Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond

Patricia Allmer (@Patricia_Allmer)  is Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. She has published and lectured widely on surrealism. Her major publications include Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond (Manchester University Press, 2016), René Magritte: Beyond Painting (MUP, 2009), and a range of edited and co-edited books and special journal issues such as Intersections: Women Artists/Surrealism/Modernism (MUP, 2016). She is the curator and catalogue editor of the award-winning Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism (Manchester Art Gallery, 2009; Prestel), and co-curated and co-edited the catalogue for Taking Shots: the Photography of William S. Burroughs (The Photographers’ Gallery, 2014; Prestel). She is currently working on a co-curated exhibition entitled Four Saints in Three Acts, to be held at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2017.


In recent decades, several monographs and exhibitions, and the accompanying press attention, have established Lee Miller as a significant 20th century photographer. The danger and intrigue associated with her personal and professional personae seemed products of the glamorous and seemingly out-of-control lifestyle she lived, a fearless beauty, whose subsequent apparent demise from intrepid international photographer to rural domesticity confirmed old parables about having to pay for one’s sins.

Such insistent biographical narratives have two significant effects. Firstly, they distract critical attention from Miller’s influence on photography and on Anglo-American art scenes. Secondly, they establish a key set of events defining a particular narrative of biographical experience. These comprise her childhood experience of being raped; her disturbingly being photographed nude as a child and teenager (and later) by her father; her allegedly accidental encounter with Condé Nast (the owner of Vogue), leading to her modelling for Vogue in the 1920s; travelling to Paris to work with (and have a long relationship with) Man Ray; her involvement in surrealist circles of the 1930s; her marriage to a wealthy Egyptian and going to live in Cairo; her return to Europe to befriend Picasso and marry English aristocrat Roland Penrose; her work as Vogue war correspondent and photographer of the Blitz; her photographing the concentration camps, and post-War Eastern Europe; and her return to England to live in a farmhouse in Sussex and cook bizarre meals. Such a summary-reduction is a common strategy in the journalistic version of Miller, particularly in its almost complete elision of her post-War life, 32 of her 70 years.

So while attention to Miller’s life feeds the media appetite for her, it also works against precisely those elements which would establish her as a key 20th century photographer – removing her agency as an artist actively pursuing a career, and undermining the conscious complexity of her artworks comprising an oeuvre which demonstrably influences other artists. ‘Looking awry’ at the official narratives about Miller enables other versions of her to come into focus, mobilising other histories perhaps less glamorous or dramatic, but certainly more nuanced and more attuned to the complexities of the contexts in which she moved. This was very much the aim of Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond. Rather than disproving current versions of Miller’s life or offering a new fixed narrative, the book tries to muddy the waters a little, adding new layers and historical and aesthetic possibilities by drawing attention to her non-photographic work in collage, or her contributions to art history writing, and post-war curating.

One insistent trope in narratives of Miller’s life is the emphasis on accidents as explanations for events, encounters, and opportunities. Indeed it is possible to read her life as a series of anecdotes about a sequence of accidents and coincidences. One way of ‘looking awry’ in Lee Miller was in asking the question – what if? What if these ‘accidents’ weren’t accidental at all? What happens to the narrative then? Often perpetuated by Miller herself in some interviews (but, notably, contradicted in others), the ‘reality-value’ of these anecdotal accidents is always questionable, and their existence within the matrix of Surrealism adds other problems, as accidental and fortuitous encounters are a key surrealist trope. While assigning major events to the agency of accidents and coincidences makes a good storyline (something Miller as a journalist would have known very well), it also has the effect of undermining her actual agency and intentionality, as a woman becoming an artist, removing her from the position of control over her own life. The narrativised accidents and coincidences feed into the larger biographical narrative of Miller’s artistic production as well as her apparent ‘directionlessness’ and her ‘out-of-control’ behaviour. All can be traced back to events (like her being raped) that happen to her.

The most often repeated and most significant of these biographical ‘accidents’ is the account of Miller securing work at Vogue, just escaping a traffic accident (but also being ‘accidentally’ rescued by the leading figure in the fashion world). Holly Williams puts it like this: “She was a high-fashion fixture in the 1920s, discovered when the publisher Condé Nast pulled her out of the way of oncoming traffic – and then on to the cover of Vogue”.[1] An accident Miller herself repeated, with a beautiful butterfly-effect which changes her life; an accident on which her entire career trajectory (of course closely interwoven with Vogue, first as model, then as photographer) rests. Such anecdotes apparently relegate control over artistic production to the accidental, the coincidental, and (frequently) to chance encounters with men who become prime movers in Miller’s life.

