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Lee Miller, BBC documentary
Lee Miller wearing a special helmut borrowed from US Army photographer Don Sykes (Sergeant), Normandy, France, 1944Copyright Lee Miller Archives

Lee Miller: the war photographer who was more than surrealist muse

A new documentary reveals the astonishing life of the twentieth-century artist who refused to conform

“I had known my mum as a useless drunk. A hysterical person who, even catching a train in Lewes was a major episode for her,” says Antony Penrose, speaking in the recently released documentary, Lee Miller: A Life on the Frontline. “I could not believe she was the same person who created this material, and I felt this was a story that needed to be told.”

Antony Penrose – child of the illustrious model, muse, and photographer, Lee Miller, and the equally distinguished artist and poet, Roland Penrose – had no knowledge of his mother’s previous life. “It was a book that she had closed,” he says. As extraordinary as it sounds, Lee Miller died without ever revealing anything of her past to her son. Instead, for reasons we’ll only ever be able to guess at, she packed away the relics of her previous life into cardboard boxes and shut them in the attic, where they remained undiscovered until after her death in 1977. 

Now recognised as one of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century, Lee Miller was a true iconoclast who defied convention and refused to be pigeonholed. Living multiple lives as a Vogue model, photographer, surrealist muse, and war reporter, her true story reads like compelling fiction with a narrative that touches on some of the most charged scenes of the last century. From turning up unannounced on the Parisian doorstep of the surrealist artist, Man Ray, and informing him she intended to be his student, to sleeping on Hitler’s pillow and washing away the dirt of a concentration camp in his bathtub, Lee Miller blazed a trail across modern history.

To mark the release of this new documentary, we take a look at the incredible, rebellious life of Lee Miller, with comments from some of those featured in the documentary, who either knew Miller or are connected to the late artist now.


She was born in Poughkeepsie, in New York State in 1907. Like most kids growing up in the suburbs, Lee Miller dreamed of one day making it to the big city. “She knew she was going to be a star,“ says fashion editor, Marion Hume. 

Finally arriving in New York –  young, beautiful, and confident – Miller launched into her new life. Until one day, the story goes, she stepped out into the busy traffic into the path of an oncoming vehicle. As the car swerved to a halt, a passerby swooped in and pulled her to safety. That passerby happened to be Condé Montrose Nast, the American publisher, business magnate, and founder of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. An ascension so swift it would’ve made most young suburban girls’ heads spin, Miller very quickly found herself on the front cover of American Vogue, looking poised and self-possessed, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “When I look at the images of Lee Miller, I see a woman who is entirely comfortable in her skin; entirely comfortable with who she is as a person, as a woman,” says model and musician Karen Elson. “How thoroughly modern she must have been. Beyond modern – thoroughly groundbreaking.” 

In fact, her ease in front of the camera was actually because she’d been modelling her whole life. Her father, Theodore Miller, was a serious amateur photographer who worshipped his daughter. His portraits, which, according to Marion Hume, appear “very dubious”, depict the young Lee Miller perched in various nude poses – reclining in an armchair, in the bathtub, gazing into a mirror, or sat on a table draped in a white tablecloth. While Antony Penrose feels strongly that these portraits of his mother were “a transgression of a relationship”, Jessie Mann, herself an artist and model, offers a different perspective. “Theodore’s photographs of Lee, I see as a collaboration. I see her as a participant. I see a life experience so similar to my own. When mum (renowned photographer Sally Mann) was working on a photograph, it was a family affair. I grew up in a family where we were very comfortable with nudity and being nude around each other. It’s very sad that people cannot conceive of Lee engaging in nudity around her father without it becoming sexualised. I think, women and children in art, the assumption is exploitation, and that is not what I see at all with her, as a child subject or as an adult subject.”

We’ll never know the true dynamic between Lee and Theodore Miller, or to what extent she had agency as a subject. The images not only add to the mythology and mystery surrounding this twentieth-century icon, but they also illustrate her characteristic disdain for conventionality that would come to shape her story.


Now working as a fashion model in New York, her experience of having been around photography all her life stood her in good stead. She could speak knowledgeably with the photographers taking her picture and, by this time, she’d already begun entertaining her own ideas of being on the other side of the lens. In fact, it was photographer Edward Steichen who, while taking her portrait for Vogue, suggested she go to Paris to study with Man Ray.

“Paris in the late 20s was the centre of the world,” Marion Hume says. “Being in Paris at that time for a woman like Lee was about literally ripping your corset off. Because it was when fashion changes, the world changes; it’s a moment of huge possibility.” Always one to take advantage of possibilities, Miller went to Paris and paid a visit to Man Ray. She recalled in a 1946 interview with In Town Tonight, “I went to him and said, ‘Hello, I’m your new student and apprentice.’ He said, ‘No you’re not. I don’t have students or apprentices.’ I said, ‘You do now.’”


