Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

Imperial War Museum, London

Written by:
Frances Wilson
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This timely major new exhibition of 150 photographs by acclaimed photographer Lee Miller portrays women’s experiences during the Second World War and reflects Miller’s unique insight as a woman and a photographer whose sharply observed and sensitively nuanced images merged the worlds of art, fashion and photojournalism.


2015 marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. When war broke out in 1939 the role of women shifted irrevocably. No longer expected to stay at home, keeping house and looking after the children, women took on hugely important roles on both the home front and as auxiliary support in the military. For many women, Miller included, the war brought emancipation and personal fulfillment, but for many others it brought great privation and suffering.


The exhibition charts Lee Miller’s extraordinary career as a photographer for Vogue Magazine and as one of only four female professional photographs to be accredited as US official war correspondents during the Second World War. In addition to the striking photographs, many of which are on public display for the first time, the exhibition also includes artworks, costumes and uniforms, personal objects, documents and ephemera.


Divided into four sections, the first room examines the origins of Miller’s wartime vision of women and her development as a photographer. She was an enthusiastic proponent of Surrealism and went to Paris to study with Man Ray, becoming his muse and lover. The display includes theatrically-posed fashion shots for British Vogue as well as more experimental self-portraits using the “solarisation” techniques developed by Man Ray. The images portray women’s lives and social status in the years before the outbreak of the war.


“Women in Wartime Britain shows how Miller documented the transformation of women’s lives and their changing roles in wartime British between 1939 and 1945. At the time, Miller was working for British Vogue and many of her photographs were used by the magazine to guide readers’ responses to wartime demands from the British Ministry of Information on matters such as clothing and safety. There are photos of austere wartime clothing given a glamorous cast by Miller’s clever use of poses and lighting, or Vogue models wearing fire masks at the entrance to an air raid shelter. Away from the home front, there are photographs depicting women in important auxiliary roles: in one, Anna Leska, a female Polish pilot and member of the Air Transport Authority, looks out from the cockpit of a Spitfire, snug in her fur-lined flying jacket, her eyes gazing ahead. There are factory workers and nurses, parachute packers and telephone operators. These pictures show how wartime privations and suffering were offset, in some cases, by enhanced opportunities for women outside the home.


Perhaps the most revealing and searing pictures are those in the section Women in Wartime Europe. Here we see the closer, more equal collaboration between men and women in wartime in a series of sharply-observed and empathetic images. Here the emotional and physical toll of war on women is considered: a powerful yet tender image of a French woman with a shaven head, accused of being a collaborator; women enjoying a return to near-normality after the liberation of Paris in 1944; women sitting on a park bench surrounded by devastated buildings in Cologne in 1945; women and children on the move, displaced by war, in images which mirror scenes of refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria and Iraq today. She documented with unerring precision and compassion the American liberation of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, and the looting of Adolf Hitler’s home at the Bergdof. Included in this section is the famous picture of Miller in the bath in Hitler’s apartment in Munich, where she was billeted by the Americans the day Hitler died. The image is carefully arranged and highly symbolic and remains a powerful and unnerving image.


The final section, “Women after the Second World War,” focuses on Miller’s coverage of women in Denmark, Austria, Hungary and Romania. Here the lasting legacy of war is examined, showing the difficult process of recovery from wartime experiences and the adjustment to post-war changes, including continued privations, rationing, illness and poverty. It also debates the role and status of women after the war, and depicts Miller’s own struggles, emotional and physical, to cope in the years following the end of the war.


This powerful and at times very moving exhibition is both a celebration of Lee Miller’s talents as a fearless and pioneering photographer and also a detailed exploration of the changing status and roles of women. The photographs are intimate, searing and honest, and demonstrate how Miller’s own experiences of the war reflect those of many other women.





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