Lee Miller: War Photographer

Lee Miller in combat fatigues, Alsace 1944; photo by David E. Scherman, Life magazine.

British Vogue
photographer Lee Miller smiles in combat fatigues in Alsace 1944. It was said that no soldier could resist a photographer with a fashion model’s striking beauty. The photo was taken by her friend and colleague, Life magazine’s David E. Scherman. [Source: NYT]

Lee Miller sneaks a bath in Hitler’s apartment after the fall of Berlin, 1945; photo by David E. Scherman, Life magazine.

Lee Miller sneaks a bath in Hitler’s apartment after the fall of Berlin, 1945. She later explained blithely, “I had his address in my pocket for years.” [Photo by David E. Scherman; source NYT]

“She got Scherman to photograph her, unclothed, in Hitler’s bath,” writes Lucy Davies in The Telegraph. “Her boots are placed in the foreground, covered in the dust of Dachau, which she had visited the day before. The juxtaposition belonged to that Surrealist universe in which dream and coincidence reign.”

Janine Di Giovanni describes Miller’s war years in a New York Times T magazine feature:

She hit her stride during the war. Her war photography is some of the best I have ever seen. [Her son Anthony] Penrose later published another book, Lee Miller’s War, which shows her pictures of airstrikes, battles, a top-secret napalm strike. But it also has pictures of civilians: women collaborators; a lost child perched on a road sign looking exhausted and terrified; a young German girl soon after her suicide. Along with Scherman, Miller followed the Allied advance through Europe after D-Day, going everywhere, frightened by nothing.

“Her photographs shocked people out of their comfort zone,” said Mark Haworth-Booth, who is the curator of The Art of Lee Miller, a retrospective of her life, which is currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and will be traveling to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in January [2008].

Haworth-Booth added: “She had a chip of ice in her heart. She got very close to things. Margaret Bourke-White was far away from the fighting, but Lee was close. That’s what makes the difference — Lee was prepared to shock.”

She arrived in Paris on the day of liberation and followed the Allies into Germany. After Germany’s surrender, she wrote one of her most passionate articles for Vogue, “Germans Are Like This.” Haworth-Booth said, “She wanted people to see how amazingly a fashion magazine like Vogue could publish something so brutal.” She then headed to Eastern Europe to see the aftermath of war.

Penrose believes that this is possibly when Miller snapped. She was disappointed and angered by what war had done: how it had broken down society. In one notebook, I looked at the notes she wrote to accompany perhaps her most powerful war photo: of a child dying in a hospital in Vienna. The hospital was equipped with everything but badly needed drugs. Miller sat by the bed with a doctor and a nun, helpless as the tiny child faded away. Later, she slashed out the lead to her story for Vogue in the notebook, her pencil marks angry and heavy. Reading her notes, 60 years later, I can still feel how furious, how sad she was.

See Lee Miller: Surrealist Muse.

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