From the Archives
The Lesser-Known Lee Miller
A new book sheds light on the legendary war photographer’s work in the fashion industry. See iconic images. By Erin Cunningham.
You may know Lee Miller as the legendary photographer who captured World War II—but she had a long and fruitful career in the fashion world as well.
Miller, who was born in 1907, was multi-faceted: “a war photographer and a fashion model, a Surrealist and a witness with a camera at the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps,” writes Becky E. Conekin in her new book, Lee Miller in Fashion (out with Monacelli Press on October 8). The first of its kind, Conekin’s book highlights the part of Miller’s career that is most often overlooked: her work as a fashion model, and later, a fashion photographer.
Though she was described by Carolyn Burke, author of the biography Lee Miller: A Life, as “one of the most beautiful women of the twentieth century,” Miller’s name is surprisingly less-recognized when it comes to fashion photography. Seemingly discovered by Condé Nast in 1927, Miller’s look – her blonde hair, bold blue eyes, and fashion sense – was exactly what Vogue’s then-editor-in-chief, Edna Woolman Chase, was looking for to fill the void of the ever-emerging idea of the “Modern Girl."
Miller first appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1927 in a blue hat and pearls, drawn by renowned French illustrator Georges Lepape. It initiated a more than 30-year relationship with the publication. Her “lifetime” spent working for the American, French, and British versions of Vogue produced countless iconic fashion photos, including portraits of Elsa Schiaparelli, spreads of the late British actress Valerie Hobson, and countless photographs of models sporting the likes of Lanvin and Carli Gry. Her images transformed models into high-fashion versions of the everyday woman – one unpublished photo for British Vogue in 1942 features a woman in a modest belted shirt-dress and a summer hat, admiring swans in a park, while another, Fur Bearers, from the magazine’s November 1941 issue shows a woman, clad in fur, posing with a Taxidermied bear.
Despite her icon status, Miller happened upon a career in photography accidentally: she was hired to “make drawings of fashion details in renaissance paintings” for a fashion designer in 1929. Growing tiresome of the task, Miller took to photography as a more efficient alternative. Following her time with the designer, Miller’s multi-faceted relationship with American artist Man Ray seemingly shaped both her personal and professional lives. Both “members” of the Surrealist movement, their relationship—which soon became intimate—helped Miller develop her photographic eye.
Yet despite her strong presence in the fashion world, Miller is most often recognized for her documentation of World War II. Refusing to leave Europe during its time of crisis, Miller instead embarked on a career as Vogue’s war correspondent, as well as a correspondent for the U.S. Army on behalf of Condé Nast. Miller began covering the state of the world at the time—the devastation at St. Malo, the workings of the Normandy field hospitals, and the horrific remains of concentration camps. Her images of such major international events captured the front-lines from a unique perspective—from the eye of a woman with a fashion background. Some of Miller’s most iconic images include her every-day documentation of Paris following the liberation, the London Blitz, and most notoriously, Miller posing in Hitler’s bathtub.
Following the War, Miller suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. She moved to England where she eventually abandoned her photography, partaking in only a few projects towards the end of her life. Although Miller passed away in 1977 at the age of 70, her legacy in both the fashion and photography realms (as well as the bridge between the two) has a long-lasting legacy. (Miller's work served as inspiration for several designers—including Gucci’s Frida Giannini, Ann Demeulemeester, and the late Alexander McQueen.)
While Miller’s name still may not be as synonymous with fashion as those including Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, and Richard Avedon, playwright David Hare said it best in regards to Miller and her contributions to the industry: “Today, when the mark of a successful iconographer is to offer craven worship of wealth, or a yet more craven worship of power and celebrity, it is impossible to imagine an artist of Lee’s subtlety and humanity commanding the resources of a mass-market magazine. Photography is now used by editors to seal off the rich and famous, to deny us access, not to grant it. But this young art form was, for a period in the middle of the last century, the means by which the world looked new and strange. The men in the surrealist movement talked their philosophy, but a woman lived it.”