Lee Miller: A Surrealist War Photographer

The story of the Surrealist muse and legendary fashion and war documenter.

lee miller roland penrose and man ray

Lee Miller, Surrealist muse, fashion photographer, and one of the twentieth century’s most powerful war documenters, almost did not make it beyond the age of nineteen.

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

One day, while studying at the Art Students League in New York, Miller stepped out in front of a car and was saved by a man named Condé Nast. The publisher put her on the front cover of Vogue and, just like that, Miller became one of America’s favourite models. 

However, 1920s New York was still governed by a series of strict codes. Women who wore their hair bobbed, or who wore peep-toed sandals, were deemed ‘loose’. When images of Miller, taken by the renowned photographer Edward Steichen, were featured in a full-page advertisement for Kotex, purveyors of women’s sanitary products, “nobody from that second onwards wanted the Kotex girl modelling their frocks, so her career ended”, remembers her son Antony Penrose.

…painting is slow, whereas photography is one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second…

Besides, “Lee didn’t tolerate boredom well”; it was hardly surprising that she soon found herself on the other side of the camera. “She could draw beautifully, but she said something to the effect that every picture that was going to be painted had been painted – she hadn’t met Picasso at this point! And painting is slow, whereas photography is one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second”, recalls Penrose. Miller had inherited an insatiable curiosity and a love of all things technical from her father, a farmer and amateur photographer in Poughkeepsie, New York State. Besides, she had picked up some vital lessons while modelling in New York for towering figures like Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe and Nickolas Muray.

Armed with a letter of recommendation from Steichen, Miller turned up in Paris and persuaded Man Ray to take her on as his assistant. Miller was drawn to Europe for its “fantastic freedom, that flexibility, that multiplicity of cultures and that way of embracing new and wonderful ideas,” says Penrose. She became Man Ray’s muse, lover, and creative partner; together, they developed a solarisation technique where the image tone is reversed, with dark parts appearing lighter and light parts appearing darker, when the film is exposed to white light during the development process. The technique, which Miller discovered through an accident in the darkroom, generates a reverse halo effect, with a dark line around the light areas.

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

Miller also developed close relationships with Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau was so moved by Miller’s beauty that he sculpted her hair with a flour and butter mix and immortalised her as a classical statue in his highly experimental film Blood Of A Poet (1930). One of the most enduring relationships from this period, however, was with Pablo Picasso, who would become a lifelong family friend.

In 1934, Miller married an Egyptian businessman and engineer, Aziz Eloui Bey, and the pair moved to Cairo. Bored by high society, Miller set out into the desert with her Rolleiflex camera. She captured Portrait of Space (1937) on one such trip: a vast, hostile desert shot through a torn mosquito net.


The geometric shapes and intersecting planes of the sand, the horizon and the opening in the fabric, make this fragmented and multi-layered image one of Miller’s most surrealist works. The mise-en-abîme of different frames, and the sense that Miller is gazing out from inside the confines of the mosquito net, echo her claustrophobia in the expatriate community. As the academic Peter Schulman has argued, rather than a symbol of possibility, in Miller’s Egyptian iconography the horizon represents “a barrier for imagination and movement”. 

Miller was restless, and it was not long before she left Egypt, and Aziz Eloui Bey. When the Second World War broke out, Miller was in London with Roland Penrose (whom she would marry in 1947); she became an accredited photographer for Vogue, and set off across Europe to document the horrors that were unfolding. According to Antony Penrose, “her greatest interest lay in telling the story. Whether it was a story about refugee children, or the Wrens [Women’s Royal Naval Service], her interest was in creating an honest, cogent, accessible portrait”.

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

No longer limited to fashion or fine art photography, Miller covered the London Blitz, the aftermath of D-Day, the liberation of Paris, and the waves of displaced people criss-crossing Europe as borders were redefined after the war. She was the only woman photojournalist to advance across Europe with the allies.

In the early days of peace, when it still felt like war for many, her portraits of barefoot girls in communist-controlled Budapest, of dying children in a Vienna hospital, and of a shaven-headed French woman accused of collaborating with the Nazis, were poignant depictions of the effect of conflict on ordinary people.

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

Miller’s wartime photojournalism also captured the inhuman brutality. Her images of Buchenwald and Dachau, where she was one of the first allied photojournalists to enter the camps, served as cold, hard evidence of the unimaginable atrocities. Miller and David E. Scherman, her colleague and sometime lover, arrived at Hitler’s empty apartment in Munich on the day that Hitler committed suicide. Miller stripped naked and climbed into Hitler’s bathtub.

In the iconic image captured by Scherman, Miller’s combat boots, still caked in dirt from Dachau, stain the bathmat.

Miller was haunted by the scenes she witnessed, and suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Did she ever revisit any of her own work in her lifetime? “Only in her head,” says Penrose, “she buried it all, stashed it away. And looking at the images, I’m not surprised. She had those pictures in her head right until the last moment of her life. She didn’t need to go back and look at the photographs”. 

Those later years, spent at Farley Farm in Chiddingly, East Sussex, were plagued by bouts of alcoholism and depression. Nevertheless, Miller worked tirelessly in support of her husband, the artist and writer Sir Roland Penrose – organising exhibitions at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (which Roland had recently founded), and taking thousands of photographs for Roland’s book on Picasso.

Antony bit Picasso on the wrist – Picasso bit him back, and the two remained good friends

Miller’s son, Antony Penrose, recalls idyllic visits to Picasso’s home in Nice during the Easter holidays. There was a pet goat called Esmeralda, cats, dogs, pigeons, the odd parrot; “as a young child, it was wonderful, because Picasso treated children and animals just the same. He understood us perfectly. He was never anything but kind, funny, accommodating and generous”.

Even when, during a heated game of bulls and matadors, a three-year old Antony bit Picasso on the wrist (Picasso bit him back, and the two remained good friends). Was Antony aware of who Picasso, or Miró, or any of his parents’ famous friends were? “Definitely not at the time; they were just people who I knew my parents were very fond of. They were good fun and inventive” and, most importantly perhaps, “they always put my mum in a good mood”.

When Miller died in 1977, Antony and his late wife Suzanna discovered a stash of manuscripts, camera repair bills, letters, maps, and approximately 60,000 negatives. “Lee was a journalist at heart, and that means you keep stuff because you might refer to it”. Miller was too modest to bring her own work to the attention of others, but “she wanted to bear witness to history, and she wanted to leave that work as an act of faith, just hoping that somebody would find it and see it for what it was”.

Antony Penrose – a talented photographer and film-maker in his own right – has taken on the task, turning Farley Farm into the Lee Miller Archives.

Lee Miller was a restless, troubled spirit with a brilliant creative eye, and it is thanks to Penrose that her is now enjoying the attention it deserves.

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