Lee Miller: Combat Photographer, Fashion Model & Muse, with Antony Penrose11/30/2023
Lee Miller may have been best known in life as a beautiful muse of the legendary Surrealist Man Ray yet, shortly after her passing, a lucky accident led her family to an attic treasure trove, which made her a photography legend in her own right. During this week’s podcast, we unpack the details of this extraordinary tale and hear many other anecdotes from Miller’s adventurous life in a chat with her son and biographer, Antony Penrose.
From her swift ascent as a ’20s-era Vogue fashion model—and the ad campaign that sidelined her appeal—to her audacious exploits as an accredited war correspondent for the very same magazine, Penrose sheds light on a woman who lived many lives, as exemplified in the title of his first book.
Miller’s remarkable bravery as a World War II combat photographer was recently immortalized in the feature film Lee, starring Kate Winslet, which is another facet of our chat. Penrose describes what it was like to work with the actress as she plumbed Miller’s archive for her character development, how she mastered the operation of a custom-made Rolleiflex, and how the camera became a personality in itself as part of the film.
Penrose had a troubled relationship with his mother during much of her life, as she struggled with PTSD and the enduring effects wartime atrocities had on her psyche. His reflections on her struggles and her accomplishments reveal the very human core of a creative powerhouse who lived in the moment, in true Surrealist fashion.
“This person who I had dismissed as being a useless drunk, now had other dimensions to her, which I was totally astonished by,” recounts Penrose about the treasures she left behind in the attic. “… it had never occurred to me that her career was so distinguished, and so varied, and so absolutely groundbreaking in terms of being a woman war correspondent. And so, that’s how it began.”
So, pop in your earbuds and listen… this is an episode you won’t want to miss!
Above photograph © 2023 Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk
Guests: Antony Penrose
- 2:18: The accidental discovery of Lee Miller’s photographs and wartime correspondence in the attic of the family farm, Farleys House.
- 7:40: The reasons leading Miller to bury her life’s work, her struggle with PTSD, and her husband’s awareness of her photographic life and work.
- 15:19: Lee Miller’s work as a top fashion model, the controversial ad that ended her modeling career, and her initial discovery by Condé Nast.
- 20:27: The story behind Miller’s adopted first name, and benefits to using this name as a female photographer.
- 22:28: Lee Miller and Man Ray’s rediscovery of solarization as a photographic technique.
- 25:04: Establishing a depression-era photo studio in Manhattan, comparing American and Parisian audiences, and the reasons that led her to close the studio and move to Egypt.
- 33:25: Episode Break
- 34:50: Penrose’s involvement in making the film Lee, the use of archival materials for Kate Winslet’s character development, and how Winslet learned to operate a Rolleiflex camera for the film.
- 39:38: Advantages and disadvantages of using a Rolleiflex by looking down into the viewfinder, and holding the camera like a periscope when photographing war and combat.
- 43:45: Miller’s written stories about wartime combat published in Vogue magazine, and her work in tandem with Life magazine photographer David Scherman.
- 50:00: Miller’s reinvention as a gourmet cook, her postwar life at Farleys, and the inventive aspect of her culinary masterpieces.
- 57:20: The ultimate importance of Miller’s attic treasure trove to her ongoing legacy and the value of her work.
Antony Penrose is a British photographer, and the son of Lee Miller and Sir Roland Penrose. He is author of the biography, The Lives of Lee Miller, and the recent monograph Lee Miller: Photographs. Additionally, he is director of the Lee Miller Archives and the Penrose Collection at his parents' former home, Farleys House. Since establishing this archive, he has dedicated a large part of his life to research into the lives of his parents and their illustrious circle of artist friends. As an accredited lecturer for major museums and institutions, Penrose’s engaging presentations are brimming with the personal experience of knowing and spending time with many of these artists.
Lee Miller Archives at Farleys House: https://www.leemiller.co.uk/
Lee Miller: Photographs book: https://www.thamesandhudsonusa.com/books/lee-miller-photographs-hardcover
The Lives of Lee Miller biography: https://www.thamesandhudsonusa.com/books/the-lives-of-lee-miller-softcover
The film “Lee” on IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5112584/
“Surrealist Lee Miller” exhibit in Melbourne, Australia: https://www.heide.com.au/exhibitions/surrealist-lee-miller/
“Lee Miller in Print” exhibit in Rotterdam: https://www.boijmans.nl/en/exhibitions/lee-miller-in-print
“Seeing is Believing: Lee Miller & Friends” exhibit at Gagosian Gallery: https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2023/seeing-is-believing-lee-miller-and-friends/
Panasonic Lumix Cameras: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/panasonic-lumix-mirrorless-cameras/ci/39961
Host: Allan Weitz
Senior Creative Producer: Jill Waterman
Senior Producer: Mike Weinstein
Executive Producer: Shawn C Steiner