In the twilight of the Roaring Twenties in Paris, Lee Miller encountered a mouse. At the time, the photographer and model was several months into an apprenticeship with Man Ray, and busy developing negatives in the darkroom. When the small creature crawled across her foot, Miller “let out a yell and turned on the light”. The negatives were exposed, and a new technique was born. Solarisation, in which dark and light are reversed, became a hallmark of Surrealist photography.
For much of the 20s and 30s, however, Lee Miller was best known for her own image, rather than the images she created. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she had learned how to pose from a young age, being the favourite model – and child – of her father, Theodore, a mechanical engineer and avid amateur photographer. Then, in 1927, a chance Manhattan encounter with the American publisher Condé Nast launched her professional modelling career.
With her height, strong profile, and cropped blonde hair, Miller embodied the 1920s “modern girl”. She appeared on the cover of American Vogue in March 1927 and became a favourite model of Edward Steichen. When she moved to Paris in 1929, her appearance likewise fascinated the modernist artist crowd. Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Meret Oppenheim, and Paul Éluard were among her friends and admirers, but it was with Man Ray that she forged the most defining romantic and creative partnership. Ray’s photographs of Miller, including Neck, portrait of Lee Miller, are among his most memorable works – and Surrealism’s most striking images.
But Miller’s success as a model always coexisted with a keen curiosity for the making and developing of pictures. As she put it, “I would rather take a photograph than be one”. Theodore had taught her the basics of photography back in Poughkeepsie and she advanced her skills quickly working alongside Ray in Paris, equally at ease with experimental techniques and exacting dark room standards. After nine months of apprenticeship, she started taking on her own assignments and then, in 1932, returned to New York and established the Lee Miller Studio.
The portrait and commercial studio soon boasted a roster of moneyed clients including Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and Saks Fifth Avenue. Miller’s photography was included at the Julien Levy Gallery – including a solo show in 1933 – and in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition International Photographers. But success didn’t matter to Miller as much as adventure. In 1934, she packed up the studio and set off for Cairo with her new husband, Egyptian businessman and engineer Aziz Eloui Bey.
Miller lived in Cairo for three years, studying chemistry and Arabic, journeying into the desert, and adamantly defying any conventional tropes of marriage and domesticity. “I am lousy at house-keeping,” she wrote to her brother Erik, “I just don’t bother.” To her parents, she enquired: “If I should by accident or the design of god or man produce an infant, could I park it in America? – for several years – it’s a hell of a place here for small babies – besides it would bore me stiff.”
Miller took some distance from photography during her years in Egypt, with the important exception of Portrait of Space, a landscape taken near Siwa in 1937, which was exhibited in London the next year and is often cited as inspiration for Magritte’s Le Baiser.
By 1937, Miller was growing jaded by life in Cairo and made increasingly regular trips back to Europe. At one Surrealist costume ball in Paris, she met the British painter and curator Roland Penrose in an encounter that was, in his description, a coup de foudre. The pair would live and travel together for different periods over the next couple of years and were together in Antibes in 1939, when news broke of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Abruptly, the party was over.
Rather than travel back to the United States, Miller decided to return to England with Penrose. In her son Anthony’s description, “they travelled cross country through villages where church bells were ringing tocsin and the roads were blocked by peasants taking their horses to army requisition camps”. They left their car in Saint Malo and travelled by ferry to Southampton, then onwards by train to London and the “wail of air-raid sirens.”
Miller wasted no time in approaching old contacts for photography work. It took a certain persistence; she’d been off the circuit for almost five years. Early assignments were bland, but a book of Blitz photography, Grim Glory: pictures of Britain under fire, published in 1941, re-established her credentials and compelling blend of poetic, surrealist and documentary photography.