Lee Miller’s career was by any standards extraordinary. But it was also beset by contradictions – one of the most fundamental being that the Second World War, though it gave her the opportunity to become a supremely talented and courageous war correspondent and photojournalist, left her emotionally and physically exhausted, never again to produce such exceptional work.
The Imperial War Museum’s exhibition focuses on Miller’s photography during the war years, using it in a documentary fashion to tell the story of women’s participation in the war effort – through the eyes of a woman who herself played a crucial role. This makes the show a fascinating combination of objective historical narrative and deeply personal biography; the walls of black and white photographs are broken up by display cases containing Miller’s service uniform, telegrams and letters to her future husband Roland Penrose or to her editor at Vogue, and items she took from Hitler’s apartment when she found herself there on assignment immediately after his suicide. There is also the chance to watch British Pathe clips of Miller at work after she returned from these assignments and published her book ‘Wrens in Camera’ (1945), giving a brief sense of the living woman behind the camera.
The exhibition begins with Miller as a Vogue photographer, transitioning from fashion shoots to documentary reportage; during the early years of the war the two genres overlapped, with Miller producing images of models posing among bomb-damaged houses or sporting fire masks, and the Vogue editorial staff displaced to a basement beneath Bond Street. Then there are beautifully composed pictures of Wrens, land girls, woman auxiliaries and US nurses going about their daily tasks; as a woman in uniform Miller had unprecedented access to – and empathy with – her subjects, picking up on the small poignant details of clothes drying in the window or a child’s photo propped on the mantelpiece. This empathy comes to the fore once again in the photographs Miller took in Europe immediately after the war ended – the shaven-headed French women condemned as collaborators, the German women filling in trenches outside Cologne, the starving Viennese children tended by nuns. Her pictures underline the moral confusion of the post-war period, the trauma and displacement of families and communities, conveying a sense of universal suffering, mixed with relief and uncertainty.
Some of the final photographs are haunting in their prescience. They capture an atmosphere of heavy foreboding, a brief hiatus between war and the harsh Communist regime that was about to descend upon eastern Europe. But for Lee Miller, the end of the war saw the end of her career as a photojournalist; the impact of her war experiences led to bouts of depression and the full extent of her creative output was only discovered by her son Antony after her death. Seventy years later, this is a fitting tribute to her achievements.
By Kitty Hudson
‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’ is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ until 24th April 2016 – for further information please visit www.iwm.org.uk