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Looking Down on Lee Miller: Carolyn Burke’s Lee Miller: A Life

Looking Down on Lee Miller

Carolyn Burke’s Lee Miller: A Life

by Henry Edward Hardy

Lady Elizabeth Lee Miller was ahead of her time — and in many ways ahead of our time too. Model, actress, surrealist, freethinker and war photographer, Lee Miller was a lifelong champion and exemplar of absolute freedom and self-determination.

Unfortunately Carlyn Burke misses the mark. Her book is ponderous and self-important, with cloying third person references to “the biographer.” Her fundamental idea about Lee Miller seems to be that she was a victim, first of her childhood experiences and then of war trauma. In particular, Burke seems to focus on a supposed rape when Miller was seven. Although she admits “the details of what happened were unclear,” she bases much of her pseudo-psychological analysis of Miller’s adult life on this premise.

Lee’s father made a number of photos of Miller nude, including some very fetching, but not per se erotic, 3-D stereograms of her as a teenager. Certainly by the time she was an adult Miller was accustomed to being photographed naked. Her father worked for a Swedish company and frequently visited Stockholm, where he was influenced by the liberal attitudes there toward nudity and self-expression.

In 1929 Miller saw the surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray in a Paris cafe. Burke quotes Miller’s accounts of their meeting: “I told him boldly that I was his new student. He said he didn’t take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris on a holiday. I said I know, I’m going with you … and I did.” Miller said of Man Ray, “We lived together for three years, and I learned a lot about photography.”

After she refused to continue to live with Man Ray as an obedient “wife, married or not,” as he put it, Lee returned to New York in 1932. With her command of Man Ray techniques which she had improved, or invented, such as “solarization,” — later popularized by Andy Warhol– Miller became a much sought-after photographer in New York City.

In 1934, Miller married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. Bey was tolerant of Miller and her willful ways. Her images from Egypt are stark and magical, very beautiful but desolate.

Miller’s great years as a photographer and the period for which she will most be remembered by future generations, began with Miller’s move from Egypt to England in 1938. Moving in with her lover, the surrealist (and later, second husband and Commander of the British Empire Sir) Roland Algernon Penrose, Miller joined Penrose’s other ‘houseguest’, Man Ray.

As a photographer and correspondent for Conde Naste (who published Vogue), Miller became one of the first accredited female war correspondents of World War II. Her war photos combine tragedy, beauty, irony, a wicked humor and a sense of mystery. The idea of surrealist war correspondent may seem contradictory, but in fact Lee Miller was at her best in the middle of this war and chaos. Her photo of a duck on a battlefield, her pictures of Dachau, and David Scherman’s portrait of her nude in Hitler’s bathtub during a wild party at Hitler’s former house, her combat boots and army uniform beside her, rank as unique works both as war documentary and as art.

Regrettably, Burke’s biography is at times condescending, judgmental and moralizing. She presumes to speak for the reader, which is presumptuous to say the least. Regarding Lee Miller’s father, Theodore Miller’s nude stereograms of her, Burke says, “To us, Theodore’s ‘art studies’ are disturbing … We wonder why a father would take such pictures, why a mother would not intervene, and what long-term effects such sessions would have…” To see Lee Miller as a victim as Burke does is just as dehumanizing as to see her as an object, as many of her surrealist compatriots such as Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Picasso seem to have done.

Burke’s fawning and yet hostile attitude toward Miller perhaps has influenced her selection of photos — she seems to have selected the frumpiest, most out of focus, and least appealing pictures of Miller for the book. Although Miller doesn’t look bad in Burke’s selection, it is quite difficult from this meager ration of images to discern the outstanding beauty who was a “vision so lovely … one forgot the purpose of one’s visit.”

Similarly, the selection of Miller’s own work is curiously lacking. Given Burke’s access to the Lee Miller Archives and the gracious cooperation of Miller’s and Roland Penrose’s son Antony Penrose, one wonders at the paucity of Miller’s best, and best-known work as a model and as a photographer.

Burke’s book rates as not a bad biography of a remarkable intellect and freethinker. But the interested reader would do far better to consult her son Antony Penrose’s book, The Lives of Lee Miller (Thames and Hudson, 1988), which is both more objective and more sympathetic.

Google image results for ‘Lee Miller’
Lee Miller Archive
Lee Miller (wikipedia)
The real surrealist (Guardian)
Beauty and the Beasts (Washington Post)

A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current

Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy

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21 January, 2007 Posted by | archives, art, books, Lee Miller, modeling, photography, reviews, scanlyze, surrealism, war, WWII | 4 Comments

American Splendor: Harvey Pekar and the Splendor that was Cleveland

American Splendor
Harvey Pekar and the Splendor that was Cleveland

by Henry Edward Hardy

American Splendor is the story of Harvey Pekar, a file clerk and down-market intellectual from the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the schlubby hero of his own comic, and the multifarious protagonist of his own movie. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor (2003) is a sweet, funny film about a cynical, good-hearted loser and his idiosyncratic friends and family.

I had read that this film involved a combination of the real Harvey Pekar, dramatizations of the comic and still frames by various artists. I expected the movie to be incoherent, pretentious, arty and boring. Having lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio in the ’60s and ’70s, I anticipated the depiction of Cleveland would be a phony, cheap satire.

Surprisingly, American Splendor is brilliant. The transitions between cartoon frames, the understated acting of Paul Giamatti, and the real Pekar, work wonderfully. The result is like a moving Kandinsky montage, a collision of disparate elements that nonetheless combine with the spaces between them to make a harmonious whole. The location shots are true to life and the gritty urban scenes made me downright homesick for Cleveland in the ’70s. And any movie that makes you homesick for Cleveland in the ’70s is a brilliant film.

Pekar worked as a hospital file clerk and as a music critic on the side. The music of American Splendor underlines Pekar’s love of jazz and his massive jazz record collection. Harvey Pekar is the loveable, acerbic, intellectual, grouchy yet well-meaning lower-white-collar guy that Woody Allen always wanted to be.

American Splendor is also a love story. It is a story about Pekar’s affair and somewhat functional marriage with his third wife, Joyce Brabner. American Splendor is about making a life among the urban decay of post-industrial Cleveland. The film celebrates all the people who don’t fit in, the misfits, artists and non-conformists. It is an uplifting story about a miserable, gloomy guy who has no life as we know it. Pekar is a modern Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce, an apostle for the common man.

If your life sucks, if you are a nerd or quasi-autistic, if you have bad luck or no luck at all — or if you have a sense of humor that always carries you through, see American Splendor.

American Spendor (IMDB)
American Spendor (wikipedia)
American Spendor (Rotten Tomatoes)

A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current

Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy

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21 January, 2007 Posted by | archives, art, books, Cleveland, comics, media, movies, Ohio, reviews, scanlyze, weird | Leave a comment