How Lee Miller Cast Her Surrealist Eye on British Vogue

One of the first models that Lee Miller ever photographed for Vogue was herself. It was 1930 and she was in Paris, shifting from having lenses pointed at her by photographers like Edward Steichen to being behind the camera herself. That year she featured in the fashion magazine’s pages as a model, a credited photographer, and in one profile-view portrait where she’s wearing a Jean Patou coat and a hat with a feather flourish — as both. It was part of Miller’s public coming out as a photographer, showing that she could (literally) wear many hats.

Later, when she quit modeling, she was either known for Surrealist photos she made after working with Man Ray, or graphic images she produced during World War II (such as the liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, or herself bathing in Hitler’s bathtub on the day of his suicide). But for a few years there in between, she synthesized her experiences as a fashion model and Surrealist shutterbug, and foreshadowed her time as a war correspondent when she was head of British Vogue’s photography department during the onset of World War II. A new exhibition opening this month at Farleys House & Gallery (a museum at her former home), Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain, looks at this understudied period of her career and is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue.

Lee Miller, “London Collection [Model Meredith],” (England 1941), Vogue Studio (© Lee Miller Archives, England 2020, all rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk)

Miller didn’t plan to photograph gowns and handbags as bombs rained from London’s skies. When she moved there in 1939, Vogue found her. “I’d barely settled in to Hampstead when Condé Nast [British Vogue], collared me and I found myself running their studio,” Miller wrote in a 1976 letter to the Art Institute of Chicago’s photography curator, David Travis. “They had little choice, poor things, all their photographers had been called up, the Americans just wanted to go home. The British, unless they had a hole in their heart were put in war jobs of various kinds.”

Miller’s draft-free status made her an even more desirable candidate, and together with editor Audrey Withers, she shaped Brogue (British Vogue) into a morale-boosting beacon that didn’t skip a single edition during the six wartime years. In a 1941 cable to her American counterpart, Edna Woolman Chase, Withers wrote that Miller “has borne the whole weight of our studio production through the most difficult period in Brogue’s history.”

Under these harsh conditions, Miller drew on Surrealism to present the magazine’s regular columns with panache. For a feature illustrating a home exercise routine, she playfully used overlapping exposures to show the full arc of movement within a single frame. For another article called “Hats Follow Suit” — an in-demand feature after the British government began rationing clothing in 1941, with hats as a loophole — Miller turned headshots of hat-clad models into playing cards, possibly inspired by Man Ray’s idea to create a Surrealist deck of cards.

Lee Miller, “Hats” (England 1942), Vogue Studio, London (© Lee Miller Archives, England 2020, all rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk)

And for one of several spreads encouraging women to cut their hair short or wear it up (since many were working factory jobs and having hair catch in machinery could be fatal), Miller used the solarization technique that she developed with Man Ray, in which the positive and negative areas of a photograph were reversed to create a glowing, halo effect.

Miller’s photo shoots in the bombed-out streets of London or on location were some of her most inventive, with her cheekily posing a model in a striped dress near a striated dinosaur ribcage at the Natural History Museum, for example. “Lee’s surrealist eye rarely rested,” writes photographic historian Robin Muir in the exhibition catalogue. “It would scour the urban hinterland for the idiosyncratic or the unpredictable, for ‘a mixture,’ as her husband-to-be Roland Penrose observed, ‘of humor and horror.’”

But most of the distinctive shots in the upcoming book and exhibition haven’t been published or shown until now, for another wartime reason: Brogue recycled its photo archives in 1942, to show it was invested in the war effort. Along with the vintage originals of other top Vogue photographers, like Cecil Beaton, Miller’s prints were shredded and pulped. The negatives were kept, though, and are the source for the images in Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain.

The missing prints had something to do with this period of Miller’s career being overlooked; her feelings about working with the glossy fashion magazine as a war ravaged millions likely also played a part. “It seems pretty silly,” Miller wrote to her parents at the time, “to go on working on a frivolous paper like Vogue … tho’ it may be good for the country’s morale, it’s hell on mine.” When she couldn’t stomach it anymore, she found a way to work for Vogue that felt less frivolous than either modeling or being a studio photographer — as a war correspondent reporting honest photo essays from the front lines. It was still Vogue material, made even more Lee Miller.

Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain will be on view at Farleys House & Garden (Muddles Green, East Sussex, England) from May 20 through August 8. The museum is open on Sundays and Thursdays, and advance booking is required.

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