An artist who experienced the glamour of fashion and the atrocities of war.
By Federico Tybitt
Lee Miller(1907-1977) was a prominent American photographer, whose work covered crucial historical and artistic moments of the 20th century. Her oeuvre will be on view at Mexico’s Museum of Modern Art until February 21, 2016.
Miller's first contact with professional photography happened by accident in 1926, when the then director of Vogue magazine, Condé Montrose Nast, saved her from being hit by a car in Manhattan. At that moment, he discovered her impressive classic beauty, which later helped her become a supermodel.
During her short but intense period as a model, Lee was photographed by leading professionals such as Edward Steichen and Arnold Genthe and even graced the cover of Vogue.
Her love for photography, however, evolved during her trip to Paris at age 17, when she was captivated by the arrival of the surrealist movement. In 1929, she decided to move to the City of Light to work in the studio of Man Ray, one of her favorite artists, who initially refused her as a trainee but accepted her as an assistant.
During those years of learning and exploration, Miller rubbed elbows with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau and perfected her surrealist technique based on"solarization", which consists of adding a black rim to the photographed image: a hallmark of many of her works.
Lee had an affair with Man Ray, but in 1932, the couple separated. She returned to New York City and begun working as a fashion photographer for major media outlets capturing the likeness of major movie and fashion stars.
The adventure lasted only two years. In 1934, she married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo, where she continued her exploration of surrealist photography producing famous works such as From the Top of the Great Pyramid and Portrait of Space.
Her marriage lasted only a few years, and in the late 1930s, she started a relationship with the author and collector Roland Penrose, who later became her husband and father of her only son, Anthony.
With the outbreak of World War II, restless and passionate, Miller enlisted as a war photojournalist with the US military to show the world the carnage of one of the most tragic episodes in world history.
During her years in the frontline, she managed to capture historical images such as David E. Scherman in Hitler’s bathtub and László Bárdossy, fascist former Prime Minister of Hungary facing the firing squad.
After such overwhelming experience, the artist found refuge at her home in Sussex, England, and, despite the birth of her son and the regular visits of world-class artists, who used her residence as a meeting place; she never could overcome the post-traumatic depression of war.
Lee Miller died at 70 of brain cancer.
The Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City presents Lee Miller: Surrealist Photographer, a retrospective of the work of an artist who witnessed firsthand the atrocities of war while—at the same time—creating beauty through her passion for surrealism, and artist that gifted us more than 60,000 original negatives. This is a brilliant exhibition that narrates the inspiring life of a courageous, passionate and committed woman. ■
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