What is it to have an artist’s eye? That innate knowledge that something is right or wrong, good or bad? Is it not an ability to make a range of decisions so fast on such things as colour, tone, hue, gesture, texture, poise, light and shade, that one does not realise choices are being made? – it seems instinctual. More onerous, surely, for the photographer, film-based at least, who must also choose aperture, exposure, f-stop, cropping, framing, focus? Yet they master it all and such skills are exemplified in the work of Lee Miller.
Hypnotically beautiful, and clearly an artist of great drive and energy, Miller was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie in New York state. She went on to have an extraordinary life: Vogue model, fashion photographer, Surrealist artist, photojournalist, war correspondent and award-winning gourmet cook. All this, as Newlands House’s Artistic Director, Maya Binkin, pointed out, she did “in a time [when] women were limited in terms of what they could do”. Exhibitions of Miller’s work are often interpreted biographically, such as the one earlier this year at Newlands House Gallery in Petworth that centred Lee Miller’s life, especially though not exclusively, where it interacted with Picasso – and Picasso was a person she photographed a great deal.
Miller first established herself as a photographer in New York but learnt the techniques involved in film based photography early from her father, a keen amateur photographer, and for whom she also modelled. Moving to Paris in 1929, she was determined to apprentice herself to the master of Surrealist photography, Man Ray. Ray’s reputation would long overshadow her own. But she did not merely learn from Man Ray but worked alongside him together discovering and developing solarisation, in which film is exposed to light during processing. This creates a halo around a photograph’s subject and its use can be seen in Miller’s portraits of the 1930s. If this technique arose from a happy accident it certainly required planning and forethought in the dark room to harness the method reliably to greatest effect, both of which Miller and Ray achieved. But to create her images Miller appears to have used her skills with camera settings: positioning, lighting and use of focus, rather than those in the dark room.
Portraiture was a genre Miller practiced, both formally posed and caught informally, throughout her life and Picasso was a favourite subject. She met Picasso in 1937 one long sun-filled summer in the South of France. At that time Picasso was a very well-known artist indeed. Miller, for her part, was still establishing her reputation as a Surrealist. Photographs she took of Picasso that summer in 1937 catch him looking wary, and give the impression Miller took him off guard. But these are no casual snaps. The depth of field is the distance between the closest and furthest elements in a photograph that are in sharp focus. It can be short or long, and in her early photographs of Picasso she used a short depth of field: only Picasso himself, his head, is in sharp focus, the clearly visible background is not. It is blurred. Thus she controlled the viewer’s eye leading it straight to her subject, Picasso. Photographing Nusch Éluard laughing as she leaned against the bonnet of a car, Miller has used a low, cockeyed angle that emphasised Nusch’s carefree merriment. Were they drunk? Quite possible! But again Miller has focused on Nusch’s face, her knees closest to the viewer are out of focus.
Carefree the images may be but that summer there were storm clouds building. It was immediately after Picasso had painted his large anti-war painting Guernica, in direct response to the Condor Legion’s bombing of the town of Guernica in Spain’s Basque region on 26 April 1937, their market day. The number of dead from the raid is disputed, but the Condor Legion was a German military unit which served with the Nationalist faction during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939. At exactly the time Miller photographed their apparently untroubled holiday, Picasso’s painting was on show in the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair throughout that cloudless summer; the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne ran from 25 May to 25 November 1937. It had to have been on all their minds and Miller caught Picasso’s darker side in another portrait, “Picasso with a Sun Visor”. It has him looking straight ahead but with a car’s sun visor, held vertically, obscuring half his face. Again Miller focuses the viewers’ gaze. His face, more than half obscured by the darkened visor, is crystal clear and he is not smiling. Picasso’s hands, in the foreground, are not in focus, nor is the background.
As we know, with 1939 came the war and for Picasso life under the occupation. Miller returned to London, to fashion photography and to Vogue, photographing models in the studio and out in the streets of London. Her choice of unexpected contrasts, not just light and shade, but the elegant models among the rubble of the London Blitz, make for striking images. But these assignments did not fulfil Miller and in 1944, as an American, she was able to become one of only four female photographers accredited as official war correspondents with the US armed forces. Her time as a war correspondent is the subject of the forthcoming film about her life drawing on the book by her son, Anthony Penrose, The Lives of Lee Miller.
