Octboer 17-November 29 at Apex Fine Art, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

Forty platinum and silver prints from the estate of Lee Miller provide an excellent opportunity to survey the photographic career of a Twentieth Century icon who is celebrated both for her beauty and her work with a wide-ranging series of historic images that are all informed by complex wit and ironic invention.

Maybe photography was in Miller's blood. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, her life was a felicitous series of photographic encounters. Her father was an accomplished photographer and engineer As a young adult, Miller was captured by the lenses of master photographers Edward Steichen and Arthur Genthe. On her second trip to Paris in 1929, Miller became a photographic icon and muse of the Surrealists as well as a lover and student of Dadaist photographer Man Ray.

When Miller opened her own fashion photography studio in Paris, she earned assignments from top designers of the day, such as Schiaparelli and Chanel. Upon her return to New York in 1932, Miller set up her own studio which for two years was highly successful. Marrying wealthy Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, she lived for several years in Egypt where she photographed desert villages and ruins.

Shortly before World War II, Miller moved to London and began living with Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. She ignored orders from the U.S. Embassy to return to America and began working as a staff photographer for the British edition of Vogue magazine.
All images © Lee Miller Archives,
England 2010. All rights reserved.

"Charlie Chaplin, Paris,"
1930, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14".

"Eileen Agar's Shadow, Brighton,"
1937, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14".

"Models Wearing Fire Masks, London,"
1941, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14".

By 1944, Miller was a photographic war correspondent accredited by the U.S. Army and was documenting women's efforts for the war as well as the bombing of London during the Nazi blitzkrieg. Teaming up with Time/Life photographer David E. Scherman, Miller followed U.S. Army troops on D-Day, and was the only woman combat photo-journalist to cover the war in Europe.

After the war Miller continued to work for Vogue for two years, producing fashion and celebrity photography. Marrying Penrose in 1947, she contributed to his biographies of Picasso, Miro, Man Ray and Tapies and produced occasional and celebrated portraits of artists from her circle of famous friends.

A signature wit informs Miller's entire photographic oeuvre. Her portraits of artists and models are frequently pushed slightly askew so as to objectify the living subjects and reinvent photographic composition. Such an effect is evident in Miller's 1930 portrait of Charlie Chaplin, where the comedian's head directly abuts an ornate lamp hanging down from the ceiling as he looks quizzically up at it.

Miller's 1937 portrait of Eileen Agar captures her subject's profile as a shadowy silhouette falls on the massive base of an architectural column. It's a tantalizing image that seems to bespeak the transience of human personality. This elusive personal poetry also informs Miller's fashion photography and her work from World War II.

A distinctly surreal attitude is evident with Miller's 1941 photo Fire Masks, which depicts two well-dressed female models sitting in the mouth of a bomb shelter. Wearing metal fire masks with slits for eyes that completely conceal their faces, the two models present ironic visages. The photograph is at once an image of a certain form of contemporary fashion, a surrealist fiction and an ironic indictment of war.

The same irony is present in Miller's World War II portrait of David Scherman. The photographer is seen underneath an umbrella and behind his camera. But his face is not evident because he is wearing a gas mask. By adopting this tool of wartime survival, his appearance is made to mock the inhuman mechanics of destruction.

Subtle subversions of form and convention are evident in all of Miller's photography. Her work is a unique embodiment of the Surrealist spirit in Twentieth Century photography.