Lee Miller and Man Ray: a love story in photography

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She wasn’t beautiful Lee Miller, she was beautiful. She was so beautiful that when Condé Nast – the famous American publisher, that of Vogue and of Vanity Fair – he rescues her by chance after a car accident on the streets of New York, it takes a few minutes to offer her a modeling job. Today again, looking at his portraits is like vertigo. Here it is, instead in front of Man Ray’s camera: perfect profile, sublime elegance.

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Man Ray, Lee Miller, Circa 1930 © Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP – SIAE – 2022; images: Telimage, Paris

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Now it should be explained how Elisabeth “Lee” Miller, style icon of the 1920s, star of the covers di Voguewhose body and face are cannibalized by the advertising of the time, becomes first apprentice then friend, partner, lover and companion of Man Raythe champion of Surrealism (here he is, in a photo taken by her).

Man Ray, Self portrait, 1931 (1982) Private collection, Courtesy Marconi Foundation, Milan
© Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP – SIAE – 2022

The liason amoureuse of a lifetime

Of the relationship between Lee Miller and Man Ray – which blossomed in the Paris of ’29, lasted three years but then, after all, a whole life – talks about an unmissable exhibition that has just opened in Venice, a Franchetti Palace, just a few steps from the Accademia bridge. Here, in the richly decorated halls overlooking the Grand Canal, the liaison amoureuse of this extraordinary couple of the twentieth century is told through 140 photographs, some art and video objects from the Lee Miller Archivers, jealously guarded by the photographer’s only son, Anthony Penrose, and pieces from the Marconi Foundation. Some of these photos, certainly the one at the beginning of the article, you have seen around who knows how many times: well, Lee Miller Man Ray Fashion Love War (until April 10) finally tells us how these shots were born and what it was the contribution of Lee Miller to their realization.

Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1930 Private collection, Courtesy Marconi Foundation, Milan Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP – SIAE – 2022;

For too long relegated to a mere disciple and then muse of Man Ray, Lee Miller was instead his equal, gifted with equal, if not greater, ingenuity. “Let’s tell the story from another perspective” explains Victoria Noel-Johnson, curator of the exhibition, produced by CMS Cultura with ACP Palazzo Franchetti, one of the top titles of this Venetian autumn season. And that’s the right perspective to put things rightafter years, to rebalance the situation in this couple (first also sentimental, then only professional): for too long, Man Ray’s fame has overshadowed Lee Miller’s talent, for too long many works made by four hands (such as the kiss you see below) were signed only by him (it was used like this, at the time) and only today, thanks to letters and documents, we can understand that exceptional Lee Miller had not only the beauty, but also the talent. Other than muse, she was one real pioneer of Surrealism in photography, innovative in experimentation and even fearless in capturing uncomfortable subjects.

Man Ray, Le baiser (Lee Miller)1930 (c.1980), Private collection, Courtesy Marconi Foundation, Milan
© Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP – SIAE – 2022;

From New York to Paris, from Europe to Egypt, always against the tide

For this, despite the fame, decides to leave New York and go to Europe: she travels a lot (including Italy) then arrives in Paris where she goes directly to the studio of Man Ray – already famous in the Ville Lumiere – to ask to become his assistant. The man is reluctant: an artist in great demand, he does not want to waste time. Lee Miller insists, Man Ray gives in. They are 17 years apart and in a short time the professional partnership also becomes loving, for three intense (and unforgettable) years. They are those of the experiments, such as the solarization technique: the photos of one and the other appear indistinguishable, the signatures are often confused (and almost always to the advantage of Man Ray). All, absolutely all, the great intellectuals of the time are portrayed in Man Ray’s studio: they are friends of the couple Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, Jean Costeau. Lee Miller’s body is dissected in front of the camera: on display in Venice there are many evocative shots of his body, shoulders, neck. It is she herself who creates “surrealist still lifes” with parts of her body (but it must be said that Man Ray, after a fight, imagines his neck slit in a photograph…).

Meanwhile, the relationship is proceeding through ups and downs: Man Ray is almost obsessed with the physical and creative energy of that woman who seems capable of anything and no wonder that Hollywood is making a film about the artist next year, with Kate Winslet in the role of the protagonist.

The relationship ends: in 1932 Lee Miller returns home to New York, where he opens the first photographic studio founded and directed by a woman. Man Ray is devastated, he mentions Lee’s eyes in many of his works. Does it all end like this? Not exactly. A very intense life awaits the woman whose multifaceted character, room after room, we learn about: after a few years marries an Egyptian businessmanthe marriage does not last long but today gives us some wonderful shots of that land.

Images like this, very modern.

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space, Al Bulwayeb, Near Siwa, Egypt 1937, (E1905) © Lee Miller Archives England 2022. All Rights Reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk

Lee Miller

A new love (and a kind of triangle)

Lee Miller turns again: he knows Roland Penrosemoved to London, where he works for the English edition of Vogue creating original services, definitely surreal, where fashion and art interpenetrate (and the “Man Ray” style returns). Who knows, maybe everything would have continued like this, but war comes and Lee Miller, indomitable, turns into a very capable reporter: the rooms of Palazzo Franchetti dedicated to her “visions” (such as those of the employees of Vogue with pantyhose made to arrive on purpose from New York walking in a destroyed London) are creepy. Lee Miller immortalizes the Allied landing near Saint Malo, enters the concentration camps by Buchenwald and Dachau, his photography seeks a new truth. Among the most famous shots of him, after the Liberation, the one made in Hitler’s bathtub: the banality of evil, could be the caption.

Lee Miller, Fire Masks, 21 Downshire Hill, London, England 1941 (3840-8) © Lee Miller Archives England 2022. All Rights Reserved.www.leemiller.co.uk

The Lee Miller Archives

After the war, Lee Miller sees his old Parisian friends, including Man Ray: in the family estate, in the English countryside, the woman lives with Penrose but suffers from depression. Where did all his energy, vitality, desire to do (the beauty remain until the end)? Post-traumatic stress disorder corrodes the photographer’s soul: today her son Anthony remembers letters that even Man Ray – who later became a friend of her husband Roland, theirs became in fact “a creative triangle of intelligences” – kept writing to her, to encourage her to life. Lee Miller died in 1977, Man Ray a year earlier: a very sweet, last photograph of them remains, taken when they are both elderly, which seals the path of the exhibition in Venice with melancholy tenderness. An exhibition, moreover, full of coincidences and correspondences. In fact, we owe to Suzanna, Anthony Penrose’s deceased wife, the accidental discovery, in a trunk of the attic of the family estate, of over 60 thousand shots including photos, negatives and documents that Lee Miller had wanted to keep but no longer show. And it is thanks to that discovery that this story can now be shown, told and never forgotten.

Lan Ray, The Tears (Les deux yeux, le nez et les larmes), 1930 (1988), Private collection, Courtesy Marconi Foundation, Milan © Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP – SIAE – 2022;

Source: Vanity Fair

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