How Lee Miller revolutionized the role of women in photography

How Lee Miller revolutionized the role of women in photography

From model and industry darling to ground breaking war photographer Lee Miller blazed a trail that still inspires women to this day.

American photographer, model, and Surrealist muse, Lee Miller (1907–1977) blazed her own path through the worlds of art, fashion, and print as a new generation of bright young things emerged in between the wars.

At a time when women threw out their corsets and bobbed their hair, Miller stood at the vanguard of a new archetype: the independent woman in control of her destiny. By the late 1920s, she had reached the top, regularly appearing in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair until her image was used in an advertisement for a menstrual product without her consent.

“It has women’s enthusiastic approval!” the ad proclaimed, but polite society was enraged. Miller’s modelling career was promptly cancelled, so she decamped to Paris in 1929 to embark on the next chapter of her life, proclaiming, “I would rather take a picture than be one.”

In Paris, Miller became involved with Man Ray as collaborator, lover, and muse, launching her photography career in the fashion world before returning to New York in 1932. As the decade wore on her, her fine art career steadily advanced, but she abandoned it all to become a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications in 1942.

Top to bottom: Edward Matthews as St Ignatius from Four Saints in Three Acts, Lee Miller Studios Inc., New York, USA, 1933 © 2023 Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved "Piano by Broadwood," London, England, 1940 © 2023 Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved.

Hers was the role of a lifetime — undoubtedly cast to perfection with Kate Winslet starring in the December biopic, Lee — a story that can also be seen in the new book, Lee Miller: Photographs (Thames & Hudson). Compiled by artist Antony Penrose, Miller’s son and founder and co-director of the Lee Miller Archives, the book brings together over 120 works that explore the photographer’s groundbreaking contributions to the medium.

Miller’s father, an engineer and amateur photographer, raised his daughter as he raised his two sons, instilling in her a strong confidence to venture into uncharted realms. “When she was eight, she was given a chemistry set,” says Penrose. “It was really out of the mould for girls, who were groomed to be good wives and mothers. Lee decided that there were more exciting things to do.”

Boot and ammunition, St Malo, France, 1944 © 2023 Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved.

Miller followed her heart, charting a singular course as one of the few women of her generation to photograph World War II. With the support of Audrey Withers at Vogue, Miller began chronicling the war despite discriminatory military policies discriminated against women.

When confronted by horrors large and small, Miller drew upon her Surrealist training to translate the unspeakable tragedies of war. Poignant, poetic, and bold, Miller spoke through her photographs and used them to provoke feeling, reflection, and conversation about the matters at hand. “Her work shows the importance of peace, freedom, justice, and truth,” says Penrose.

Nearly half a century after her death, Miller continues to inspire women to live their dreams. “Five or six times a year, I meet a woman who says to me, ‘I've got a debt of gratitude to Lee Miller because I saw her work and I changed my life,’” says Penrose. “Maybe they went off and they became a photographer, artist or author in their own right. I find that what Lee is doing is liberating people. Right now, right here, this very minute.”

Picnic, Île Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, France, 1937 © 2023 Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved.

Lee Miller: Photographs (Thames & Hudson) is out now. 

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.