Look at Me
IT seems fitting that Carolyn Burke, whose first biography corrected history's error of undervaluing the avant-garde poet and artist Mina Loy, has written "Lee Miller: A Life." Fitting, also, that she begins the tale of a forgotten visionary photographer who was muse and lover to some of the most influential artists of the early 20th century, as well as one of the few women able to transcend this role and become an artistic force in her own right, with Miller's birth as a muse. At the age of 7, the year Miller was raped by a family friend in Brooklyn and subsequently contracted gonorrhea, she began posing naked for her father, Theodore - the only man she was ever faithful to, an amateur photographer and gadget geek who, Burke posits, might have imagined these "art studies" as "treatment" for her trauma. This practice continued into Miller's 20's and eventually culminated in group shots with several of her compliant gal pals. What it did do was create a bond that would remain the strongest and most secure in Miller's life, as well as create in her - out of necessity or desire - the ability to dissociate, which, Burke argues, "would become her way of dealing with those who sought to capture her image, her body and her trust."
Those seeking to capture her image were legion. In the 1920's, Miller's cool, sexually liberated flapper visage was everywhere. On the cover of Vogue and in other publications, her blond bob gleamed like the golden helmet of a gin-alley goddess. It was while modeling for Edward Steichen that Miller began to learn the basics of photography, and found herself inspired to move behind the camera. In the 30's, Miller plunged into the Montparnasse art scene, appearing in Jean Cocteau's film "The Blood of a Poet," sitting for Pablo Picasso's portraits of Provençal wenches and, most fortunately, after presenting herself to Man Ray as his protégée, becoming his lover, muse and eventual collaborator.
The extraordinary power Miller had over Man Ray is obvious in such works as "Observatory Time - The Lovers," in which an enormous pair of Miller's painted lips loom and undulate over the landscape like a giant vaginal dirigible, and in one famous self-portrait (shot after Miller left him to marry an Egyptian businessman) in which a despondent Man Ray sits in a chair with a noose around his neck and a gun to his head.
So entwined were Man Ray's and Miller's visions, and so close their collaboration in taking photographs, that it was often hard to tell who had shot what. It seems a cruel joke that the inspiration Miller so famously provided others is what prevents us from recalling her as an artist in her own right.
In the 40's, during World War II, Miller's wanderlust carried her into the trenches, where, surrounded by the violence and danger of the London blitz, the Normandy aftermath, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, Miller found her muse: war. Her photojournalism for Vogue - including images of atrocities in the concentration camps as well as more intimate horrors, as in a family portrait of the Hitler-loving treasurer of Leipzig surrounded by his wife and daughter, all dead from suicide - created a sensation.
But the thing that proved to be Miller's own muse would be the thing that destroyed her. After returning home from the war, Miller suffered not only from post-traumatic stress disorder but also from withdrawal. Her physician informed her rather coldly, "We cannot keep the world permanently at war just to provide you with entertainment."
It is unfortunate that when Miller cracks up under the strain of depression and alcoholism, her character doesn't crack open. Thus, the last chapters of Miller's life - her failures as a mother; her marriage to Roland Penrose, a curator and lesser painter who was jealous of her success; and her re-creation of herself as a chef - seem lackluster. Miller's rubbing shoulders with James Beard simply isn't as riveting as Miller's rubbing noses with Charlie Chaplin; a trip to Norway to accept its tourist board's award for the best open-faced sandwich can't stand up to a Surrealist orgy in the country where artists swapped wives and lovers like paintbrushes.
To be fair to Burke, the enigmatic Miller was by all accounts aloof and unreachable, keeping everyone at a distance. (That includes Burke, who met Miller in 1977, shortly before her death at the age of 70.) Miller didn't leave any particularly revealing letters or diaries, so her inner life never really comes alive.
The photograph that may give the truest glimpse into Miller's nature is a portrait shot in Hitler's bathtub after the Allies had taken over his house: a picture of the Führer balances on the lip of the tub; a classical statue of a woman sits opposite it on a dressing table; Lee, in the tub, inscrutable as ever, scrubs her shoulder. A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.
Given that the real story of Lee Miller can be gleaned only from her work, the scant 24 glossy photographs included here feel like a tease, a mere pinhole view into Miller's work and psyche, which forces the reader to do what people have always done to Lee Miller - project their own desires onto her, seeing what they want to see.
Burke writes, "Mesmerized by her features, we look at Lee Miller but not into her." Which is true, but sadly a flaw of this otherwise compelling book.
Elissa Schappell, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is editor at large of Tin House magazine, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and the author of "Use Me," a novel.