Lee Miller, photographer and photojournalist, was the only female combat photographer in Europe during World War II and the first female photojournalist to bear witness to the horrors of the German concentration camps.
Miller was raped at the age of seven by a family friend she was sent to visit while her mother was away. She was infected with gonorrhea. Shortly after this trauma, she became the object of her father’s voyeurism and was photographed by him nude before her eighth birthday, standing in the snow with only her boots on. He was an amateur photographer and gave her lessons on how to operate a camera and how to photograph. However, he continued to photograph her nude until she left home at age nineteen to work as a model for Vogue Magazine. She was photographed by Edward Steichen as well as other well-known photographers. Miller’s modeling assignments led her to be interested in photography.
In 1929, she moved to Paris to study with the Surrealist photographer Man Ray. She became his muse. As lovers, they worked side by side in his studio where she learned his progressive photographic techniques. However, it was she who discovered the process of solarization by which a negative is exposed to light in the darkroom. This allowed for the negative to be manipulated chemically and not altered by cutting or scratching. It was as if they had created a new medium altogether. In 1932, she participated in the “Modern European Photographers” exhibition in New York and also had her first and only solo exhibition. She left Ray and opened up her own studio in Paris where she specialized in portraits and fashion shots.
In 1932, Miller moved back to New York and again opened up her own studio which became very successful. In 1937, while still married to a wealthy Egyptian, she met and lived with the sculptor Roland Penrose, with whom she had her only child, Anthony. In 1939, she was living in London and took a job as a freelance photographer for Vogue Magazine.
During World War II, Miller reinvented herself as a photojournalist and served as a correspondent for Vogue, the magazine for which she had once modeled. Her images of the London Blitz and Britain under siege were featured in the 1941 book, “Grim Glory.” After the United States entered the war, she became a war correspondent in 1944 and was in the front line of the Allied advance from Normandy to Paris and then into Germany. She documented the liberation of Paris and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. On April 29, 1945, she entered newly liberated Dachau and photographed the evidence of the Nazis’ extermination of Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich in starkly accurate photographs.
On the same day she documented Dachau, she went with the American soldiers into Munich and had herself photographed naked in Hitler’s bathtub. A few hour later Hitler and Eva Braun would kill themselves.
Miller afterwards photographed dying children in a hospital, post-war peasant life, corpses of Nazi officers, and the execution of Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy. During her life, Miller did little to promote her own photography. Her son Anthony Penrose knew nothing of her work as a photographer. It was only after her death that his wife found some 60,000 of Miller’s prints hidden in her home. Since then, Penrose has promoted her work. It is because of him that her work is known today.
Penrose feels that his mother’s alcoholism and clinical depression were caused by PTSD, due to her childhood rape, her father’s sexual exploitation, and the horrors of war.