In April last year a woman holding a camera was shot dead at a check- point in Afghanistan; the death of the woman, German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, was followed four weeks later by that of a young French photojournalist, Camille Lepage, who died of gunshot wounds in the Central African Republic. The abrupt deaths of two intrepid war corre- spondents in rapid succession shook the world, a vivid reminder of the dangers faced by those who dare to tell tales of conflict.

‘This is a profession of the brave and the passionate, those committed to the mission of bringing to the world information that is fair, accurate, and important’, Gary Pruitt, president of the Associated Press, declared after Niedringhaus’s death. Fair, accurate, and important: such a maxim could just as well be used to describe the work of Lee Miller (1907-1977), one of the most important photographers of World War II.

There is nothing beautiful about war. Some try and rework it to tell us otherwise, to tell us that con ict and its chaotic combinations bring with it an aesthetic form, one that brands itself in blood, in rubble, in wrecked bodies and buildings, a beauty not marred but made through bombs. War marks; it can never be entirely erased: it lingers. ‘There is no erase button for the traumatic images that enter our minds’, notes Antony Penrose, Miller’s son. Her photographs are proof of the power such images can have, and her life is in part a parable about the cost of creating them.

The exhibition examines acutely the place of women in World War II, and with Miller’s eye reveals to us the changing nature of their part in it. Miller herself embodies the bold progression women took at the time through involving themselves in tasks previously barred to them. As curator Hilary Roberts notes, ‘Miller’s story reflects the trajectories of many other women . . . They moved from keeping the home fires burning to being actively involved in the war effort. Many found this the most fulfilling episode of their lives’. Miller certainly did, first literally pulled into the world of modelling by Condé Nast himself when he saved her from the path of an oncoming car; her own changing identity from model to photographer to reporter reflected the movement of women all over the world rising up and transforming themselves in the call to arms.

This exhibition is not merely the portrait of Miller’s life during the war, or a portrait of women in general; it acts as a portrait of war itself. Miller’s photographs resonate with empathy. In her intimate portraits of service women’s living quarters from 1941 her eye is not critical or harsh: it simply allows the subjects to speak for themselves. Laundry hung out to dry needs no explanation, neither do the women she photographs relaxing in their break times, or working hard at their jobs; they are human, delicate, but together they are also strong, a unit propelling change.

Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller
Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller

Before her role documenting women during wartime Miller ironically played a large role in producing the propaganda they were fed. Wartime fashion and lifestyle features prove to be as entertaining as they are intriguing. One feature Miller shot on ‘Fashion for Factories’ (1941) suggests that ‘well-presented’ women perform better than their shabby colleagues. The piece – devised in collaboration with the Ministry of Information – was motivated by the desire to improve safety in the workplace as well as increasing the number of recruits. It was in the relative safety of Vogue’s pages that Miller would start experimenting with her photography to apply high fashion and artistic techniques to military subjects, a trait that would distinguish her work throughout her career. At Vogue she produced a series of features and portraits that glamorised women at war. Even a feature on physical tness manages to tie itself to the front, with Miller’s multiple exposure of the model titled ‘Limbering Up for the Big Push’.

Miller also supplemented her early fashion photography with documentary projects detailing the impact of the Blitz. A particularly touching photograph depicts the staff of British Vogue sheltering underground in the cellar of their Bond Street offices, the image proudly titled ‘Here is Vogue, in Spite of All!’, proof that nothing could deter production, not even the Blitz – a cheering thought. After all it was Vogue that allowed Miller to develop in the way she did, both as photographer and reporter; it gave her access to worlds otherwise out of reach.

Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942 by Lee Miller
Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942 by Lee Miller

Miller’s gaze fell on women, whether at work or at war. As well as the latest trends, she captured the emptied – and now dominantly female – cloisters of Oxford University along with the Woman’s Land Army (WLA) hard at work maintaining wartime agriculture in dungarees and button-down overcoats. The section of the exhibition entitled ‘Women in Uniform’ is strikingly active – the shots lled with women doing things: running, carrying, wiping, fixing, waving. One of the most interesting portraits is of Flight Lieutenant Anna Leska, one of three Polish women to serve as ferry pilots with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Miller photographs her in the cockpit of her Spitfire at an airfield in Berkshire, another of the many unsung female heroes of the war. In 1944, after the liberation, she captures a Forces Française de l’Intérieur worker in Paris, her long hair coiled artfully on top of her head. Her own photographs could be classed as the reverse of the demure corseted images from her modelling days, her own frozen and fixed body in both Penrose’s paintings and Man Ray’s solarized photographs. In knowing the camera’s gaze so intimately, in her own work Miller escapes it. Miller’s image of beauty is no longer sun-kissed, but brutal and hardened. Her apparently seamless transformation from image-subject to image-maker in the exhibition means her presence is constant, on both sides of the camera.

