Thursday, August 19, 2021

Lee Miller, Photographer


The Dalí Museum is one of our favorite destinations on mainland Florida. Indeed three years ago in August we planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary the weekend after the day I was run down on my motorcycle. Three months in the hospital scotched that planned visit. Here we are three years later and I spent 90 minutes touring the visiting exhibit...on my own. 
Lee Miller was born in 1907 in New York State and died in 1977 in East Sussex England and between those mile posts she lived a great deal of life. She was tall, blonde and beautiful, traits she used to advantage and Life also turned around and used that beauty against her as you might expect. It was therefore a bizarre life in many respects but she was lucky to live in difficult times, unlucky to live in times when women were objects of desire and not valued for their artistic or work skills. That in part is why you haven't heard of her even if you have heard of surrealists such as Man Ray, or Pablo Picasso, or...Salvador Dalí. She liked to use a Rolleiflex, a camera you have seen in the hands of well known male photographers from her era, even if she and her brilliant use of that tool is unknown to you.

My wife stayed at the home of the friend we were visiting while I went to the museum. She is immune compromised and thus always concerned about Covid, but she was simply not feeling well, with a nasty headache. In fact this photography exhibit was for me and she pushed me out the door, go enjoy it she said. So I did. We had a ten o'clock appointment to enter the museum with its current policy of controlled visits. They even had masks to give away for anyone who went through the folderol of getting a reserved time online but showed up without their own mask.
The exhibit started outside right there on the viewing deck overlooking the garden and Tampa Bay. When the new museum replaced the original which was built in 1982 the big question was whether the vast array of windows were hurricane proof. Since the new place opened in 2011 one can only say they have been - so far! However I was shocked to see cracks on this visit, which it turned out was part of the surreal ethic of the exhibit. Fooled me.
I had a ten o'clock appointment thanks to my sick wife's foresight so I had the viewing deck pretty much to myself as the other early arrivals sped to the exhibits. I thought this trompe l'oeil was, as you might expect, nicely done.
The exhibit was up the usual standards of presentation at the Dali and I spent 90 minutes wandering the rooms and looking at the pictures. I came away with a  few thoughts about Lee Miller and her life and times. 
She started out as a model and evolved into a  photographer herself, but from what I could read of her life she seemed to live through the  men who courted her more or less desperately. She worked with and naturally ended up sleeping with Man Ray, a photographer of influence but not of beauty or stature according to the rather cruel commentators. It was, they implied none too subtly, a union of convenience - he got the babe and the babe learned a skill. Rather drab really.
Anyway Miller married a rich Egyptian who took her off to Egypt where she moldered far from the sights and parties of pre war Europe. Her most famous surrealist photo of this period and apparently an inspiration to painters is the one above, A Portrait of Space. 
A disappointment for me in the exhibit was the lack of pictures of her time in Egypt which you'd have thought could have provided endless subjects in those happy 1930s far from the reality of Depression era politics, especially when married to a wealthy guardian.
World War Two was a test for the American dilettante and she rose to the challenge with bravery and determination. It was, as happened to quite a few wanderers, her finest hour perhaps. She traveled with the troops, saw all the horrors you might expect, including the experimental first use of napalm at Saint Malo which produced some pictures. She saw the liberation of Dachau and was most famously photographed washing that concentration camp dust off herself in Hitler's bath tub the day he committed suicide. She had carried Hitler's home address in her notebook for just such an opportunity:
I was struck by her devotion to the picture, her planning and her fearless use of the lens. This next picture struck me, a 16 year old Nazi dead by her own hand in her father's office, unwilling to live when everything around her was collapsing. You can even see shreds of plaster fallen off the ceiling from the bombardments. Such clarity and unwavering precision in the face of such a terrible fate.
After the war Lee Miller divorced her Egyptian husband and married a British surrealist who carted off to a country house in genteel southern England where she took to the bottle and withered away. She seemed to lose her path as she was apparently unable to make her own path without a man. The commentary on this stage of her life was brutal, a woman who had lost her looks discarded by a  philandering husband. One wonders what happened to the artist inside. This cryptic quotation was attached to a photograph of her early modeling days:
I guess it was inevitable that the exhibit would focus on Lee Miller's portraits of famous people gathered around her surrealist friends, which to me was the least interesting aspect of her career. I came away wondering to myself how much we would be celebrating her art had she been a man. There again measured against the indomitable Margaret Bourke-White who was equally beautiful and talented but who kept working as an independent woman Lee Miller seems to have failed her own talents and on her own terms and gave up her photography without a fight. A great shame.