And so she began working as Man Ray’s student and studio assistant, but soon became his lover and his muse. “Why did Lee Miller – golden, beautiful, fashionable – fall for a man who was basically half her height and not very golden?” asks Marion Hines. “Because she had much to learn and he was a great photographer.” “For Man Ray, it was probably the incarnation of the most improbable relationship he could’ve imagined,” says Antony Penrose, marvelling at his mother’s relationship with the legendary artist. “This incredibly bright and beautiful New Yorker dropping into his lap.”

The photographs Man Ray took of Lee Miller remain some of the most daring and celebrated work of his career. “There’s still so much Man Ray did with Lee Miller that was groundbreaking… This level of artistic genius between the pair of them, it resonates in photography today,” says Karen Elson, reflecting on Miller’s contribution to Man Ray’s work. “She has a sense of knowing just what the photographer wants, and manipulating herself into these kinds of shapes and positions. But also being attuned to look into the camera and convey life. It is an alchemy of two people – the photographer, the muse.”

By 1930, Miller had a studio in Paris and was making her own work. Among her commissions from that time, she shot Chanel perfume for French Vogue and took Charlie Chaplin’s portrait for Life magazine. “Lee and Man fit perfectly into the world of the surrealists in the 1930s,” explains Miller’s biographer, Carolyn Burke. “That movement seemed not only very unconventional but very freeing, for the women as well. To be treated not only as muses but as muses who were themselves artists and could participate.”

Miller’s relationship with Man Ray was a huge influence, encouraging her to experiment with surrealism in her work, but she was in no way subsumed by the distinguished artist. “I see a woman who’s calling the shots,” Elson observes.

Despite doing everything he could to further her career, ultimately, Man Ray wanted to control Miller. She had come to him as a young novice, offering herself as a student, but after three years the power balance had shifted. Antony Penrose concludes, “He struggled to try and possess and control this uncontrollable woman, and that’s what broke them apart in the end.”


Returning to New York in 1934, the course of Lee Miller’s life once again pivoted in an unanticipated direction. On September 4th she unexpectedly married Aziz Eloui Bey, an incredibly wealthy Egyptian businessman from Cairo. “He offers her a kind of magic carpet to the Arabian Nights, in her mind,” says Marion Hume. 

Miller married Bey at the Egyptian Consulate in New York after a whirlwind courtship, only informing her parents after the event. She then found herself transported into a new, luxurious life in Cairo as the mistress of a grand house with servants and privilege and, for a few years, she was content. “But in time, this too became insufficient for her,” Carolyn Burke says. And, with nothing else to do, she once again picked up her Rolleiflex and began to take pictures. 

During this period she took excursions into the desert, shooting the rolling sands, people skiing on the dunes, animal skulls, and trinkets. “They have almost a more spiritual dimension,” said Burke, reflecting on Miller’s work from this era. “It seems almost meditative to me. She had a strong desire to escape into something else and another place. And it was in Egypt that she could explore that.” 

In her letters from those days, Miller began to express feeling the pressure to be a “proper wife”. She understood the expectations of marriage, but she couldn’t be satisfied within the confinements of the existence she now found herself inhabiting. One of her most notable pictures from the period, “Portrait of Space” (1937) – depicting a desertscape as seen through a ripped insect net – seems to combine all the surreal influence of her work in Paris with her own sense at that time of, perhaps, looking out at the vast horizon from within an enclosed, confined space. Knowing she was unhappy in Cairo and missing her old life, her husband bought her a flight to Paris.


In 1937, Lee Miller returned to Paris. The night she arrived, she went straight to a fancy dress party thrown by her surrealist friends where she met Rowland Penrose. The pair fell head over heels in “lust”, according to Burke. “She was the sort of person that he wanted to be, in some respects.” 

“The dynamic of the surrealists is a dynamic that favours men having the free love that they want, and not so much the women,” Marion Hines explains. “Then you put Lee Miller into that mix and Lee is definitely someone who always thinks, ‘Well, I don’t see why men should be able to do something that I can’t’.” Photographs of this time show Lee Miller and her female friends topless and smiling at the camera, while Penrose remains very much buttoned-up in the background, no doubt trying to shake off his Victorian British upbringing in the liberal, libidinous atmosphere of this artistic circle. Jessie Mann says, “For her to own the power of her sexuality, to harness it and then to enjoy it for herself. That’s crazy. I’m so proud of all the sex she had. Way to go. It makes me so happy to know there’s a blip in history where at least one woman had a good time.” 

But, towards the end of 1937, Lee Miller returned to the safety of her husband in Egypt. “When I got married I really did it for better or worse,” she wrote to Penrose, “with that little idea blown to hell by this summer and you.” It would take Penrose two years to convince her they should be together.


Arriving in London in 1939 to be with Penrose, she found herself in a city in the midst of war. Looking for work, Miller met the editor of British Vogue, Audrey Withers – a woman committed to women’s rights and independence – who commissioned her for various make-do-and-mend fashion stories. During this time, and with the support of Withers, Miller made the crucial transition from fashion photographer to a photojournalist and began to capture the war landscape of London in the Blitz. It was thrilling, but she once again found herself casting around for something more. 

