After trudging through the liberated concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, photographing piles of human bones, S.S. officers in prisoner uniforms who attempted escape and failed, and glass-eyed, barely living prisoners standing around in groups, waiting to see what happens next—Lee Miller took off her muddy boots, making sure to wipe their horrific mud on the clean, fluffy bathmat, and posed in Hitler’s bathtub.
In some takes, her head is turned, in others her eyes wander—one is clouded with blurring, and in the final, famous image taken by Life photographer David E. Scherman (and Miller’s companion through the war), she’s looking up and over, eyebrows raised, as if at someone who interrupted her bath—a washcloth held to her bare shoulder.
We wouldn’t have these other drafts—four or five total when Miller typically only took one or two per shot—if her son’s wife, Suzanna, hadn’t discovered them in his family’s attic. Hell, we might not even know who Lee Miller was if Antony Penrose hadn’t made it his life’s work to revive her incredible and inspiring story. That bathtub scene? Just the beginning.
Lee Miller, SS Guard in Canal, 1945. Miller’s notes on the back of some of her photographs were very telling of “the level of coldness and anger that was in her heart in that moment,” said Penrose.
After modelling in fashion ads for Vogue and other magazines in the 20s, Miller moved behind the camera, taking notes from Man Ray. History has her recorded as being his “muse,” which doesn’t seem to be the right label for Miller (it connotes some passivity, which wasn’t how she lived). She watched and studied him, and then moved on to make a name for herself. Miller was always in the driver’s seat; but her relationships with men were, well, prolific, and complicated. At one point, Miller was living as a “kept woman,” married to a wealthy man in Egypt (her photos from this time are fascinating, as if you’re looking at a movie set), but it didn’t last long. Her second and final marriage, to sculptor Roland Penrose, was spiced up with threesomes with other surrealist artists. It wasn’t until after her death when her son, Antony Penrose, was researching her life in order to write her biography, did he find out from one of her brothers that she had been raped as a 7-year-old child.
“I think in that moment, Lee had the attitude that the world had failed her,” Penrose told us, “and the only person who was really going to take care of her was herself.” She lived with the secret until she died in 1977 of cancer; even her husband had no idea.
Her time in Egypt came to a close, and Miller returned to Britain among her artist friends, pursuing a career at British Vogue. Soon, W.W.II began. “It would’ve been incredibly easy for her to disappear to America and sit the war out. But she didn’t,” said Penrose about why Miller went to war. “I think she wanted to stay and try and do something. And nobody was going to give her a gun or an airplane, or something useful like that—so she used her camera.” She photographed scenes of desperation and destruction: young dead, beaten soldiers; citizens in fire masks, preparing for the worst; ruined landmarks; concentration-camp prostitutes gathered in army trucks. She sent her film off to Vogue, which published some of Miller’s most powerful and horrific work from the Holocaust.
After the war, Miller suffered terrible PTSD, which doctors at the time hadn’t yet wrapped their heads around. Penrose and his father watched her alcoholism take hold: “You put up, you shut up, and you drank whiskey.” What brought her out of the fog was cooking, specifically, “surrealist gourmet cooking”—meaning green chicken, huge Elizabethan feasts of entire roasted pigs, cakes with absurd decorations, things that might make you nervous about having a friend over for dinner. And in the past 600 words, I’ve only barely scraped the surface of Lee Miller.
A new exhibit, “The Indestructible Lee Miller,” at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale focuses on Miller’s lifetime of work, including her fashion photographs made during the London Blitz, her war photography alongside photographs of friends, such as Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and Georges Limbour. Penrose remembers visiting Picasso’s studio as a child, where Picasso let children explore and touch everything, completely unrestrained (Picasso had also painted Miller six times). “One time, on the beach, I made a monster out of driftwood, and it was a very fine monster,” said Penrose. “I showed it to Picasso, and he was really excited about it. Then he asked if he could have it, and he took it, and he sat it among his own work in his studio. I was slightly sad to be parted from my monster but I realized that he’d gone to live in a very special place.” There are photos in Miller’s archive of little Antony on Picasso’s lap, playing with priceless ceramics, poking his finger at Picasso’s caged parrot. “I realize,” Penrose said, “playing in that studio, if I’d had just stepped back and placed my foot through a canvas, it would be the equivalent of millions of dollars’ worth of damage.”
The exhibit, of around 100 photographs, is a small drop from the tens of thousands of negatives Penrose discovered in the attic, some of which he’s still identifying and uncovering. When you’re browsing the near 4,000 photos in her Web site archive, they appear organized randomly, pages and pages of thumbnails. It can be a startling mix: images of Miller, topless on a beach, family photos of her son hanging out with Picasso at his studio like it’s grandpa’s house, glamorous fashion photography, and then boom, a literal stack of dead bodies piled like firewood, awaiting burial at Buchenwald. You can immediately get a sense of all the moments in her life, stewing and brewing inside of Miller, images that both she never wanted to forget alongside the ones she couldn’t as hard as she tried.