Miranda Gavin | Photobook #5
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts
“This is a new and disillusioning world. War with all the complications of peace. Peace with perforations, dog-eared corners and marginal notes.”
Lee Miller to Roland Penrose, late 1943
The book Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts, the curator of photography at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, has been published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name. As such the A4 hardback book complements the exhibition. However, it is also a discrete work. With 156 illustrations, mostly photographs, and introductions by Anthony Penrose, Lee Miller: The Ubiquitous Image, and Roberts, Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, the book is divided into four chapters covering the period before the Second World War through to the aftermath of war and includes a comprehensive timeline at the back denoting key events from 1900 to 1977, the year of Miller’s death, as well as further reading. The tinted front cover image of Flight Lieutenant Anna Leska, one of three Polish women who served as ferry pilots with the Air Transport Auxiliary, sitting in the cockpit of a Spitfire sets the tone for the rest of the book and points to the overarching theme of women and war.
Miller was a friend to renowned photographers and artists—she modelled for Edward Steichen, she was Man Ray’s lover and muse, and later married British artist Roland Penrose. During her career she photographed many women, first as a fashion photographer and then as a journalist for Vogue magazine during the Second World War where she documented the consequences of the conflict, particularly the impact of war on women across Europe. Her later role as a frontline war correspondent—one of only four women photographers accredited by the US War Department—is thus captured between images and text detailing her life in the pre- and post-war years so that these two time spans act as parenthesis to the chapters focused on the Second World War, an era which gave many women greater social freedom to move beyond the home and the confines of roles traditionally ascribed to women.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War contains a wide selection of her wartime photographs, many of which were previously unpublished, and is “accompanied by extended captions that place the images within the context of women’s roles within the landscape of war”. The frontispiece painting, Portrait of Lee Miller as L’Arlesienne, Mougins, France, 1937 by Pablo Picasso and the final colour photograph of Miller as a gourmet cook taken in 1973 for House and Garden magazine signal the breadth of the book’s content and although Miller’s photographs are the primary focus, the book also includes a few portrait paintings of her by Roland Penrose, as well as photographs taken of her by others.
With women as the focus, the journey is one of surprise and horror. Miller’s rape at seven by a family friend (she contracted gonorrhoea), her father’s photographs of her as a child and a young woman, and her early career as a fashion model and Surrealist muse, are contextualised in relation to this trauma, as is her later depression and alcoholism. They also point to the theme of women as objects, something that Miller seems to have grappled with throughout her life. However, with the outbreak of war there is also a greater degree of personal liberation for Miller who, now in her thirties, becomes an official war correspondent. To this end, free from being defined solely by her external appearance, she dons trousers, starts writing dispatches for British Vogue and looks like “an unwashed and unmade bed”, according to David E Scherman who spots her in France in 1942. The battleground for Miller was both external in the face of war and internal in terms of her psychology.
Some of Miller’s better-known photographs feature in the book, including the carefully arranged photograph of Miller in Hitler’s bath in Munich washing off the soil from Dachau concentration camp where she had been hours earlier, having also trampled the dirt from her boots into the bath mat; the silhouette of German soprano singer Irmgard Seefried in the ruins of the Vienna Opera House; and Vogue models wearing protective fire masks at the entrance to the air-raid shelter at Miller’s London home. A number of shows and books such as The Art of Lee Miller and Lives of Lee Miller, both by Penrose, have offered an insight into Miller’s work, especially in relation to her work with the Surrealists, but this is the first time that her work as a war photographer and photojournalist has been placed centre stage, putting her rightfully among the 20th century’s most important photographers on the subject.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is a key reference for anyone interested in the life and work of Miller and the role of women in war. Throughout the book the quality of her photography is evident, not least due to her eye for composition and skilful use of light. Less well-known photographs of note include a close up portrait of a French woman with a shaved head who had been accused of collaborating with the Germans; an outdoor group portrait of four wrens in uniform relaxing; a US Army nurse’s laundry hanging in the window of her living quarters; and a chilling portrait of the suicide of Regina Lisso in her Nazi uniform in which the luminosity of her skin recalls marble sculptures and religious iconography. Miller has a lightness of touch even with the darkest of subjects and the pull quotes taken from her Vogue dispatches reveal her talent for both words and images.
The thoroughness of research, the grouping and sequencing of images, the extended captions, and the detailed timeline highlighting concurrent key events is exemplary and gives further context to events that were often presented in isolation, not as part of a bigger picture. As such it can be read from cover to cover, flicked through from the back (as many do), or dipped in and out of, without losing any of its value and coherence. Lee Miller: A Woman’s War interplays art, history, politics, economics, society and culture and is a vital addition to any understanding of the role of women during this time. With great sensitivity, Roberts takes the personal life of Miller as a lens through which to reveal more general themes relating to women and war, as well as highlighting the diversity, depth and evolution of Miller’s style and her unique role in photography, not just as model and muse, but as an important and influential photographer and journalist on her own terms, in her own right.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts, with an introduction by Antony Penrose, is published by Thames & Hudson (5 October 2015). The exhibition Lee Miller: A Woman’s War runs until 24 April 2016 at the IWM and has been curated by Roberts with the help of Miller’s son, Antony Penrose.
- Click here for a Photo Stroll through the exhibition.
- Click here for a an interview with Hilary Roberts and Antony Penrose.
- Click here for a post about female Second World War reporters on my blog, The Roaming Eye.
Hardcover: 224 pages
Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 2.5 x 28.7 cm