From Vogue to war-torn Europe: American model turned photographer Lee Miller to be played by Kate Winslet in upcoming film
Photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, known professionally as Lee Miller, was an American photographer and photojournalist following a spell as a fashion model. Miller, who died in 1977 at age 70, flew somewhat under the radar within the photography industry for a long time, despite the significance of her work over a long period.
Many more people will soon become familiar with Lee Miller because of a new biographical drama featuring Kate Winslet as Lee Miller. The film, ‘Lee,’ is currently in production and also stars Alexander Skarsgard, Andrea Riseborough, Marion Cotillard and Andy Samberg, among others. The film is directed by Ellen Kuras, best known for her previous work as a cinematographer on films including ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Blow,’ and as a director on the recent documentary ‘The Betrayal – Nerakhoon,’ which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
While there’s no trailer available yet for Lee, as the movie just started filming in Croatia, we have our first look at Winslet as Lee Miller. The still from the set shows Winslet in military uniform and a Rolleiflex camera – Lee’s camera of choice – in hand:
|Kate Winslet as Lee Miller. Credit: Kimberley French / Sky UK Ltd|
The movie is inspired by the biography, The Lives of Lee Miller, by Anthony Penrose, Miller’s son by her second husband, historian and surrealist painter Roland Penrose. The film’s script is co-written by Liz Hannah, Lem Dobbs, John Collee, Marion Hume and The Lee Miller Archives.
Born in New York, Miller’s early life was tumultuous, including a tragic assault as a child and endless troubles with education. Eventually, Miller moved to Paris at age 18 and studied lighting, costume and design. She returned to New York the following year and joined a drama program at Vassar College. She then went on to study drawing and painting before a chance meeting with publisher Condé Nast. The meeting led to Miller beginning a modeling career for Vogue. She was a highly successful model in New York for a couple of years before turning her attention to the fashion industry from behind the camera.
Miller moved back to Paris in 1929 to work as a model and collaborator for the famous artist Man Ray. She then became Ray’s partner, both romantically and professionally. The two collaborated on solarization photos, which fit the surrealist style Miller hoped to achieve. She became close with other surrealists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Éluard and Jean Cocteau. In 1932, Miller moved back to New York City and started her own portrait and commercial photography studio.
After working there for a few years, Miller married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. Three years later, Miller returned to Paris and met the aforementioned Roland Penrose. At the dawn of World War II, Miller was living with Penrose in England. Against the pleas of her friends and family back in the US, Miller not only stayed in England but became a photojournalist, earning accreditation from the U.S. Army and working as a war correspondent with Condé Nast Publications, including British Vogue.
|Lee Miller – U.S. Army Center of Military History – CC BY-SA 4.0|
This period is the primary focus of the film, ‘Lee,’ which focuses on Miller’s life from 1938 through 1948. During her time working as a war correspondent, Miller photographed portraits of nurses throughout Europe, worked with the famed American photographer David E. Scherman, recorded the first documented use of napalm at St. Malo, photographed the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace and the sheer horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald at Dachau. Miller was also the subject of a famous war photo, Scherman’s portrait of Miller in the bathtub at Hitler’s Berlin apartment in 1945.
Miller’s work on the frontlines of the war and documenting the terrors that World War II left behind on civilians exposed Miller and the rest of the world to many awful realities, including dying children in hospitals, corpses of soldiers, and even the execution of László Bárdossy in Hungary. Lee Miller, who once told a journalist that she’d ‘rather take a picture than be one,’ took many important photos during her life. Her photos of concentration camps were the first exposure for many, especially in the US, to the realities of the Nazi war effort and occupations throughout Europe.
|The cover of ‘Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain,’ a book about Miller written by Ami Bouhassane, Robin Muir & Amber Butchart and published in 2022.|
While Miller continued to work for Vogue as a fashion and celebrity photographer for two years following the war, World War II left an indelible mark on Miller. She suffered from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and became a heavy drinker. Miller eventually put the camera down – mostly – and focused on becoming a gourmet cook. She still captured portraits for her husband Roland Penrose and captured the occasional portrait. According to her son, the scars from World War II had a significant and lasting impact on Miller’s emotional well-being. She was also investigated over a long period by the British security service MI5 under suspicion of being a Soviet spy.
|Lee Miller, in 1943, alongside other female war correspondents working in Europe for the U.S. Army. From left to right, Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller and Tania Long.|
Lee Miller died of cancer at age 70 in 1977. While her life and work were chronicled in her son’s biography, plus a book by Penrose and Scherman titled Lee Miller’s War: Photographer and Correspondent with the Allies in Europe 1944-45 in 1992, it wasn’t until Anthony Penrose uncovered more than 60,000 negatives, journals and other pieces of work in an attic in 2013 that Miller’s body of photographic work garnered the full attention it deserved. A foundation in Miller’s name was formed, and the interest in her work has increased greatly.
This article touches only briefly on the fascinating life and career of Lee Miller. You can look forward to the new film, ‘Lee,’ which seems likely to release sometime in 2023, to learn much more about her life, especially the turbulent and significant decade surrounding World War II. Lee Miller put on many hats during her life and experienced remarkable highs in a male-dominated industry and crushing lows due to her important work as a war correspondent. You can find a collection of Miller’s work on the Lee Miller Archives Instagram account.