Lee Miller created a truly original path in her life and her work, and her photography reveals a real, continuous engagement with the world. Her work demonstrates the many ways in which documentary photography is called on to serve as evidence: as evidence of events in the world (including both injustices that demand to be corrected and the narratives of the tragedies of human history that cannot be corrected); of the experience of the photographer as they seek to make sense of the world; of the expressions of possibility, both romantic and disruptive. I expect, if the show website is any indication, that there will also be many images of Miller.

I haven’t made it over to the show but am looking forward to it, and also looking forward to getting some sense of why there has been such an explosion of interest in Lee Miller in the last few years. This is not to say that she doesn’t merit this kind of honour as she clearly does, but why now? She’s been known as an important figure for years (though often only in the same sentence as Roland Penrose and Man Ray); do these big shows at the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery say something about how the history of photography is being rethought? (… and it is always being rethought.)
Also, on the exhibition website there is a competition associated with the show (would the judges, in the unlikely event that you are reading this, please turn away. And those of you in the Olympus offices across the street from foto8): “Upload your own Lee Miller inspired images on our website and fill in your details to be entered into the competition.
Take inspiration from the exhibition and capture the style, Surrealism or humour of Lee Miller’s memorable images. Photographs will be judged by Mark Haworth-Booth, Exhibition Curator; Antony Penrose, Director of the Lee Miller Archives and Olympus.” I enjoyed browsing through the entries, which can all be viewed online, and it almost seems a shame that it’s a contest, it’s nice to see how people have responded to the remit, though some are clearly trying harder than others. Some are very direct references or homages, others focus on a particular part of Miller’s corpus.
This one I like because it’s simple and beautiful and I think I can see the photographer under the bubbles. It’s probably bad form to comment too much on a contest still running so I’ll stop. But I like the idea of these contests as exercises. This summer Alec Soth, inspired by Flickr groups of pictures of people eating sandwiches and of girls jumping on beds, invited readers on his blog to submit pictures of girls jumping on beds eating sandwiches and among the entries are some sublime images, including Soth’s winner. He wanted the contestants to shoot loosely within specific but broad constraints and his critique is pretty interesting.
But it’s also nice seeing a body of work by a group of people in which the images converge in such a fun way, even if they are not speaking to one another or to the rest of each photographer’s work. Something comes out of a challenge like this, it’s like a focused release of energy that would otherwise have been dispersed. The result may be more ephemeral than the work that moves through the worlds of museums and galleries; the pictures end up being a kind of byproduct or artifact of the moment.
Final note: Alec Soth showed some of the work from Niagara at the HOST gallery last spring and gave a little talk at the opening. He spoke well and with humour about living and making pictures in a serious and honest way, (which may have something to do with why he’s stepped out into the mystical moist night air). If you get the chance to hear him talk, go for it.