australia. There I learned, not just the art of stringing a sentence together, but also how to take photographs … the old-fashioned way.

I find it amusing and a bit sad that my old Canon SLR – my pride and joy, that I saved for and so loved and treasured back then – is now such a relic. The mudlets can’t even fathom a world of photography without an instant visual hit.

I’ve loved photography, and photographs, ever since. And I’m dead jealous that Debbie, my Muddy colleague from across the way in Sussex, has already had a chance to see the amazing exhibition, Lee Miller: A Woman’s Warat the Imperial War Museum. But it’s on until 24 April and I have plans to go. Oh, yes, indeedy I do!

Here’s what Debbie had to say about it…

Even if photography’s not usually your bag, you can’t fail to be impressed by this sometime Sussex-resident’s life story and her sheer audacity. She was a Vogue model-turned-photographer-turned-war correspondent, was mates with Picasso and half-inched stuff from Hitler’s home!

Her achievements seem all the more remarkable when you discover that she was raped at the age of seven and, no doubt compounding the psychological damage, became her father’s nude photography model the following year. Her later career seems like a bid to wrestle back control.

web Lee Miller self portrait with Sphinxes, London, England 1940 by Lee Miller (2995-5)

Lee Miller self portrait with Sphinxes, London, England 1940

She modelled for Vogue from 1927 then, using, and sometimes subverting, the techniques she’d learned from the men who had photographed her, she got behind the camera herself, first in the studio, then out in the field.

The exhibition concentrates on World War Two and the content of Vogue at this time is interesting in itself. The magazine’s photographers, including Miller, worked with the Ministry of Information to glamourise the war effort and women’s growing role outside the home with features like Fashion For Factories, Short Hair is News Again and Nightlife Now – a piece on searchlight operators.

Miller was a proponent of Surrealism (she was later painted by Picasso and had a Henry Moore sculpture in her garden). This influence surfaces in her Vogue work with artistic shots of a tree of surgical gloves and women in chic suits posed in front of bomb sites in a workplace feature. Miller herself appeared in a rather risqué camouflage shot which ended up in army training slides.

web Irmgard Seefried, Vienna Opera House, Vienna, Austria 1945 by Lee Miller (315-87)

Opera singer Irmgard Seefried singing an aria on a Vienna bomb site, 1945, by Lee Miller

As the war progressed, impatient to leave the studio behind, New York-born Miller became one of only four female photo journalists attached to the US army – still, somewhat surprisingly, reporting for Vogue. Archive footage of the Vogue production process and a display of censored photographs stamped ‘Admiralty requests publication be stopped’ appear in the exhibition.

Miller was by now a skilled photographer and her images give a unique perspective because most were of women at war. She took intimate shots of WRNS’ living quarters, nurses in a field hospital, shaven-headed collaboraters, enforced Nazi brothel workers, and resistance fighters in Denmark – who presented her with a dress, which appears in the exhibition, made from lining fabric that should have been destined for Nazi uniforms.

web Woman accused of collaborating, Rennes, France 1944GÇÖ by Lee Miller (5925-335)

Woman accused of collaborating, Rennes, France 1944, by Lee Miller

Though there are tales you can hear in a film room of Miller at first being prissy about food and clothes, she became naturalised to army deprivations. A Life photojournalist recalls encountering this former fashion model looking like ‘an unmade, unwashed bed’ and Miller was furious to be briefly diverted to cover a haute couture show in Paris.

Miller was one of the first women photographers in Normandy after the D-Day landings and she photographed the Nazi death camps as they were liberated. Fresh from Dachau on the day Hitler shot himself in Berlin, Miller and her unit found themselves near the Fuhrer’s empty Munich apartment. Out of contempt, she took a bath in his tub then slept in his bed, leaving the next day with a few souvenirs.

Despite her boldness, Miller, understandably, struggled with her wartime experiences, suffering bouts of depression and alcohol abuse for the rest of her life.

Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, Hitler’s apartment, Munich

Towards the end of the exhibition you can see that jaw dropping picture of her in Hitler’s bath, her war boots discarded on the mat, plus a collection of Eva Braun’s personal items she took: a huge scent bottle, a portrait, a half-used powder compact. Don’t miss the phones nearby which you can lift to hear an interview with a rather well-spoken Miller talking about the experience. I found myself returning, almost incredulous, for a final gawp at this array of contraband before I left the exhibition.

If you visit with children, then try to get your partner/parent/friend to take them round the museum itself while you’re browsing the photos. I hadn’t been to the IWM since I was at school and I remembered it as a snore-fest of mannequins in uniforms. It is, of course, much more modern and interactive now and the bit I saw was impressive – I’ve flown on planes smaller than a V2 rocket. There were plenty of children on my visit but given the subject matter you might want to plan ahead to avoid certain galleries.

Miller ended up settling just across the border in Sussex at Farley House Farm, Chiddingly where she, somewhat incongrously, took to baking and appeared in magazine features on gourmet cooking. Her home is now a museum, run by her son and granddaughter, which is dedicated to her life and surrealist art, and has just re-opened for the season. So, if you can’t make it to London you can discover more about her there. There is also an extensive online archive of her work at leemiller.co.uk

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ until 24 April. Adults £10, concessions £7, children, £5. iwm.org.uk

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