Lee Miller: The Window Frames of a Surrealist

Formed to allow anyone the ability to bear a copy of what they perceive with the simple release of a shutter, photography, more than any other medium, has been closely tied to reality. It is quite astounding therefore to witness the works of Surrealists whose raison d’être is to dissect the unconscious, the non-visible, and the phantasmagorical, exploit the medium to express their spirit of unconscious thoughts, as those found in Lee Miller’s photographs.

Starting her career as a fashion model for Vogue after being saved by Condé Nast from a traffic accident, she then became a Surrealist in Paris, and later the only female American combat photographer in Europe during the war, before finally settling down as a surrealist cook.

Lee Miller was born in New York State in 1907 to Theodore and Florence Miller. Tormented throughout her childhood, she was raped at age seven by a family friend and her father photographed her nude until she was well into her twenties. “It’s difficult to understand,” recalls her only son, Antony Penrose. “His photos of her are quite creepy and definitely transgress the child-parent boundaries. I think there was something very odd about Theodore.”

In Spring 1929, she fled to Paris after finding her modelling career to be rather dull and persuaded Man Ray to teach her photography. It was the beginning of a four-year-long relationship, and although most people tend to view her as his muse, she had quickly outgrown this sentiment for they prove to have been partners in various crimes, to an extent that today some of their prints cannot be exclusively attributed to any specific one of them. During this period she rose to the heights of the surrealist movement.

Being part of the increased women involvement in the group, she added value to Susan Sontag’s declaration that surrealism lays at the very heart of the photographic enterprise, “In teaching us a new visual code, (that) photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” that defines surrealism.

Still, Miller felt that she had no identity of her own under his patronage and decided to leave him in 1932, setting up her own fashion photography practice in New York before finally marrying an Egyptian aristocrat, Aziz Eloui Bey in 1934 and moving with him to Cairo. It is here that she took her infamous Portrait of Space as a representation of her psychological state.

Taken on a trip in 1937, Portrait of Space depicts a window view from a tent enclosed with a frame. It was an uncanny image of its time and still is perhaps today, for as Gregory suggests her “photographic representations worked to naturalise the colonising propensities of Orientalism through the archeology of truth that had rendered Egypt as a series of transparent spaces open to the Occidental gaze.”

Portrait of Space is a complex mise en abyme in which notions of the inside and the outside are fluid. The frame , a form of photographic cropping, highlighted by surrealist photographers echoing Man Ray’s Monument à D.A.F. de Sade, portrays the conventional impression of separating objects, marking one from another, cutting the represented element out of reality.

It plays with the concept of spacing, generated through solarisation or found frames, indicating a break in the simultaneous experience of the real. The frame announces the camera’s ability to find and isolate what is known through Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams as the world’s constant writing of erotic symbols and its ceaseless automatism — writing immediate to experience, untainted by the distance and exteriority of signs. In this capacity, glorifying Miller’s psyche.

It is further challenged by a tear on the screen that appears as a secondary framing device, diverging and decentering, causing movement “implying a plurality of centres, a superposition of perspectives, a tangle of points of view, a coexistence of moments which essentially distort representation […]” resembling the uneven shape of a vagina, a broken hymen. In that according to Derrida is a protective screen standing between inside and outside, between its connotations of virginity and matrimonial consummation. A convulsion, as Breton spells out, of the process of reality contorting itself into its apparent opposite, namely, a sign of Miller’s psyche and how surrealists view familial and sexual relations subversively.

The tear signs feminized activities to construct a feminized space, perhaps proposing this as an alternative to the linear spaces of frontiers and boundaries associated with patriarchy, and, of course, colonialism that has been used to represent both Egypt and the very persona of Lee Miller.

The photograph itself proves to posses a far greater power than most of what was done in the remorselessly laboured paintings and drawings that came to establish the identity of André Breton’s concept of “surrealism”, as he declared in the first Surrealist Manifesto that the movement was not so much an aesthetic category as it was a focus on certain states of mind — dreams — automatism, a demonstration of “found” aesthetics rather than that of formal coherence of a period style.

Lee Miller being studied on the subject, acknowledges the privileged nature of photography in surrealism. Brought forth as being able to not just materialise interpretations of reality but to present reality in its configured, coded, or written form similar to automatism. The very experience of nature as a sign, or nature as representation, the generalised aesthetic of surrealism that comes “naturally” to photography.