The opportunity came in 1944 when she met and became close with David Scherman – already an experienced and heroic war photographer. “They were having a lot of fun,” Ami Bouhassane, Miller and Penrose’s granddaughter, remarks on the menage a trois that developed between Scherman and her grandparents.

Miller not only learned the art of news photography from her new lover but also conceived the idea of leaving England to take pictures of the conflict on the continent. “She took it very seriously and decided she would be a war photographer,” he recalls. “She bought a uniform in Saville Row, had it specially made.”


With no military training, Miller was dropped into northwest France, into a wartorn town called St. Malo. “We heard bombers approaching over our shoulders… I had the clothes I was standing in, coupla-dozen rolls of film, and an eiderdown blanket roll. I was the only photographer for miles around and I now owned a private war,” she said. Amid a rain of bombs falling and crashing “like Vesuvius”, she trained her lens on the ruined town. “Lee always sees an opportunity, and war is an opportunity,” remarked Marion Hume.

Her dispatches from the frontline attest to the horror of total war. “I sheltered in a dugout, squatting under the ramparts,” she wrote. “My heel ground into a dead, detached hand… I ran back the way I’d come, bruising my feet and crashing into unsteady piles of stones, slipping in blood... Christ, it was awful.” 

As one of only four female accredited war photographers, Miller was pushing boundaries. “Definitely, women like her blazed a trail. I think there is a type of woman who goes into this work,” observes the contemporary war photographer, Lyndsey Addario. “Women who are tough but funny and irreverent; who really rejected all the norms of what women’s lives should have been at that time.”


After the liberation of Paris in 1944, Miller and Scherman travelled east across Europe and into Germany, documenting the fallen nation. In Leipzig, she took haunting pictures of Nazi officials laying “waxen and dusty”, after having taken their own lives in the face of defeat. “The high officials of the regime gave a great party,” she says, “toasted death, and Hitler, and poisoned themselves.”

In April 1945, they arrived in Dachau as the concentration camp was being liberated. “We had to just steel ourselves like surgeons going into an operating room, or like policemen going into a morgue to do a postmortem,” recalled Scherman. “Otherwise you’d just go to pot right away, you’d just come apart at the seams.”

Driven by a moral calling to document what she witnessed, Miller appealed to Withers, “I implore you to believe this is true… I hope Vogue will feel that it can publish these pictures.” In what may be the most graphic, confrontational work they’ve ever carried, Vogue did print Miller’s harrowing images of the mass graves, piles of clothing, and emaciated bodies she encountered at Dachau.


Perhaps one of the most enduring of Lee Miller herself was taken when she and Scherman visited Adolf Hitler’s apartment. “I’d been carrying Hitler’s Munich address around in my pocket for years and finally I had a chance to use it. But my host wasn’t home,” wrote Miller. “I took some pictures of the place and also I got a good night’s sleep in his bed. I even washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub.” Scherman’s portrait of Lee Miller bathing in Hitler’s bathroom is such an iconic image, distilling as it does so many elements that make her such a compelling figure – her bravery, a sense of irreverence, her beauty, a total refusal to behave herself, and her dirty boots (soiled with the filth of Dachau) placed defiantly on Hitler’s pristine white bath mat.


Despite her extraordinary resilience, Lee Miller didn’t return from the war unscathed. “I have met nobody who has seen those scenes in any concentration camp who has talked about them willingly or has been able to walk away from them,” says Hilary Roberts, on post-traumatic stress disorder.  

The transition back to civilian life was an impossible readjustment. “She was a peacetime casualty in many ways,” said Scherman. Purposeless and lost, she fell pregnant and, in all likelihood, suffered from postnatal depression. A doctor told her to “pull herself together” as she slid into alcoholism. During these dark days, Penrose decided, perhaps unwisely, they should move to the country. Convinced this would be restorative, he took his urbane, complicated wife to live out her days in the quiet simplicity of the Sussex countryside. “I’ve interviewed several friends who were very young women at the time they visited Lee at Farley Farm, and who said that sometimes, late at night, at 3 am, if they stayed up with Lee and drank with her – because she drank a great deal – she would break down and tell them, ‘You have to be careful about what you let yourself in for.’ And she would allude briefly to those moments in the concentration camps,“ said Carolyn Burk. “It was still with her.“.

Lee Miller died in obscurity in 1977, her contribution to photography having been largely forgotten, and she herself having wilfully repressed any knowledge – even within her own family – of her astonishing past. On first hearing, it might sound like a story with a sad ending. But there’s something appropriately defiant and consistent about Lee Miller’s non-compliance and her total lack of need for the recognition of others. “When I think of Lee Miller, it wasn’t that she was leaning in to be taken seriously by the men,” says Karen Elson. “She didn’t even care. She’s just a woman who did not apologise for who she was.”

Lee Miller: A Life on the Frontline is available on BBC iPlayer