At the end of both the First and Second World Wars women were frustrated that they were expected to give up the ‘man’s work’ they had been doing and return to being housewives or objects of delicate beauty. Nowhere is this more obviously ridiculous than in the case of Lee Miller who in the decade before the Second World War transitioned from model to Vogue fashion photographer before going on to become a leading photo-journalist during the conflict, eschewing her former lighter focus to join soldiers on the front line immediately after D-Day, photograph the death camps and travel across Europe in the aftermath of victory to picture the dispossessed and destitute.
Yet Vogue wanted her to go back to taking pictures of the re-emerging clothing lines and millinery, forgetting all about the woman and the artist she had become. An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum which runs until April cleverly charts Miller’s career, from brushes with early surrealism and friendships with Picasso and Hemingway, through her fashion years to celebrations of all kinds of women’s work on the Home Front and eventual documentation of combat and its effects, with accompanying articles written by Miller herself.
Running chronologically, it opens with family photos accompanied by the horrific story of Miller’s rape as a 7 year old and some borderline inappropriate nude shots of a teenage Miller taken by her father as art. Yet later, Miller would often pose nude and several pictures in this exhibition as well as a model of her torso are included which imply a possession of her body and image that might well be unexpected given her early violent experience. One picture shows her naked and covered in camouflage paint beneath some netting which, the IWM cheekily observes, was frequently shown to recruits in camouflage training. On a more serious note, these images help to make sense of her perspective as a photograph which not only understands the role of the model having been one but also in the way she implies both strength and character in her sitters. Whether they are pre-war clothes horses or female mechanics fixing a wireless in the midst of conflict, Miller’s sitters are multifaceted and nuanced women, far more than just a two dimensional image on a page.
One of the more interesting things to learn in this exhibition is just how cleverly magazines like British Vogue were used by the government of the day to influence the way women behaved. From encouraging shorter hair styles which were more suitable for factory life to aiding recruitment for particular sections of the women’s forces, Miller’s photographs inspired and directed the public to aid the war effort. One shot that looks like a fashion piece shows an ordinary female sergeant in uniform sitting in what looks like an airfield, the picture’s style has a sheen of Hollywood glamour but the subject is a working woman in the middle of the working day – and the notes say it did wonders for recruitment. Miller recorded a number of women from 1939-1945 showing the breadth and skill of war work, from nurses and mechanics to WRENS and, in a particularly atmospheric picture, the silhouette of two searchlight operators lit from behind by the lamp pointing to the sky.
The final section of the exhibition signals a major shift in Miller’s work and career; no longer the semi-posed images with a call-to-action for Britain’s women, but the photo-documentation of the consequences and aftermath of warfare on both soldiers and civilians across Europe. Miller graduates to a more serious tone with shots of wounded men being operated on in hospitals, footage from D-Day and sites of destruction in Cologne, Paris and Romania. In a short period she travelled extensively through central and Eastern Europe documenting the chaos and destruction that she found, whether the country in question was an aggressor or victim of the Second World War. Some of the most startling are from Germany with initial shots showing women hanging out their washing in what looks like a totally unspoiled landscape, but these sit next to the devastation the RAF caused in Cologne as two women smoke on a bench amidst the rubble of former houses. Harder still are the shots from liberated camps where German civilians had been forced to view the consequences of their administration. Miller observes them with a critical eye, giving little sympathy for the Axis powers, but providing a fascinating record of defeat.
The shots of Paris too are intriguing, with images of women, we are told, deliberately dressing well with elaborate hair and make-up as a show of defiance against the Nazi occupation. Interestingly, however, this was misinterpreted abroad, particularly here where these images were thought to show Parisians living it up while Britons suffered to help liberate them. The effects of war and the things she photographed took their toll on Miller, however which is also recorded towards the end of the exhibition, and like many of the combatants who served we learn that the things she saw had a lasting effect on her, resulting in bouts of depression and alcoholism which plagued her later years, until her death in 1977.
There are a number of interesting personal items belonging to Miller in the exhibition which along with various cameras include her US uniform, various letters from before and during the war, as well as items once belonging to Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun which Miller stole from their German home when she went to photograph it on the day of their suicide – including a dressing table set and compact. Through this exhibition it’s clear that Miller was quite a force and someone that worked tirelessly during the war to represent women’s lives in her work. These days it’s not at all unusual for a model to turn her hand to other kinds of work from acting to running major fashion and beauty businesses, but they’re never quite able to shake off the ‘former-model’ tag – whatever is written about them it is often preceded by these words, and it’s strange to think someone’s first job will forever define them, as if we’d equally refer to someone as ‘former-Sainsbury’s checkout girl’. Miller undoubtedly faced these obstacles 60 years ago as this exhibition implies and while it’s sad that little has changed, it is also admirable that she overcame them to produce such meaningful and insightful work. It’s not always the most cheerful story, but this exhibition charts Millers various lives extremely well and a chance to see a familiar war from a new perspective.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at the Imperial War Museum until 24 April. Tickets are £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.