April 23, 1907, Poughkeepsie, New York
July 21, 1977, Farleys House, Muddles Green, Chiddingly, East Sussex, England
Country of Origin/Citizenship
United States/American, United Kingdom/British
Kind of Artist/Cultural Worker
Avant-Garde Movements Associated With
Date & Places of Overlap with Loy
Lee Miller engaged in an affair with Mina Loy’s son-in-law, Julien Levy, beginning in Manhattan in 1932; Loy apparently condoned this pairing, as, “he had married young and, consequently, needed to sow some wild oats” (Burke 126). Miller came to associate with Loy, Loy’s daughter Joella, and Julien Levy with great regularity during this period until 1934, when Miller married and left New York for Egypt. The Levys were champions of Miller’s work, going as far as to exhibit a one-woman show of her photography in the Julien Levy Gallery in December of 1932.
Photographer and model Lee Miller, née Elizabeth, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in April of 1907 to Theodore and Florence Miller, members of the city’s new-monied elite. As a child, she was a favorite photographic subject of her father’s, posing nude from an early age.
In 1925, Elizabeth, locally renowned for her beauty, flapper style, and rebellious élan, left Poughkeepsie for Paris to study stagecraft. She returned to the states and in 1926 began training at the Art Students League of New York, but formal schooling failed to hold her interest. The next year, when absently stepping into oncoming traffic, she was rescued by Condé Nast, who offered her employment at Vogue. As a model she appeared on the magazine’s cover and in a number of subsequent features, working with famed photographers like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Arnold Genthe. As she circulated among New York bohemian circles, she adopted the androgynous nickname she’d come to be known by: Lee.
Having gained extensive experience in front of the camera, Lee resolved to work behind it. In 1929, she returned to Paris and sought out famed surrealist photographer Man Ray, with whom she entered into a tempestuous love affair. Together, they developed the “Solarisation” photographic technique, wherein a partial reversal of color occurs at random in negatives, a celebration of “the creative potential of chance events” (Allmer 22). Lee developed her own artistic voice and went on to form relationships with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard, and Jean Cocteau.
In 1932, Lee left Paris and Man Ray for New York, where she established the Lee Miller Studio with her brother, Erik; the siblings focused on portraiture and advertising commissions, producing work for major agencies and cosmetics brands. In 1934, Lee abandoned her Manhattan studio and moved to Cairo with her new husband, Franco-Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. In the summer of 1937, she decamped to Paris, where Picasso painted her portrait and she met painter Roland Penrose, who would become her next husband.
When World War II broke out, Lee began a career in photojournalism for Vogue. She became an official US war correspondent, capturing images of combat, of women populating wartime France and Germany, and of Nazi concentration camps. In 1945, she was photographed soaking in Adolph Hitler’s Munich bathtub on the day of his death. Miller documented post-war Eastern Europe until 1946, when she returned to London. The following year, she married Penrose, had a son, Anthony, and began to absorb the emotional impact of her first-hand exposure to war.
Continued photojournalism work held little appeal for Lee, and she descended into the depression and alcoholism that would characterize much of the rest of her life. At the family home, Farley Farm in Sussex, she and Roland hosted gatherings of avant-gard friends like Picasso, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. Lee also began to experiment with surrealist gourmet cooking. In 1966, she became Lady Penrose when Roland was knighted, and soon thereafter she was named in the newspapers as “sandwich queen Lady Lee Miller Penrose” (Burke 348). She died of cancer in 1977, at the age of 70.
Allmer, Patricia. Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond. Manchester University
Burke, Carolyn. Lee Miller. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.