An exhibition celebrating the work of Lee Miller reveals how the photographer was haunted by visiting Dachau and the deaths of her Jewish friends, writes Francine Wolfisz
Often has it been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But in the case of a carefully constructed, black-and-white image of acclaimed photographer Lee Miller, the number of words needed are perhaps infinite – for she is portrayed washing off the dirt of Dachau while sitting inside a bathtub belonging to Adolf Hitler.
This powerful and poignant image is just one of 150 iconic photographs taken by Miller and selected for a new exhibition about her work at the Imperial War Museum, which opened this week.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, which runs until next April, tells a story of women before, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, both here in Britain and Europe.
The American-born former model and artist, who died in 1977 aged 70, began her career with Vogue magazine, before becoming one of only four female professional photographers accredited as an official US war correspondent. Her work during this period included covering such events as the Blitz and the liberation of Paris, as well as documenting the horrific environments of Buchenwald and Dachau.
The latter had a particularly stark effect on Miller, says curator Hilary Roberts.
“I think it’s fair to say the concentration camps were a shock to everyone who saw them, whether you were in uniform, with the medical authorities or a journalist.
“Many found it hard to talk about it and indeed have lasting memories. One British photographer recalls walking down the street and passing a local butcher receiving a delivery. When a carcass came out of the meat van, he said he was straight back at Belsen – and that was 50 years later.
“For Lee Miller in particular, nothing in her previous experience had prepared her for any of this. She had been a fashion model, involved in the world of fine arts and then a commercial photographer. Beauty and art were her thing. She was unlike Margaret Bourke-White, who had covered war in Spain and the Soviet Union and was a hardened war photographer from the outset. Not so much for Lee Miller. The impact of what she saw in the concentration camps was even stronger.”
Antony Penrose, Miller’s son by marriage to the British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose, vividly recalls how the events of the Holocaust had affected his mother.
“She never spoke about the war,” says Penrose. “I think it was too painful for her. Many of her friends were Jewish. When she arrived in Paris and saw all this celebration, she recognised that her friends were missing. Not only Jewish people, but also poets, journalists, surrealist artists – they just disappeared.
“The hope had been that when they got into Germany, her friends would be discovered in labour camps. As she came across one camp after another, she realised that hope was futile. I think she thought she might find a few chums alive at Dachau, but there was no one and it was devastating for her.”
Years later, Penrose discovered that his mother had been so incensed by what she had seen at the camps, that she actually destroyed many of her precious negatives from Dachau.
He explains: “I met this truly remarkable woman, Pam Makin who, aged 18, had been a dark room assistant at Vogue. She recalls Lee coming back after the war and grabbing a huge pile of the Holocaust negatives and cutting them up with scissors. Pam urged her to stop. Lee said: ‘I don’t want anyone to have to see what I witnessed, but I’m leaving enough to make sure there’s no doubt about what happened.’
“That is probably where two-thirds of the Dachau negatives ended up.I so wish she hadn’t done that, because I believe the best wayof preventing a recurrence is for people to know and understand what happened.”
However, the images Lee did preserve include some of her finest, most striking and most poignant work. These include a picture of an Austrian doctor comforting a Hungarian woman, in the days after both had been sent on a forced march from Auschwitz; a group shot of displaced women who had been forced to work as camp prostitutes; and a French woman suffering the punishment of a shaven head after being accused of collaborating with the Germans.
There is, of course, also the iconic and very well-staged image of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub. To the leftof the picture, Miller and her co-photographer David Scherman placed a vanity portrait of Hitler by Heinrich Hoffmann, as a calculated insult tothe German dictator.
To the left isa “horrid little kitsch sculpture”, explains Penrose, made by Rudolf Kaesbach as a comment against Hitler’s taste in art.
And then finally there are the boots. “These are the boots that carried Lee around Dachau that morning and now they are stamping the dirt of that place into that nice, pristine bath mat,” adds Penrose.
Once the photograph was taken, Miller swapped with Scherman and he took up his place in the bathtub for another photograph.
Penrose explains: “Now if you were to see the photo of Scherman, Lee tilts up to fully include the showerhead prominently. Why? Because Scherman was Jewish and that morning they had been in a very different type of shower room, one that was disguised as such, but was in fact a gas chamber. There are thousands of words in those two pictures.”
By coincidence, the photographs were taken on the very same afternoon that Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide nearly 400 miles away in Berlin.
“Lee had a very strong affinity with Jewish people and she was criticised for it, because it was unfashionable,” adds Penrose. “But she wasn’t going to have any of it. She was totally immune to prejudice of colour, race, creed or anything else or gender preference. That was just Lee’s way of being.”
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War runs until 24 April 2016 at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road. Details: www.iwm.org.uk
The exhibition is accompanied by Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, published by Thames & Hudson, priced £29.95.