Guest Post: Lee Miller by Ami Bouhassane

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

We're excited to introduce another guest post as part of the Indie Book Network. This is something a little bit different from our usual book talk, and I'm very excited to have partnered with Eiderdown Books for our August giveaway so head over to twitter for the chance to win the entire Modern Women Artists series!

In one of the most beautiful pieces of book post which I have ever received, I was delighted to find a volume from a new series of five short, collectable books about modern women artists from the new small press, Eiderdown Books. I would like to shout out to Harriet the publisher for such great packaging and such a beautifully produced volume. It really does make the recipient (well, me) smile a lot.

Lee Miller by Ami Bouhassane is an extremely friendly and enticing read; a perfect balance of critical art history and companionable chat. Bouhassane, as a trustee of the Lee Miller archives and co-director of Farley’s House and Gallery Ltd (based in the family home of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, her grandparents) has access and knowledge which must be hard to beat. She has painstakingly condensed the enormous number of resources at her disposal into a slim and precise book with 30 carefully chosen examples of Miller’s photographic work. Some of the most remarkable and striking images from Miller's diverse range of interests and visual explorations include Untitled (a severed breast from a mastectomy operation presented as a meal), Women Accused of Being Nazi Collaborators taken in France in 1944, and From the Top of the Great Pyramid, Giza.

Where I found this book particularly effective was in the foregrounding of Miller’s technical skill and contributions to the development of photojournalism, rather than focusing on her personal and private life, only touching on it tangentially as it impacted upon the focus of her creative and professional work. As this series is devoted to redressing the neglect of women’s contributions to art throughout history, this is a refreshing stance from typical investigative or scandalising biographies of personal lives and allows the reader a purer insight into her skills than the more biographical treatment which women artists and creators are often given. Having said that, I can also see how this could frustrate readers who may well want to know more about Miller’s inner world and personal experiences since she did have such an extraordinary and varied life. In my opinion however, and for the purposes of this book, her working activities are rightly foregrounded.

Teacher, artist, activist, model, entrepreneur, inventor, and muse, Miller’s concerns in her work were to give posterity and importance to the lived experience of women as workers, objectified bodies, and overlooked contributors to a world dominated by the action and desires of men. Within this came the desire to show human experience at its most everyday as a mirror to the masculine triumphalist focus on the powerful and triumphalist. Contrasting, for example, her photographs of the deserted living spaces of Hitler and Eva Braun with the unimaginable horrors of the Nazi regime. Her campaign to record objectively the liberation of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau speak to her determination to present the facts of what human beings were capable of, in the face of European popular denial and sometimes wilful ignorance.

Although often eclipsed in public recognition by the men with whom she worked and lived (Man Ray for example, whose work she occasionally did for him uncredited), Miller was in her own right a remarkable photographer with a fervent desire to apply technical skill with total precision. Her accidental discovery of the technique of solorisation while working in Man Ray's studio (demonstrated in the photograph chosen for the cover of this book) was then carefully reconstructed and perfected by Miller to have a great impact on both artists’ work. Her contribution to British Surrealism and her war photojournalism, cement Miller’s legacy as one of the most important contributors to twentieth century art and the creator of some of the most iconic images of the Second World War.

I would encourage everyone to look further at her work, to visit Farley’s House in Sussex, and to appreciate the lengths to which Miller went to capture the sometimes mundane, sometimes horrific, but always extraordinary reality of the world as she saw and experienced it; to go beyond the obvious and find the details which make an image into a beautiful, witty, moving, and essential historical record.


Alice is a bookseller from Cambridge and can be found on twitter at @alitraloon for books and rants.

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