With this assignment her photography expanded too. She would be present at the Siege of St Malo throughout August 1944 sending back sharp images in full focus, reportage from the siege. From there she made her way to Paris, and writing in the October issue of Vogue she said she found “the siege of Paris just won… Paris… its joy… its spirit… its privations…”. Of course she made her way straight to Picasso’s studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins. She has captured the pleasure both friends clearly felt at that reunion in an iconic photograph of them embracing. Yet for all its apparent spontaneity it is again no simple snapshot. It has to have been staged as it is both by and of Miller herself. She must have set up and staged it using a slow shutter release, then nipped into position as the shutter timer started. It is today one of Miller’s most recognisable and is often reproduced. But when it debuted in Vogue that October it was not given a full-page spread, that was reserved for an image that looked across a fountain at what appears to be the Eglise de la Madeleine. This image of Picasso and Miller, now so well-known, is printed like a contact print with around ten others on a double page spread of friends and views of Paris. Today, despite being reproduced at around four times its original size, it loses nothing; unlike much of her reportage images, with this photograph Miller has again used a short depth of field concentrating on herself and Picasso, and his sculptures in the background are out of focus.
Miller left Paris, going with the US Army on into Germany. She photographed the well-fed children, the orderly villages. “Believe it,” she wrote, “Germans are like this”. Her photographs were printed in Vogue. And then she was a witness to the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald. She photographed the burnt bones and staving concentration-camp internees, things no-one until then could imagine, bodies, bodies of prisoners, bodies of suicides, charred bones, shot bodies, bodies. Camp guards caught trying to hide, what does one see? No signs of guilt. Is it disbelief that they have lost, that their world view is discredited? These photographs too were published in Vogue, all of them are sharp in focus. Miller used a long depth of field, though she often captured her subjects close up. Her gaze does not flinch, nor will she allow the viewer’s eye to either. Her anger at the German people and their behaviour is clear in both her prose and images. She drives the message home. It was an experience that marked her for the rest of her life.
After the war she again returned to Vogue and fashion photography. She spent time at Farley Farm, her home since 1949 with Roland Penrose. There they entertained an endless array of well-known friends. Lee photographed it all. Her images of people are taken with both short and long depths of field. Some images are stark, single figures poised with no backgrounds or props. In others she uses the backgrounds to tell more of a story. Those of her fellow war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn, that were taken in 1943 are fully in focus and one sees, tacked to her dressing room mirror, photographs of Hemingway to whom Gellhorn was married at the time. That same year Miller also took a “teapot shot”, a self portrait with the British artist Leslie Hurry, with both of them reflected in the shiny surface of a brown Bessy teapot. This time focus is sharply concentrated on the teapot, which was, no doubt, in use.
Picasso continued to be a favoured subject. They met, in Vallauris, Cannes and Mougins as Picasso moved, and Miller continued to photograph him. Among the most joyful and curious images are a series taken in 1957 at Picasso’s Villa la Californie, Cannes. Miller has trained her lens on one of the villa’s large mirrors. Thus we, the viewers, see both what she, the photographer, saw and what was behind her, a vista both forwards and backwards. They are playful, fun, the mirror casting a haze redolent of memory, or of short depth of field while seeing further. It is unlikely Miller missed this, master of every aspect of her craft as she was. Her photographic curiosity was still undimmed.
Miller’s use of selective focus can be seen in many of the exhibitions on her work organised by the Lee Miller Archives, West Sussex and a trip to Farley Farm, Miller’s Home with her husband Roland Penrose, from 1949 is a joy beyond diamonds.
The exhibition “Lee Miller Portraits” will be held at the Farley Farm Gallery from 2 April to 3 September 2023.
The biopic film Lee, directed by Ellen Kuras with Kate Winslet in the title role, is currently in post production. (Ellen Kuras to Direct Kate Winslet in Lee Miller Biopic – The Hollywood Reporter).