Roberts’s attention to specific detail is impressive. Illuminating objects are interspersed throughout the gallery: Miller’s army uniform, hand-tailored at Savile Row, hangs with her equipment, her trusty Rolleiflex camera, multiple rolls of film, telegrams, and tear-sheets. Despite her happiness at being accredited as a war photographer, it is clear the ex-model was less impressed than her colleagues anticipated at being homogenized into the sea of servicemen and women: ‘You ought to see me all done up and very serious like in olive drab and at heeled shoes’, she wrote to her parents in May 1943: the gold title of ‘war correspondent’ she had embroidered above the pocket must have helped somewhat with the shift.

Lee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy, Unknown Photographer, 1944
Lee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy, Unknown Photographer, 1944

Cloistered away in an alcove several film-reels are shown. One, a Vogue ‘Making Of’ video from 1946, has an introduction by the then editor Audrey Withers, as well as footage of an old and wizened David E. Scherman, then a major photographer for Life-Time magazine and key accomplice – and later lover – of Miller during the war. It was Scherman who first suggested to Miller that she become accredited as a war photographer, and would later take the – now infamous – portrait of her in Hitler’s bathtub. In the videos he remembers her being ‘furious’ that she didn’t get the same treatment as her male colleagues, notably the additional perks – ‘Johnny Walker whisky, planters peanuts, Kleenex and Camel cigarettes’ – and how the group ‘ganged up’ and got her accredited to the American Army in December 1942. Unsurprisingly Vogue was initially sceptical of the move, yet with Miller’s contributions they found instead a powerful new tool that ultimately gave the magazine – in the words of Withers – ‘a validity in wartime it would not otherwise have had’.

However, despite her accreditation there remained a certain expectation that – as a woman – Lee would remove herself from the fire and stay safe out of harm’s way, and, after all, ‘civilian Lee was a total hypochondriac’ (Scherman). For many she had no place on a battle field; as a woman she was not expected to be there. Yet, as ever, Miller succeeded in proving her contemporaries wrong. A mere three weeks after D-Day she got herself assigned to a hospital battalion in Normandy; although unplanned and un-commissioned it would become her first feature on the war for Vogue, a full spread titled ‘Unarmed Warriors’. When it ran in September 1944 Miller’s description sat proudly beside her portrait, her head wrapped securely in an artillery tin helmet:

Lee Miller, of Vogue’s staff,
first woman photographer to visit Normandy, brought back these pictures, this account of medical workers behind the battle front.

Her images are graphic, filled with the kind of macabre scenes of operations you’d expect a publication like Vogue to shy away from. Together they were able to show the sheer number of women working at the front, while Miller became a model of the same courageous wartime behaviour she reported on.

However, despite her successes reporting on the war, Miller was still foremost a Vogue staff member and Withers never let her forget this. Priorities shifted in a moment, from the front line to the front row. In October 1944 she was sent back reluctantly to Paris to cover the fashion shows, reporting on the first fascist-free Paris collections since 1940. After this she made her way swiftly back into the fray, ‘thumbing a ride’ to the port town of St Malo where the action continued. In the following issue Vogue ran a full- page report ‘St Malo . . . the siege and the assault . . . covered by Lee Miller, of Vogue . . . only photographer and reporter there, under fire throughout’. She became a prized asset, an emblem, her identities as model, photographer and correspondent overlapping and intermingling. Portraits of her in uniform performing her job became as valuable to Vogue as the images she produced.

Her reportage itself is beautiful, and full of the visual intensity one would expect. In Paris after the liberation bullet holes in windows become ‘like jewels’, barbed wire in the boulevards ‘a new decoration’. At its core her writing clings to her keen powers of observation, working through images that plague the reader well after they finish her reports. Take this description from the siege at St Malo: ‘A company . . . ready to go into action, grenades hanging on their lapels like Cartier clips, menacing bunches of death’. She describes in visceral detail the physical and emotional pitfalls of the battle field – particulars perhaps commonplace to the everyday foot solider but rivetingly grotesque for the audience removed from such scenes at home. In one of the most vivid instances she describes ‘slipping in blood’: ‘I entered a kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead, detached hand’.

Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944 by Lee Miller
Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944 by Lee Miller

The aftermath of violence has a particular pull for Miller. Disturbing images come from her examination of shamed women in France, who endured ritual humiliation for sleeping with the enemy – a sight often overlooked and forgotten. But Miller remains devoid of compassion:

In Rennes today I went to a chastisement of French col- laborators – the girls had had their hair shaved although the interrogation had merely con rmed that there was evidence enough for their trial later on. They were stupid little girls – not intelligent enough to be ashamed.

Despite her implicitly compassionate portraits of the German people, she is pitiless towards them: ‘they are the enemy’. It is precisely this coldness, this disconnect from her subject, that allowed her to get as close as she did to so many of the scenes and individuals she photographed. Her reaction to the sights of war, especially those at Dachau – even by her friends’ standards – was ‘coldly professional’.

Sherman once noted that Miller ‘was never afraid of the evil men can do’. Molested as a child, she had encountered evil face to face in the son of family friends, a confrontation that would plague her body for the rest of her life in the form of an aggressive sexually transmitted disease. Mark Haworth-Booth, a previous curator of an exhibition of Miller’s work at the V&A, has a theory that it was because of this experience of rape that she was able to draw on ‘a kind of transferred pain’. He goes on to suggest that for Miller there was ‘a motivation in confronting the most painful things you can think about’. This ability to confront pain head on was evident in her reportage, especially in the famous instance in Leipzig where the Burgermeister and his family lay dead from poison. Miller zoomed in. Her photographs are surgical; they deconstruct the scene. In her article she notes the details of death: how one girl remained ‘with extraordinary pretty teeth, waxen and dusty’, another with ‘a trickle of blood dried on her chin’. Death was not feared, but examined inscrutably, and – as her notes and photographs attest – from a ringside seat. By contrast Margaret Bourke-White, fellow American photographer and correspondent, who ac- companied her, kept her distance, staying in the gallery above the scene. As David Hare has said, ‘you could not understand Miller’s deep feminist need to get herself at the centre of events unless you understood that other deep conviction that those events could not possibly damage her’. Evil had already marked her. What more could she fear?

However, in this war-torn gallery, it is ironically the nal ‘peaceful’ portrait of Miller that disturbs my sensibilities most. In stark contrast to the women we have seen throughout the exhibition, we are now shown an older Miller in bold Technicolour. The woman before us is hardly recognizable, the image of the domesticated housewife in her elegant home in Sussex in 1973 (for House & Garden). She appears as a Stepford wife, a veil of domesticity and peace drawn over the rich and complicated past we have witnessed only moments before.

Next to the large blown-up Miller, this new creation of the post-war age, sits Roland Penrose’s portrait of Miller at Breakfast. Colourless, bleak and grey, the shapes are blank and void, the depiction of a breakfast far from sunny side up, a world away from the wholesome gure depicted in the accompanying snapshot. It’s clear that despite her efforts, post-traumatic stress from what she witnessed during the war, compounded by the unresolved traumas of her childhood, resulted in a deep depression.

Writing to Penrose, then her husband, in late 1943, even the metaphysical garners a visual cadence for her:

This is a new and disillusioning world. War with all the complications of peace. Peace with perforations, dog-eared corners and marginal notes.

Peace in her hands becomes a physical object, torn and jaded, a material as delicate as the clothing of the refugees she photographed across Europe, from the homeless in Budapest and Romania to the ‘peeping prying eyes’ of the architecture in Siberia. The scenes before us are familiar: a photograph of civilian refugees crossing a river and a portrait of a weary mother and child as they wait for transport after fleeing the fight in Luxemburg could almost be from our contemporary screens. Miller shows the mechanics of war, the faces, the individual traits that humanize the masses.

Susan Sontag famously wrote in On Photography of the innate violence of filmic ‘shooting’:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder . . .

This gaze is rendered to perfection in the eye of Miller, ever-present, ever- observant – bringing that life and truth to a world tormented by devastation. Miller – like so many war photographers even today – not only brings presence to her subjects, she gives them life, however brief; she sees them, and in that seeing makes others look too. The central dilemma remaining is simply where to look – and Miller looked to women, she looked to war, she made people see what was previously unseen.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, curated by Hilary Roberts, Imperial War Museum, until 24 April 2016

By Thea Hawlin

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