‘Believe it!’ – Lee Miller’s war photography
“What’s a girl supposed to do when a battle lands in her lap?” proclaimed Lee Miller in a radio interview, when asked about travelling through war-torn Europe and eventually taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub. All the elements of her image are here, and if there was one thing Lee Miller understood it was the power of image. On the surface, this quip reveals her to still be the quintessential 1920s art celebrity and glamour girl, but underneath it there’s a serious question. What should the former darling of the surrealist movement do when faced with something as terrifyingly real as the Second World War? Continue to make art like her friend Picasso? Teach in a school specialising in camouflage, like her Quaker husband? Or pick up a camera, and go to the front line?
So who was Lee Miller? Well, as Blake Morrison put it in the Guardian:
If you were a screenwriter or playwright pitching a drama about an eventful mid-20th-century life – a story along the lines of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, perhaps, but with a woman rather than a man at the centre – what would you come up with? Difficult childhood (sexual abuse). Becomes a New York fashion model. Goes to Paris and joins surrealist movement. Does photojournalism during second world war (is present for the liberation of Dachau; takes a bath in Hitler’s abandoned house). Has first and only child at 40. Settles on a farm in Sussex. Reinvents herself as a gourmet cook.
She is one of those larger than life characters who will no doubt be written about for years, but it is her war photography for which she is best remembered, and not just for its historical importance. These are photographs taken by an artist all the tools of the trade at her disposal to communicate her message. And her message was mainly anger: anger at the cruelty and injustice of war, anger at the ignorance of it back home, and anger directly at the Nazis. In one article that she wrote for Vogue as part of a photojournalism piece, entitled ‘Germans Are Like This’, she explicitly accuses all of Germany and not just the Nazis for the horrors of the time, which is an opinion I personally don’t feel history supports — although I can appreciate that being one of the first photographers to visit the concentration camps might colour anyone’s viewpoint. Another article juxtaposed one of her photos of a pile of starved corpses with text headed: “BELIEVE IT – Lee Miller cables from Germany”.
Like so many veterans of war, she didn’t discuss it at all with her children and it was only after her death that they discovered boxes of photographs and learnt of her wartime career. These images are now to be found at the Lee Miller Archives (www.leemiller.co.uk) and they are super-duper copyrighted, so I sadly can’t show them here. (In fact, I’m ambivalent about that site, which seems to be pushing the art of her husband Roland Penrose with equal weight — in which case change the name of the website?) So I’ll describe the photographs instead.
There is the pile of naked fleshless corpses in a concentration camp, surrounded by US soldiers smiling and taking pictures (reacting, I imagine, with the standard coping strategy of soldiers: the blackest of humour). In another photograph there’s the silhouette of the opera singer performing an aria to a bombed out empty opera house. And then two very young adults looking at the camera with what look like futuristic fancy dress masks – and when you realise these masks are to protect from the fire from incendiary bombs you realise how totally inadequate protection it is.
There are two boyish guards at Buchenwald concentration camp in smart dandyish clothes, on their knees in a cell, their faces beaten to a pulp, begging for their lives. Their expressions are of total attentiveness. They seem completely unfocused on themselves, and only on what their new captors will do next. And then there’s another photo of an even more boyish guard, whose face might look like Mickey Rooney’s if it wasn’t almost split in half, staring wildly at the camera in what looks like terror.
There are the women of active service, captured (as many reviewers of Miller’s work point out) with an intimacy and lack of self-consciousness which was unlikely to be seen from a male photographer. The pilots, the Wrens, the field nurses. The French woman accused of collaborating. Each photograph shows people in the middle of something, often seeming to be paused in thought as they contemplate their next challenge.
And then there are the many many corpses. Framed as if they have been posed for a photographic exhibition. The handsome dark-haired man in the thick army coat who might be sleeping peacefully on his side if his face wasn’t inches underwater. Or the young daughter of a town mayor, shot in a leather chair in his office, reclining like a classical painting. Many of these people look like they are in a deep peaceful sleep, and you need to look around to see those tell-tale ruffles of fabric that suggest bullet holes. (The black and white photographs, of course, make it hard to see blood.)
And the firing squad, taken high above a courtyard, after the war is over. A crowd packs the perimeter, a priest stands by nervously, and four lined soldiers in what look like French or Italian uniforms point their rifles at a man with grey hair, his chest puffed out, putting on a last show of defiance.
Even aside from the subject matter, this photography at its best, in that every frame looks posed, except that it also looks too real to be posed. There is an element of it looking too good to be true – and doubtless she used a bit of scene manipulation (e.g. resting the picture of Hitler on the tub while she took her bath) to tell the story more clearly. But there is only so much you can manipulate a scene in war and photograph it, and it seems clear to me that instead she was able to put herself in the right place at the right time (which is perhaps the most important skill of any photo journalist). And then she knew how to capture that scene in a way that told a story. With an image that would haunt you. Utterly brutal. Utterly iconic. With an underlying voice that screamed “believe it!”