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Grrl Power: Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke

27th May 2010

Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke

The title of Carolyn Burke’s Lee Miller: On Both Sides of the Camera couldn’t be more appropriate. Although Miller is best known as Man Ray’s model and muse, Burke reminds us that she was an important artist in her own right. It’s a gripping read, tracing Miller’s tragic and extraordinary life, from her career as a successful model and artist to her desperate later years, scarred by the horrors of war.

The first part of this biography focuses on Miller’s time in Paris as a young model where she collaborated with some of the most influential figures in modern art, including Picasso, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Man Ray. However, unlike the women before (and after) her, Miller became Man Ray’s assistant, as well as his muse. Indeed, Burke reveals that it was Miller, not Man Ray, who perfected the technique of solarisation, and the pair worked together so closely that it’s hard to tell their work apart.

While many readers, myself included, probably buy this biography to read about Miller’s life with the surrealists, it’s the later passages about her time as an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue that are most fascinating. Burke brings us some of Miller’s most gut-wrenching dispatches, as well as describes her iconic images of blitzed London, the liberation of Paris and the concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald.

But it seems this startling photography came at a great cost. On returning home to her husband, Roland Penrose – an artist, writer and co-founder of the ICA, Burke explains how Miller fell into depression (now recognised as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and turned to alcohol. Haunted by the things she’d seen and unable to recapture her passion for photography, Miller focused on being a hostess and gourmet cook instead, creating surreal concoctions for Miro, Picasso and other famous house guests. Put simply, the war had tamed her.

Towards the end of this book, I began to feel angry; angry that this inspirational woman wasn’t given the support she needed, angry that her husband constantly cheated on her (even though she cheated on him), angry that her work wasn’t better known. However, I was also grateful that Burke chose to share Miller’s story. I would have liked to see more photographs of Miller’s work in here. But with a biography as lovingly crafted and thoroughly researched as this, I couldn’t really ask for much more.

Lee Miller: On Both Sides of the Camera is published by Bloomsbury and available from Amazon for £6.89.

Post by Victoria Conway