Lee Miller heavily drew upon the surreality of nature as a kind of writing of signs when between 1939 to 1945 she decided to reinvent herself as a war correspondent for Grim Glory and Vogue, a period now regarded by critics as one of her most creative. Noting how surrealist photography plays a significant role in the circulation of images in society, her war photographs were far from conventional. They do not operate in the service of national myths of heroism or the glory of war, avoid the visual conventions of propagandist war journalism, and with the exception of her images of the camps at Dachau and Buchenwald shortly after their liberation in April 1945, often eschew, or figure in unusual ways, the more violent and horrific spectacles omnipresent during wartime (excluding those instances where documenting such scenes was an ethical imperative for her).

Her photograph of Freddie Mayor, London Air Raid Warden and Art Dealer, offers us an in-depth look into her perspective frame where the visual and narrative tension created by the interplay between interior and exterior prevails once more, where with the exception of Freddie’s hat, the photograph offers no direct reference to the war, rendering it disarmingly ordinary.

Compositionally complex an d highly fragmented, Freddie is almost hidden in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame, he peers into the window, looking for someone, narratively looking for the viewer, and as we do not know if the person he seeks is there, somewhere else in the city, or even alive that morning, our existential position is rendered ambivalent.

Its ambiguity and direct audience address are visually and emotionally arresting, framed themes of bombings, entrapment and possibly death through a different “ethics of seeing” attributed to her surrealist context. Straying her from potentially objectifying, specular and later ubiquitous images of damaged buildings and piles of rubble that can ultimately draw attention away from the people who might have been trapped or killed, all of which function only as a visual spectacle.

Miller’s “Surrealist and poetic” presentation of the everyday in Grim Glory does not, in a Bretonian manner, merely celebrate its transformation into the realm of the extraordinary and bizarre but meditates, sometimes mournfully, on its literal devastation.

Miller’s war photography presented an unforced surrealism which evoked the startling and memorable in the ordinary rather than relying on contrived artful juxtaposition, she preferred photographs that “found in the ordinary its own quality of strangeness or contortion”, a surrealist aesthetic based on decontextualisation that challenges the social, sexual, and moral codes of war.

After the war, Miller had seemingly lost all interest in the creative process, she went from being one of the most successful photographers of her time to a recluse. Settling down with fellow surrealist, Roland Penrose and retiring to the British Countryside, she continued to go down a deep well of depression caused by Post Trauma Stress Disorder aggravated by the war, she became an alcoholic before passing on July 21, 1977.

Throughout her life she took comfort in how the camera mediates her relationship with the world, shaping and writing reality according to her terms, exercising the power she lost in her childhood, to tell the truth about her life without feeling fear or confusion. This is why she was able to comfortably live as a surrealist for she mirrors the surrealists’ approach to both family and sexuality that gives narrative control to the inner child.

Her camera-seeing quintessences focus and selection from within the inchoate sprawl of the real for many, adding to that reality the vision as a representation or a sign. As the reality was both extended and replaced or supplanted by that master supplement which is writing — the paradoxical writing of the photograph which Pierre Naville took up against the Beaux-Arts when he limited the visual aesthetic of surrealism to memory and the pleasure of the eyes and produced a list of those things that would produce this pleasure: streets, kiosks, automobiles, cinema, photographs. Photographs as produced by the frames of Lee Miller the surrealists.

Bibliography

Andre Breton, L’Amour fou (Paris: Gallimard, 1937), pp. 7–19.

Anthony Penrose, The Lives of Lee Miller (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 103; Jane Livingston, Lee Miller Photographer (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 58; Carolyn Burke, Lee Miller (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), part four.

Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. “Disclosures and Confrontations.” In The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 133. [United States]: The Courage to Heal Press, 2015.

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Gregory, Derek. “Emperors of the Gaze: Photographic Practices and Productions of Space in Egypt, 1839–1914.” Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. Ed. Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. London: Tauris, 2003. 226–42. Print.

Haworth-Booth, Mark. The Art of Lee Miller. New Haven: Yale U P, 2007. Print.

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“Lee Miller: photography, surrealism, and beyond.” Choice Reviews Online 53, no. 11 (2016), 53–4679–53–4679. doi:10.5860/choice.197590.

Miller, Lee. Letter to Roland Penrose. 9 Nov. 1937. Lee Miller Archives, Chiddingly. TS.

Pierre Naville, “Beaux-Arts,” La Revolution surréaliste, no. 3 (April 1925), p. 27.

Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1977), 3.

Whitney Chadwick, “Lee Miller’s Two Bodies,” The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, eds. Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 199–221; Burke, chapters. 5 & 6. Burke discusses the Surrealist influences in Miller’s Grim Glory photographs on 205–7.

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Pia Diamandis

Pia Diamandis

Writer/researcher & curator for horror films & contemporary art