Not only was she one of Picasso’s countless models, she was not only the companion of surrealists like Man Ray. It has now been a few decades since art history removed Lee Miller from the reductive box of muses, that term from another century, to extol her work as a fashion photographer serving the best women’s magazines and also as a war correspondent in Europe during the World War II, although her work is less known and recognized than that of many male artists she attended. The Arles Encounters, the most important festival dedicated to the image on the European continent, is now dedicating an exhibition to the American, conceived as a definitive gesture to affirm his contribution to 20th-century visual culture.
“My goal was to just show his work and leave out the glamour, the biographical and sensational details, his relationship with Man Ray and his mental health issues after his return from the war front,” says curator Gaëlle Morel behind an exhibition It Can can be viewed in the French city until September 25th. The exhibition focuses on the period between 1932, when she gave up modeling and set up her studio in New York, and 1945, the year in which she gradually gave up photography, traumatized by her experiences in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps the Miller was one of the first external testimonies. “I beg you to believe it,” was his first telegram from there. His paintings served as proof that the Furnaces of Destruction existed.
The pattern, with almost 200 images and documents, reflects their two souls in two symmetrical halves. There are the exquisite fashion series that made her famous in the 1930s and the campaigns for houses like Chanel or Schiaparelli. And then, in a radical twist, his paintings full of trains to hell, corpses on the tracks and emaciated prisoners. The mix is somewhat schizophrenic. What went through your mind in the winter of 1941, to leave everything and with two Rolleiflex Hanging around his neck, ask for the accreditation of a war correspondent Fashion? “It wasn’t such a strange case. In this context, photographers were artisans, able to move from one practice to another. Also, he had the will to participate, to leave a legacy of the war by doing what he could,” Morel replies, discarding the reference to a perceived fashion frustration in order to make sense of this sudden change. In fact, he continued to work normally in both areas. In various photos from 1944, she can be seen photographing the beaches of Normandy, dedicating a series of the latest woolen clothing collection in her London studio, and then visiting Picasso in his Paris studio. In a letter collected at the exhibition, scrawled by the legendary editor-in-chief of FashionEdna Woolman Chase congratulates her on her work on the front lines during a visit to the hairdresser, but asks for more photos of children doing cute things on camera.
The Allied Army understood the importance of allowing photographers to follow their activities: it allowed them to raise public awareness and create a flattering image. that Miller worked for Fashion This was another plus, as they wanted to reach the upper-middle-class female audience who read the magazine. However, there was no propaganda in the photographer’s work with a very free and even impudent personality. The self-portrait that was made in Hitler’s bathroom in his abandoned apartment building in Munich on the same day as the Leader Suicide in his Berlin bunker. “I had his address written in my pocket for years. I took some photos of the place and slept in his bed. I even cleaned up the Dachau dirt in his bathtub,” he once said.
One of the most sensational series exhibited in Arles is performed by women accused of collaborating with (or, worse still, having ties to) the Nazis. After liberation, they were shaved, swastikas painted on their heads, and then paraded through the French streets. Miller watches her with a mixture of mockery and empathy. After the war, Miller retired to a farm in Sussex with her husband, the painter Roland Penrose, took up cooking and eventually graduated from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris. He died in relative obscurity in 1977, having given up photography and leaving behind an archive of 60,000 negatives. When his son discovered them, he suggested them to MoMA in New York. They told him they were not interested: his mother was fair “A Footnote on the Life of Man Ray”. The Arles Meetings now rehabilitate Miller once and for all in an issue that celebrates the work of 20th-century women photographers with exhibitions dedicated to the renowned Wiener Verbund collection, which includes the work of dozens of feminist photographers from the 1970s, including Cindy Sherman to Francesca Woodman or the work of Babette Mangolte, official portraitist of contemporary dance companies in New York in the same decade. “This is one of the axes that I would like to develop further. It’s about looking at the past in order to see the present and the future better,” says festival director Christoph Wiesner, who opened this edition in early July and called for “rebellion against the male cult”.
Eight decades after Miller, another fashion photographer like Annie Leibovitz has once again traveled to the war front to photograph the President and First Lady of Ukraine, Volodymyr and Olena Zelensky, in Kyiv for the cover of the next Fashion. The result has sparked controversy on the networks, which have accused the photographer of frivolity. The comparison with the much rawer and more solemn work of Miller does not necessarily speak for him. “Leibovitz poses in glamour, while Miller believes in photography as a document, as a powerful testament to a tragic and violent reality,” Morel analyzes. The difference between their work says a lot about the changing status of fashion photographers, who now rank as stars. “Miller was well known, but Leibovitz’s fame is light years away. Consequently, the protagonist in her work is mostly herself and not the chosen subject. With Miller it was always the other way around.”
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