Monday, January 28, 2008

lee miller: le premier muse

Georges Lepape for Vogue 1927

Her strong bone structure, broad cheek bones and disarmingly wide set eyes have ingrained Lee Miller into the unfaltering image bank that is my memory. Every once in a while, I see something that feels so familiar that I know I have seen it before. Such was the case when I opened up a January issue of The New Yorker to a page with a bare chested woman wearing a net mask. That woman was Lee Miller and I knew I had seen her before. Years ago I saw a Man Ray exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I gazed fervently at all of the photos of Lee Miller. I couldn't take my eyes off the candidness and perfection of her figure in the pictures. There I was staring at a naked Miller, marble-like, akin to the statues lining the hall of Grecian art. We were so different, Miller and I, that I could have sworn we were different species. She human, and I, full of adolescent awkwardness, perhaps a gibbon. It was one of my first tastes of this sort of iconography. I was dazzled by the power that an image can hold over someone. I proffered myself at the altar of beauty, and I don't know if it was seeing Lee Miller that night that spurred me, but it sure didn't help. Sure, there would be countless others. For my 14th or 15th birthday, my mother took me to an Andy Warhol exhibit and I was enamoured with Edie Sedgwick. I was religious about working out to a Claudia Schiffer aerobics tape after those early 90's Guess ads. Hell, I have pictures of Charlotte Gainsbourg taped to my closet as I type this. But if my memory serves me well, I can say that Miller was perhaps the first woman who sold me a fantasy. You know the one I'm talking about--the fantasy that beauty can transform our rinse, lather and repeat existences into something mythical.

Man Ray 'Lee Miller' ca. 1930

I forgot about Lee Miller. Her photographs held more substance, yet they were uninteresting to a teenybopper. Her gaze prevented her from being taken in, there was always a reserve that prevented the same kind of voyeuristic consumption that, say, an Andy Warhol photograph procured. The cold, calculating and sterilized photographs of Man Ray did not match my aesthetic sensibilities, so my affair with Lee Miller would remain short lived.

George Hoyningen Huene 'Lee Miller Wearing Yraide Sailcloth Overalls' 1930

She had an extraordinary personal history. Like Edie Sedgwick, she grew up in a relatively affluent family (although not old American aristocracy) and had a history of sexual abuse under the guise of her father, who took nude photos of her with a stereoscopic camera well into her twenties and another man who raped her when she was seven. Her siblings, like those of Sedgwick's, were extremely troubled: one committed suicide, another cross-dressed. And Miller, in the words of the New Yorker article, was "a promiscuous hellion." She catapaulted her career from a Voguette to a war time correspondent and photographer. Miller had truly amazing knack for seduction and her, ahem, capabilities took her to some amazing places.

Lee Miller 'Self Portrait'

I look at these photographs now and see how influential she was and still is. Miller is like a fashion thoroughbred--a creature who makes everything, for lack of a better word, fabulous.


Blogger Paul Pincus said...

Brilliant post.

11:34 AM  

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