restricted access Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts (review)
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Reviewed by
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War. Imperial War Museum, London. October 15, 2015 – April 24, 2016.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War. Hilary Roberts, with an introduction by Antony Penrose. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015. Pp. 224. $55.00 (cloth).


Condé Nast, the owner of Vogue who discovered Lee Miller in 1927 and turned her into a fashion model, had by 1940 begun to see her in a different light. As she transformed into a fashion photographer and then a wartime photojournalist, Miller joined Vogue in a different capacity. His telegram is nonetheless unambiguous about her being on “trial.” Indeed, one of Miller’s first photographs of World War II London was perhaps too inflected with those “art values” that Nast disdained. Focused on two young women posing coyly at the entrance to an air raid shelter in Hampstead, it portrays wartime fashion as oddly mechanical and macabre: the accouterments being modeled are not their dresses, but the black metal face masks and eye shields used for protecting against incendiary bombs. Their inhuman and robotic visages are presented with Miller’s characteristic mix of glamor and Surrealist humor.

Unsurprisingly, Vogue did not publish the photograph. Not to be deterred, Miller eventually persevered and her insistence on the wartime setting, coupled with her idiosyncratic artistic signature, led to some of the most recognizable images of Blitzed London to appear in the magazine. Encompassing still life, fashion, portraiture, and documentary, her photographs by turns placed models in elegant suiting among bombsites, suggestively punned the shapes of shattered windowpanes with consumer trademarks, or chimed fresh with older ruins to suggest history’s recuperation of modern-day violence. [End Page 905]

Fig. 1. Self-portrait with sphinxes, London, England, 1940
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Fig. 1.

Self-portrait with sphinxes, London, England, 1940

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2016. All rights reserved.

Miller’s photographs of Blitzed London are arguably her most well known, though they comprised a very limited section of the recent Imperial War Museum exhibition. In four rooms covering some 150 photographs, the focus instead is on images of Miller herself from her modeling days, and on her lesser-exhibited images of war-torn France, Germany, and Eastern Europe. These latter photos were made possible by her accreditation as an official U. S. Army war correspondent in 1942, which gave her access to military transport and to restricted theatres of war. It also enabled her to join the ranks of a small coterie of women correspondents like Martha Gellhorn, Mary Welsh, and Helen Kirkpatrick.

Miller’s career in photography is complex and cannot be defined by her gender alone, but curator Hilary Roberts (who also put together the IWM’s 2012 exhibition of Miller’s arch-rival, Cecil Beaton) argues that Miller had a distinctively gendered approach to war journalism. As she notes in the exhibition catalogue, others often viewed Miller in terms of her gender and her femininity both before and after she became a war correspondent. The majority of her photographic subjects also continued to be women (17). There are a myriad of ways that men might not have been able to access the scenes Miller photographed: a group of socializing women in 1930s Egypt, for instance, whom she called the “black satin and white pearl set,” or a fresh laundry line with a nurse’s underwear hanging by a window (44). Yet, to understand her photography, one must also understand something of Miller as a person, especially her irreverent humor and interest in Surrealism. Both are evident in her documentation of the bizarre juxtapositions created by bomb blasts, and in her often-playful portraits of women in wartime. One photograph depicts an American nurse surrounded by a small wonderland of suspended surgical gloves; another, taken before a millinery show in liberated Paris, portrays fashion models resting against chairs, furniture legs protruding from their heads like rifle guns or unicorn horns.

Where another recent exhibition of Miller’s work (in 2014 at Nottingham’s Djanogly Art Gallery) emphasized the war in and of itself, here...