Lee Miller’s exhibition A Woman’s War is a careful and thought provoking examination of femininity and the role of women. The walls of the Imperial War Museum are lined with Miller’s black and white collection of photographs. She gives a personal and at times invasive insight into the lives of real women made stronger and weaker by war. Miller uses her gender to get a closer look into bedrooms, changing facilities and factories; places male photographers at the time would not have been permitted. Her pieces are a tiny glimpse of history. They provide modern women of the 21st century a fleeting image of the struggle and empowerment of their predecessors. This is an exhibition that will uplift you, men and women alike.
Lee Miller was a surrealist photographer. She was inspired by Freud and Dadaism. Her work is handled sensitively as if each model in each picture was a close friend revealing a vulnerability. These photos were a reflection of the war movement and how women needed to change and adapt in accordance with it. But the first room showcases a beautiful array of self-portraits. Lee Miller is ordained with luxury items, sphinxes, feathers and jewels. Her modeling career took off at the age of nineteen where she became sought after by British Vogue photographers. She bathes in soft, flattering light staring playfully into the camera. This was a trend Miller would use herself with all her models, to make them look naturally beautiful in the face of an ugly war.
Miller’s work began to encapsulate female beauty. Woman would pose for her in billowing floral dresses. A picture entitled ‘London, England, August, 1941’ was of Margaret Vyner draped in black lace across her shoulders. She leaned forward on a chair with her hair in pin curls. Her work followed in this same style, women were seen posing in couture suits because well-presented women perform better at work. The suit makers’ aim was to reduce waste material and trimmings. Large prints of women standing in lace knickers, their arms stretched out concealing their faces. Miller would use a solarisation technique for a feature of corsetry. This was at a time where underwear should be attractive but discrete. An experimental photograph shows a close up of a woman’s face in the top half, below her in two bubbles, two other women stand. The women wear tailored suits, heels and hats.
But Miller’s interest in fashion photography soon changed to the war. She would capture women posing next to hat stands wearing military uniforms, photos of women working in overalls with thick black goggles across their faces and women working in large packing factories arranging the parcels for the Red Cross. A photo reveals a typist working in a stairwell in an attempt to reveal the unglamorous side of working war women. Her style developed to capture this movement. A piece called ‘Limbering up for the big push’ shows a dancer stretching in a single pool of light. Miller uses multiple exposures to convey the notion of busyness. This is a reaction that women should maintain personal fitness and not be a liability during the war.
In the center of the room there is a glass case. Inside sits a white marble cast of Miller’s own torso by Vena Cava. It was created on the eve of the Second World War and demonstrates Miller’s freedom within her own body and the artistic opportunity she saw within the female form. Her photographs are a celebration of female equality. Women would stand outside Red Cross charity shops. They would be illustrated holding guns, a group of nurses sterilizing surgical gloves and women taking apart a radio for an aircraft. A piece called ‘Hertfordshire, England, October, 1943’ shows director Jill Craigie standing by a studio light on the set of ‘Out of Chaos’. The war disrupted the creative arts but also opened up new vacancies for women filmmakers. Craigie would go on to explore issues such as equality, equal pay and feminism through her films. Miller is able to create a portrait of aspiration that other women could imitate.
Miller truly shows human empathy with her shots of pants and stockings drying against a window with an intimate look at service women’s quarters. Her work is able to be incredibly poignant with shots of letters from home and framed photos of babies. It is a subtle and often underestimated vision of the women who want the war to finish. Her collection is vast and immersive. She is not afraid to expose the reality of battle. A memorable photograph is of Miller sitting in Hitler’s bath. Her work boots are strewn on the floor, a picture of Hitler leering out on the bath’s edge. It was taken on the day that Hitler died and Miller returned hours later to the concentration camps. It is with this multifaceted image that we learn a lot about Miller’s process as an artist and the relentless brutality of the Second World War.
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War runs at the Imperial War Museum, London until 24 April 2016. An accompanying book, Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts, featuring 156 illustrations, is published by Thames & Hudson, 5 Oct, £29.95 .