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Lee Miller: Feminist Icon

October 18th, 2007     by Zoe Cormier     Comments

This weekend I had the wonderful chance to see an exhibit here in London, England of the art of Lee Miller (1907 - 1977), feminist icon and one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers.

Born in upstate New York, she actually began her career at 19 as a model for American Vogue - she made history when she appeared in the first advertisement for menstrual products that featured an actual woman in the picture. She was captured on film by some of the world’s greatest photographers, and was considered one of the greatest beauties of her day - her breasts were thought so perfect, champagne glasses were modeled after them.

But so much more than just a pretty face, she was much more passionate about working behind the camera than in front of it.

She sought out the great photographer Man Ray, demanding - with gall surely few women had in those days - to study under him. As Ray’s student, muse, and lover, she became in her own right one of the key originators of the Surrealist movement in Paris in the 1920s.

Her famous photograph of a severed breast on a plate (taken from a cadaver) even today communicates a powerful message about the objectification of women in the very industry in which she worked. She produced a whole series of haunting female nudes, blurring the boundaries of gender by transforming the female form into a phallic image.

She returned to the US in the 1930s to work out of her own studio (which she lit and wired by herself). Even in depression-struck New York, she managed to get work as a fashion photographer.

It was her work in the 1940s though which I find particularly inspiring. She documented the blitz in London, during which this very famous portrait of women wearing fire masks was taken.

Then as war correspondent for British Vogue, she was the one of very few photojournalists (and the only female one) to advance across Europe with the Allied armies. She reported on field hospitals in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, and even Hitler’s apartment in Munich - where she treated herself to a bath at possibly the exact moment that the Furer was committing suicide (no doubt one of the most surreal of all her experiences).

Sadly, after the war, she photographed and appeared in public very little, spending most of her time at her country farm, reputedly in an alcoholic haze (today we would appropriately attribute this to post traumatic stress disorder).

You might wonder though, why I call her a “feminist icon,” as she is not particularly well-known for her thoughts on the inequalities between men and women.

But to me she is the most inspiring kind of feminist icon: instead of analyzing the barriers women face, she simply lived as if there were none.

Tags: arts

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