As part of my research for a script, I’ve been working my way through Francine Prose’s book The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & The Artists They Inspired, and yesterday I was introduced to Elizabeth “Lee” Miller. I can’t say I’d heard of her before, but now I am really quite enamoured. To steal some of Prose’s prose (sorry): “Lee Miller not only succeeded as an art photographer and studio portraitist, but used her trained Surrealist’s eye in her work as a courageous World War II photojournalist, reporting on the Normandy invasion, the brutal Alsace campaign, and the liberation of Buchenwald.” (p 230) What’s particularly remarkable about her coverage of the conflict is that, for the most part she was in the employ of Vogue, meaning that she had to overcome some rather bizarre incongruities in her working brief… such as the need to pepper her report on the liberation of Paris with references to how the local beauty salons had fared under occupation! Still, she showed far more moxie in the field than many of her counterparts, even risking arrest by the Americans for violating the terms of her accreditation… and as Prose asserts: “Lee’s empathy for the suffering around her, throughout the war, was heartfelt and profound; she never romanticized or understated its horrors.” (p 251) Her photographs confronted Vogue readers with visions of mankind at its ugliest, folded in amongst the beauty tips. That, in itself, is an admirable accomplishment… and kudos to her editors for finding a home for her work in their publication.
The journey from New York fashion model, to wealthy wife-of-leisure, to hard-nosed, hard drinking war correspondent is really quite inspiring, in an “I would never have the balls to do anything like that” sort of way. It’s always intriguing to see someone find their true calling and purpose in life… it’s just a shame that Miller found hers “in the violence and horror of genocide and battle”, and that the quality of her work apparently declined after victory was declared. Still, she was sharp enough to succinctly sum up our current political crises, when she complained in a letter about “a new and disillusioning world. Peace with a world of crooks who have no honour, no integrity and no shame is not what anyone fought for.” (p 259) Regardless of the rather less-than-glorious grind of her later years, Lee left a great legacy of “brilliant and lamentably undervalued photographs, underrated in part because her beauty and her legend competed with, and detracted from, the seriousness of her accomplishments.” (p 230) Perhaps now, scattered across the internet, and viewed without the distorting lens of contemporary gossip, those accomplishments can be discovered and properly appreciated by fresh eyes.