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Lee Miller: War Through a Woman's Eyes

U.S. Army Official Photograph, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

STRAND photographer and writer Anna Aarhus Hudson describes her experience discovering her love for photography for our Women's History Month print edition.

From what I recall of my earliest childhood memories, photography has always been an integral ingredient in my life. By virtue of my parents, including my stepfather, whom are all photographers, I was regularly dragged along to what I then perceived as boring gallery openings. However, it was not during those endless evenings spent trailing through dreary galleries with strange grown-ups in exotic outfits that I fell in love with photography, but actually in my own home. Placed upon the wall above the kitchen counter, bought at one of my mother’s favourite frame workshop (yes, some mothers have preferred favourite workshops), sits a portrait of one of her favourite photographers. It depicts a woman in a bathtub, scrubbing her back and glancing towards the upper right corner of the bathroom. An ambiguous smirk rests on her lips, surrounding her are some carefully placed objects: a pair of dirty worn-out boots, the stained rug on which the boots are placed and finally, a framed picture of Adolf Hitler.

As a child I saw little significance in this peculiar combination of objects, but still I found myself gravitating towards the photo whenever I was tiptoeing around the kitchen practising my pirouettes. The woman, as it was later revealed to me, was Lee Miller – the model turned muse, turned surrealist artist, war correspondent, photojournalist and finally gourmet cook. More astonishing to me was the absurdity of the stage she had set for the photo, as she was in fact in Adolf Hitler’s own Munich apartment, taking a relaxing bath in his own personal bathtub – hence the mockery of placing his picture next to her. Lee Miller and her companion were unaware however, that Hitler would commit suicide only moments after the picture was taken, signalling the end of what had been one of the deadliest conflicts in history. Perplexed by what I had learned of the photo, I began to take pride in knowing its backstory when my friends visited and enquired about the endless pieces on the walls, forging a new and special relationship between Miller and myself.

In her photographs of war, Miller brings to the forefront some of the most unique depictions of war from perspectives which might otherwise go unnoticed. Women as well as men, allies and enemies, soldiers and civilians, nurses, prisoners, artists and students are all exposed to her lens. The significance of the photos lies not as much in her symbolic value as a female photographer surrounded by men, as it does in the originality and complexity of the work she produced. One particular photo stands out – portraying a young French woman who according to the title of the photo is being interrogated and ‘has had her hair shaved off for consulting with Germans’. Labelled as traitors, Miller describes how women like the one depicted, were slapped and spat on as they were paraded through Paris after the city’s liberation. Miller however, does not give in to the pressure of narrating the woman in a condescending manner, nor does she necessarily protect or defend her. Instead she extracts the pulse of the woman and cements it into the photograph through the ink. The shame, innocence and foolishness are all at play in her eyes and lips. Knowing the story of the woman but still sensing the underlying compassion with which Miller has portrayed her, I am conflicted – not knowing to whom or what I feel more lenient. The photo appears too alive and almost breathing, for me to take a firm stand.

Whether in a concentration camp haunted by death, or capturing brief moments of joy among fellow surrealist artists alike, Miller neither appears too graphic for the eye, nor too comfortable for the mind. The portrait of Regina Lisso, the daughter of Leipzig’s deputy mayor Ernst Lisso, depicts her lying on a sofa with her head resting on its edge, her arms folded over her stomach. Resembling something out of a Film Noir scene, a genre characterised by the cynical protagonist’s inability to utilise the moral compass needed to avoid an unhappy ending, Regina Lisso suffers the same fate. The seemingly innocent woman is not resting, but has committed suicide along with the rest of her family. The elegance of her position draws you in, but nothing about her allows you to naturally move on. Miller’s biggest strength lies in her permitting us to linger within the atrocities taking place, without condemning ourselves or the subject. Perhaps this ability has to do with Miller being a woman. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with it. In my mind it is not all that important, but posing the question allows us to reflect upon the gaze and instincts photographers and other artists bring into their work, especially in moments of great threat. Who and what do they choose to depict in those moments? And which stories are unravelled based on those choices?

Miller’s unique artistic fragrance allows her to highlight the surrealism and absurdity of war, as she speaks to the many and often conflicting emotions with which we guide our everyday behaviour and ideals. To this day, the photo of Lee Miller in the Hitler’s bathtub hangs above the kitchen counter in my childhood home, however a somewhat illegally printed copy of it has also made its way to my own student flat in London, reminding me that life’s many perplexities might amount to something bigger in some distant future. Who knows when I’ll next be sitting in a suicidal fascists bathtub.


Edited by Photography Editor Elektra Favre


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