“Who is Lee Miller?” The words echoed from the mouth of a twentysomething clerk in a Mission District bookstore. I'd just asked if his store had Lee Miller: A Life, Carolyn Burke's acclaimed biography of the 20th-century photographer, and the clerk's benightedness shocked me. How could he be unaware of a woman who helped break the gender barrier in wartime photography? How could he be ignorant of the woman who inspired Man Ray to some of his greatest artistic triumphs? Fame is fleeting, though, and Miller — a doyenne of her era, as famous in her time as Julia Roberts is in ours — has utterly receded from popular culture since her death in 1977.
Defiant and adventurous, charming and impulsive, Miller lived on the precipice. This model-turned-photographer took intimate portraits of celebrities, World War II atrocities (including liberated concentration camps), outdoor street scenes in cities like Cairo, and haute couture. Born and raised in New York, she had an ability to draw out subjects wherever she was — whether it was a fashion studio or a downtown corner — and that set her drastically apart from Ray, who specialized in stylized, staged close-ups of women and objects.
One of the first visual artists to propagate surrealism, which used odd juxtapositions and vivid imagery to explore issues of dream-like thought, Ray made works that were hard to pry your eyes from. And he certainly couldn't cast his eyes off Miller. The moment she walked into his life, asking if she could be his assistant, he was transfixed and transformed. Their union between 1929 and 1932 catapulted both of their careers, while their breakup plunged Ray into total despair. Curators have billed “Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” as the first exhibit to delve into their artistic commingling. You can see the mutual artistic influence in Revenge on Culture, Miller's 1940 photo of the aftermath of a German bombing of London, which shows a bare-breasted statue amid the rubble of destruction. Her snapshot of a stricken archetype has both literal and figurative meaning — a touchstone of surrealism. She covered the war for Vogue.
“She may have disconnected from Man Ray, but she never disconnected from surrealism,” says Antony Penrose, Miller's son, in a phone interview from England, where he directs the Lee Miller Archives. “Even in the toughest war reportage, when you look at her contact sheets, you will suddenly find a surrealist image. It's not deliberate — it's a reflex action. The shots are there amid the blood and the gore.”
At the Legion, Revenge on Culture is in the same gallery as Miller's more horrific photos of World War II, like one of a dead Nazi officer floating in a river, and another of a female Hitler sympathizer who has just committed suicide. Miller braved harsh conditions to get these images, crisscrossing a war-torn Europe. She witnessed so much death — scores of corpses, the wounded on the verge, revenge-killings of German soldiers by liberated camp survivors — that, after the war, she suffered a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Miller became an alcoholic, prone to eccentric behavior. In his book The Lives of Lee Miller, available for free reading in the Legion of Honor galleries, Penrose movingly details his mother's emotional swings. Burke's book, meanwhile, published in 2005, offers a thorough account of Miller's professional career and personal life, such as her sexual assault by a family friend at age 7 and contraction of gonorrhea. That traumatic experience had profound consequences, according to her brother John in The Lives of Lee Miller: “It changed her whole life and attitude…. She went wild.”
Ray was one of many men to whom Miller raced and then left, but he was the only one who created public art out of private pain. Three of his most celebrated works relate to their breakup: Larmes (Tears), the photo of a woman with heavy eyeliner and exaggerated, marble-sized tears; Indestructible Object, a metronome with a cutout of Miller's eye attached; and A l'heure de l'observatoire — les amoureux (Observatory Time — The Lovers), a painting of Miller's lipsticked mouth hovering in the sky. Copies of all three works are at the Legion, accompanied by letters and other art that reveal how obsessed Ray was with Miller, who was considered one of the world's most beautiful women. He once applied simulated blood to the neck of a Lee Miller photo that's exhibited, and all but told Miller she was making a catastrophic mistake by leaving him.
She wasn't: Artistically, she blossomed. Miller is to photography what Camille Claudel is to sculpture — a formidable artist overshadowed during her career by her more famous paramour, yet emerging from that shadow in death. This year alone, her photos have been featured in two major European exhibits: “Lee Miller's Surrealist Eye” at the Oregaard Museum in Hellerup, Denmark; and “MeMyselfandI,” a display of Picasso photos at the Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain. Besides the Legion of Honor, Miller's photos are on view at two other significant venues: The dOCUMENTA (13) festival in Kassel, Germany, and at Galerie Hiltawsky in Berlin. Her posthumous renaissance is, if not surreal, a thing of odd beauty.
What's missing at the Legion are crucial details that help explain the trajectory of Miller's life and her union with Ray. That's why Burke's investigative foray is such important reading. Inexplicably, the Legion of Honor doesn't feature Lee Miller: A Life in its stores. Surrealism is just one way, albeit an important way, to frame her life. Her war photography — stark, raw, and imaginative — is the exhibit's stunning surprise, outshining the nude portraits and even Ray's recognizable works that are on display. “The surrealists were all out to make a brave new world; then the war came,” Penrose told me. “As an American, [Miller] could have easily skipped back to America and safety, but she wanted to do what she could, and she used the camera as her weapon of choice.” “Perhaps,” he adds, “the only real training to be a war correspondent is first to be a surrealist, because nothing in the world is too hard to understand after that.”