We might see Miller’s self-mythologizing use of the accident-narrative as a kind of reclamation of the narrativised territory of the self. Consistency is crucial to successful self-mythologization, and she seems to have been strategically inconsistent in some of the key accident-narratives she has put into circulation. This opens up the possibility that she exploited the accident-narrative to convey a rather more complex sense of herself as creator of her circumstances. It seems, for example, that Miller herself is the originator of the Condé Nast story.

In biographical accounts of this ‘accident’, little is made of Miller’s early experience of and immersion in modelling and fashion photography. Her father, a very proficient amateur photographer, used her as a model from an early age. Miller’s poses in these child and teenage photographs point to her awareness of, and probable studying of, the posing and staging of the female nude in art history and in contemporary publications like Vogue, which featured work by major photographers at the time. In a substantial and photographically-recorded way, Miller was a model long before she was ‘accidentally discovered’ by Nast. She would certainly have been very interested in working as a model for Vogue.

Likewise Miller’s upper-class status make it highly unlikely that Miller did not know who Nast was, or where he was likely to be found in New York. Her well-documented interest in theatre, cinema, and art, her status as a young and hip north-east American teenager, living in close proximity to and visiting New York, very likely familiar with the leading fashionable magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, and Nast’s regular appearances in these magazines and in the society pages of widely read newspapers – all combine to suggest a degree of prior arrangement behind the alleged ‘accidental encounter’ with Nast.

If Miller’s encounter is a consequence of active decisions rather than accidental encounters, we can begin to see her as a conscious agent in control of her destiny, making a conscious decision at the beginning of a very successful career trajectory, rather than a product of surrealised contingent chance events and accidents. The surrealistically appealing narrative relies heavily on the implication that at twenty-one Miller was a directionless woman, floating around, and accidentally (as is repeatedly asserted) ‘falling into’ the arms of all sorts of interesting men. It removes agency and intention not only from Miller’s career trajectory but also from those subsequent encounters and collaborations in which she was an equally dynamic partner.

In the book I challenged this received narrative in order to reposition Miller as an active agent in her own life.

Another way in which Miller has been written-out of cultural history can be seen in constructions of her post-war life, which neglect her significant and extensive work in this period. Critics and journalists agree on a basic narrative trajectory: after the war, during which she travelled Europe and documented the Holocaust, Miller ‘retired’ from her previous occupation as photographer, turning instead to the domestic, feminine practice of cooking. This ‘retirement’ is generally constructed as a kind of post-traumatic breakdown, rendering her a largely passive participant in the social world inhabited by her new family. Furthermore, as the narrative has it, Miller’s photography was not exhibited during this period, and was, consequently, largely forgotten by the art world. Cooking (generally seen, interestingly, as a sign of her decline) is understood as an act of transference, a kind of lower-level aesthetic activity, a displaced kind of photography (a movement from the darkroom to the kitchen, perhaps), and certainly not as an organic development of or continuation of her previous work. Instead, like Miller’s entire post-war life, it has been critically understood as a kind of failure. But – what if she never actually left the art scene? What if the apparent disappearance was instead a shift in her art and photographic practice, interest, and engagement – a different kind of persistent presence?

Indeed, Miller significantly contributed to ICA shows, for example loaning her photographs of Picasso to the 1956 ICA show Picasso Himself. As Roland Penrose’s dedications indicate, Miller’s extensive journalistic know-how helped in writing his key texts introducing British audiences to modernism. The several editions of his 1956 Portrait of Picasso reproduce Miller’s photographs, and the 1971 edition includes new photographs of Picasso by her. She actually extensively photographed Picasso until nine months before his death in 1973. So, contra the conventional biographical narratives, she was an active photographer at the age of 65!

These examples reveal how active Miller was (as we know drugs and alcohol don’t necessarily stop great artists). They also exemplify the processes involved in suppressing female artists. Importantly here, I am talking about the processes of writing out, rather than Miller actually being written out. The media loves the perpetual rediscovery of apparently forgotten artists. The implications of being allegedly forgotten and then discovered are that you didn’t have any influence within the period in which you are forgotten. ‘Discovery’ and ‘rediscovery’ haunts not just Miller’s own history, but is epidemic when attention comes to women artists. Constantly ‘rediscovered’, re-installed, or re-placed within each new generation’s reconceptualisations, the woman artist occupies a permanently impermanent position. So we need to be very careful with these ‘discovery’ claims, as they damage rather than aid female artists. Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond seeks to construct a different version of Lee Miller as an active, self-determining woman artist.


[1] Holly Williams ‘The unseen Lee Miller: Lost images of the supermodel-turned-war photographer go on show’, The Guardian, (21 April 2013), accessed 16 May 2016,