The Measure of Life in Art
The measure of life in art
Lucy von Goetz
Lee Miller was never a muse. To diminish her as such would be delinquency. Even when she was studying photography under Man Ray, the trope of “muse-model-lover” was never fit for her.
Though Miller’s multitudes transcended musing, it is difficult to separate her life, her person, her spirit, from the artwork she produced. Surrounded by fame, intrigue, the avant-garde — we polish the outputs like it were silver and these elements our cloth.
Part of the appeal of Lee Miller’s artwork is that she was a woman who lived life on her terms. She paid a damaging emotional price for her choices and that may draw us to her more.
Culturally, we have inherited from the Romantics, a myth that the artist must suffer to create their greatest work. We associate the struggle with a poignancy and a truth.
In her foreword to the recent Thames & Hudson Lee Miller book, Kate Winslet writes, “This photographer-writer-reporter did everything she did with love, lust and courage, and is an inspiration for what you can achieve, and what you can bear, if you dare to take life firmly by the hands and live it at full throttle.” (1)
Miller’s photographs of the liberated Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps are some of her most piercing. Her images are shockingly up close and personal with truth. It’s unthinkable that she wouldn’t have suffered in some way after her endeavours during the war. Virginia Woolf wrote of the shock capacity required to be an artist, “I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.” (2)
Miller takes the shock and puts it into frame, serving it up for the consumption of others, seasoned with her alert sensitivity and often a dash of surrealism. She is awake and alive to life in all its dimensions.
British and American Vogue published some of Miller’s photographs of the Buchenwald concentration camp in June 1945 — these printed tragedies must have packed a punch in the pages of a fashion magazine — despite the censorship and cropping. Miller’s photographs of Dachau were never published in the United Kingdom or the United States. Her work had a poetic impulse to it, and the Dachau images were perhaps some of her most challenging. Provocation was her intention, writing to Vogue at the time, “I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel they can publish these pictures.” They did not.
The porousness of the creative spirit would not perceive such darkness and remain unscathed. Miller entered Dachau with Life photographer and friend, David E. Sherman on April 30, 1945. On arrival they were met with thirty-nine railway cars filled with 2,310 corpses. The evacuated detainees had not been unloaded on their arrival from Buchenwald and had died of thirst and hunger inside the train. The images Miller and Sherman captured are difficult to describe in words, the bodies are indistinguishably intertwined with one another. As well as death, Miller also captured life in Dachau. She was apparently greeted as a liberator and cheered on by detainees who wanted to see their freedom recorded in photographs. She took photographs of singing detainees with improvised national flags.
Remarking on the antithesis she found between the conditions of the detainees and an on-site Angora rabbit breeding station, Miller wrote: “One block is an Angora rabbit farm where the rabbits are an industry of the prison. They are much less crowded and better cared for than humans, beautifully cleaned and housed — lovingly looked after by Capo prisoners. The stable of work-horses was also perfection, with fat-bottomed beasts which shocked the eye after so many emaciated humans”. (3)
Another myth pushed alongside the “suffering artist/tortured genius”, is the artist who never stops working. The obsessive and relentless creative who appears to lose the ability to separate work and life and they merge into one battleship force steering through the heart of it. When Lee Miller explained why she picked photography over painting, her tenacity and appetite for endless renewal is clear: “But when you’re painting, you wash out your brushes at the end of the day and retire in disgust with little to show for it… And you have been lonesome all day as well! Whereas with photography as long as you can afford another piece of film you can start over again you see.” Like the fresh rolls of film, her life was perpetually recalibrating.
Writer and civil rights activist, James Baldwin wrote in The Paris Review, “In this country…if you’re an artist, you’re guilty of a crime: not that you’re aware, which is bad enough, but that you see things other people don’t admit are there.” Miller’s penchant for tight shots and close cropping compels the viewer to confront her chosen subjects. She serves us the dark and light of her world through her darkroom and onto the prints before us. Her photograph of the SS guard dead in a canal is so matter of fact in its composition and so heavy in its subject matter and arguably an image beautifully captured. She gives a dreamscape of death in water. We get the whole Lee reach in one shot.
Outside of the very obviously political spaces of the camps, Miller was at ease making private spaces political. In her photographs of Hitler’s bath and in Eva Braun’s bed she was showing the behind-the-scenes normalcy of the daily life of a dictator. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, referring to the systematic daily manner of crimes, lack of thinking—Miller’s art is thinking, it is movement away from the banal, even when situated in the apparently mundane.
Sherman said that Miller flourished when working as a war correspondent, having found her calling, he described her as being in “seventh heaven”: “This was a journalist’s finest hour, a story worth crossing Europe for… If she had any emotional reaction at all it was almost orgasmic excitement over the magnitude of the story. She was, in her quiet, methodical, practical way, in seventh heaven… The emotional breakdown, if any was in the subsequent let down after the high of Dachau, and a week later, the burning of the Berghof. The let-down of ‘no more hot, fast-breaking story.’” (4)
Lee had an instinct for the pedestrian. Using the magnifying lens of her practice to highlight humour, honesty, the surreal — in otherwise aberrant situations.
Her craft was homed in razor-sharp focus, cut on the doom and the glory of being. The restless tension of her life and how it was lived played out in a practice harmonised with her.
I keep saying to everyone, ‘I didn’t waste a minute all my life’ – but I know myself, now, that if I had it over again, I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection.
- Lee Miller
(1) Lee Miller Photographs, Anthony Penrose, Thames & Hudson, p.8
(2) Moments of Being
(3) Penrose, Lee Miller’s War, p.182
(4) Menzel-Ahr, p. 156 and n.589: David E. Sherman to Anthony Penrose, September 27, 1993