Lee Miller’s exceptional life, as model and muse, artist in her own right and wife to one of England’s earliest champions of Modern Art, Roland Penrose, was on display this year at a hugely successful exhibition of her photography at the National Portrait Gallery. It seems appropriate, that at a time when such a seductive and broad ranging selection of her work has been available to the public, that this concentrated collection of writing and photographs from her year as a war photographer and correspondent have been republished.
Accredited to Vogue, Miller served alongside American GIs in Europe. David Scherman, her fellow photographer assigned to Life, provides the foreword and additional photographs of her, wonky toothed, grubby and uniformed amongst the soldiers. On her first assignment, she accidentally became the first female photographer to report from the front, at the siege of St Malo. Her pictures show this old French beauty spot burning under bombardment. Her text describes the horror of the town riddled with “unexploded shells and fetid cloying smells”.
Miller then found herself assigned to newly liberated Paris, where she photographed the latest fashions, as well as her artist friends, Picasso, Colette, Jean Cocteau and Nusch Eluard, and visiting personalities such as Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire.
She subsequently travelled south recording the pattern of liberation and mass German surrenders. As the weather closed in and she moved into Germany, she photographed the figures of anxious and freezing soldiers among beautiful snow-covered landscapes and the horror of Buchenwald. Her letters – reproduced here – increasingly burn with indignation and anger.
Iconic images are reproduced, such as her photograph of a recently deceased SS guard floating in the canal beside Dachau, the sun glimmering on the water, rippling over his peaceful profile and bullet ridden leather coat. Here too is Scherman’s famous portrait of a no-nonsense Miller, boots and uniform discarded, having a long-awaited scrub in Hitler’s bath in Munich. A startling image, it is fitting for this remarkable woman whose lack of vanity, bravery and determination during her war service provide a counterbalance to the glam reputation that still threatens to undermine the true nature of her achievements.