Lee Miller was a great American beauty. That may be stating the obvious when you look at photos of her, but beauty is central to her story: it was her passport to the glamorous and artistic worlds she plunged into between the world wars. Picasso made six paintings of her; Man Ray photographed her hundreds of times. A Parisian designer created the perfect champagne glass in the shape of her breast. But she was that rarity who not only beguiled the camera but was ambitious and talented enough to go behind it. She became a successful photographer—and one of the few women journalists to cover World War II. Quintessentially modern, she was a self-invented feminist who broke the rules and didn't give a damn what anyone thought. Yet her saga is as sad as it is triumphant. In a letter to one of her many lovers, she described her life as "a water-soaked jig-saw puzzle, drunken bits that don't match in shape or design."
More than 20 years ago, Miller's son published a photo-rich biography, "The Lives of Lee Miller," that created new interest in that almost-forgotten life. Since then, there have been many exhibitions of her work and more than half a dozen books. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise optioned her story for a film, but their marriage wrapped before the project began. Now an expansive new show, "The Art of Lee Miller," which originated in London, just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through April 27). It brings together most of those puzzle pieces, but a question always hovers over her dual roles as subject and artist: do the images of Lee eclipse the images by Lee?
Miller knew how to pose for a camera almost from birth. Her father, an engineer in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was a serious amateur photographer who made frequent studies of his adored daughter—often of her nude, into her adulthood. She was discovered by the publisher Condé Nast—he met her, the story goes, when he pulled her away from an onrushing car in Manhattan in 1927. She was almost 20—tall, slim, her blond hair cut in a fashionable bob. She modeled at Vogue for such great photographers as Edward Steichen, who took an elegant fashion shot of Lee that later became the first ad for Kotex using a real model. That brought her a slightly scandalous notoriety, but the Steichen connection proved invaluable: he suggested she take up photography and gave her a letter of introduction to Man Ray, the American expatriate surrealist, in Paris.
There she began her reinvention, dropping her name, Elizabeth, for the androgynous "Lee." Man Ray took her on as his assistant, model—and lover. She also posed for George Hoyningen-Huene at French Vogue and became something of a star in the Parisian avant-garde. Jean Cocteau cast her in his first film, and countless men cast their gaze on her as well. Miller wanted to be as free as a man about sex, yet despite the bohemian agreement of an open relationship, her affairs drove Man Ray mad with jealousy. In his classic surrealist painting "Observatory Time—The Lovers," the immense long red lips floating in the sky are Lee's. "When these lips break into a smile," he later wrote, "they disclose the menacing barrier of the teeth." Perhaps unable to juggle her emotions with her ambitions, Miller left Paris in 1932 to open her own photography studio in New York. But just after Vanity Fair declared her one of the top photographers in 1934, she was gone again—this time into a marriage to a wealthy Egyptian named Aziz Eloui Bey. The social scene in Cairo bored her—picture Kristin Scott Thomas in "The English Patient"—and for several years, she photographed very little. Her powerful, witty picture of the Great Pyramid is shot from the top, and simply shows its huge triangular shadow blanketing the town below. Then on a trip to Paris, she fell for the British surrealist painter Roland Penrose. As with Man Ray, love seemed to fuel her work.
After she moved in with Penrose in London in 1939, she began her most important photography. The cockeyed perspective she'd absorbed from the surrealists served her well in the arresting, absurdist images she captured during the Blitz: a crushed Remington typewriter; a male mannequin standing incongruously in a heap of curbside rubble. The war seemed to energize her, and she began to hang out with the American journalists based in London. David Scherman, a young photographer for Life, became an important friend (and another lover). The editor of British Vogue sent Miller to do stories on a field hospital in Normandy, the liberation of Paris and the siege of St-Malo; she wrote the text as well as taking the pictures. She rode into Germany with the U.S. Army, starkly documenting the corpses and the ovens of Buchenwald and Dachau—and zooming in, almost poetically, on a dead SS guard floating in a canal. She also shot Hitler's apartment in Munich—then got in his tub for her first bath in weeks, a moment caught on film by Scherman. Her combat boots on the bathmat are still caked with the mud of Dachau from earlier in the day.
Her war-correspondent ID card, issued in December 1942, shows Miller at 35, still lovely. But the war and its aftermath destroyed her beauty. At 40, in London, she gave birth to her only child, Antony; she and Penrose married shortly before the baby arrived. They moved to an old Sussex farmhouse and became known in the 1950s for their weekend houseguests— Picasso, Max Ernst—and for Lee's inventive, almost surrealist cooking. Everyone grows old, but she hurried the process along with alcohol, cigarettes and unshakable depression. Her doctor callously commented that the world couldn't keep a war going just for the sake of Lee Miller's work. But she never found her footing again, either as an artist or a muse. "I want the Utopian combination of security and freedom," she'd written Aziz, trying to explain her retreat from their marriage, "and emotionally I need to be completely absorbed in some work or a man I love." A feminist manifesto? Not exactly. But a very human one from a complex woman who, in the end, never reconciled her passions in life with her passion for her art.