The young Lee Miller was an icon to compare with the brightest of her era. In the classic photographs by Man Ray, her face announced her modernity, wit and commitment to erotic and artistic democracy. But hers was a fragile beauty: she only really looked like "Lee Miller" for a decade. Carolyn Burke's thorough biography of the model-turned-photographer recounts how Miller lost the interest and energy to maintain her act and her art.
Elizabeth Miller was born in 1906 into a wealthy family in Poughkeepsie, New York. Confidence and curiosity came naturally, with an eccentricity inherited from her father. A devotee of nudism, he took photographs of his daughter naked until she was well into her twenties. Burke reads these sessions as traumatic; Miller seems never to have objected.
She stayed silent too about a bigger childhood secret: aged seven, she was raped by a relative of a family friend, contracted gonorrhoea, and was subjected for years to painful, humiliating treatment.
Burke's conjecture is that Miller's stellar arc - from lingerie model, dancer and art student in New York to Vogue model, avant-garde photographer and Surrealist muse in Paris - was described at the cost of an exhausted inner self. But the problem with writing the life of such a personality is that the biographer must supply the missing self-awareness for the sunken (and, in Miller's case, sozzled) subject.
If one might have wished for a tauter composition around the principal, Burke is assiduous in her focus on the milieu. Miller's relationship with Man Ray was only the start. She befriended Picasso, Max Ernst and Henry Moore, and may well have slept with Charlie Chaplin. But for all its surface glitter, her life in the immediate pre-war years reads as little more than an inventory of lovers and lunches.
She was saved, in a sense, by the Second World War. In Vogue, she turned bomb-damaged London into a surreal dreamscape. She followed the Allied armies across Europe, and famously photographed Buchenwald and Dachau. Years later, she confessed that at the camps she had got in over her head.
She gave up photography, moved to the Sussex countryside with her husband Roland Penrose, and numbed her last decades with booze, food and intermittent good company. She even seems to have forgotten the thousands of negatives stored in her attic; evidence of a talent not so much burnt out as slowly dimmed.Reuse content