How Lee Miller, a Magazine Model and Muse, Became a Daring World War II Photographer

The bold journalist, who made a splash on both sides of the lens, is the subject of a new biopic starring Kate Winslet

two photographs of the same woman modeling
Left, a 1932 self-portrait by Lee Miller. Right, a 1943 portrait of Miller by American photojournalist David Scherman. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2023. All rights reserved.; David E. Scherman © Courtesy Lee Miller Archives, England 2023. All rights reserved.

Lee Miller’s big break began with a near-death experience. Miller was discovered at 19 by publishing scion Condé Nast himself when he pulled her out of the way of an oncoming car in Manhattan—then put her on the cover of Vogue. But Miller, born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, was not content to be a muse for male photographers.

Instead, she moved to Paris, where she stepped behind the lens and studied with Surrealist photographer Man Ray, her mentor and lover. Miller mastered the technical aspects of photography quickly and distinguished herself among the few high-profile women photographers of the day by opening her own studio in the City of Light. There she took portraits of royalty, literary elites and even the pet lizard of a French socialite, who paid $100 for the image. Soon, Miller turned to photojournalism, ultimately producing some of the 20th century’s most groundbreaking images for the magazine whose cover she once graced.

During World War II, ignoring personal warnings from U.S. diplomats to return stateside, Miller embedded with the U.S. military. She chronicled the war across Europe, capturing unforgettable images: Londoners huddled in underground stations during the Blitz; bloodied patients at an Allied field hospital in Normandy. Miller pushed the bounds at Vogue: At a time when the 1940 bombing of Vogue’s London office didn’t merit a mention in its own pages, Miller ensured that her images went to press: She was among the first reporters to enter Dachau after its liberation and sent a message with her photos to her editor, “I IMPLORE YOU TO BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE.”

After the war, she settled on a Sussex farm, where artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet were regular visitors. Yet Miller struggled to find a sense of purpose and was largely forgotten until a trove of her photographs was rediscovered in her attic, several years after her death in 1977.

Now a feature film is helping rescue Miller from obscurity: In Lee, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2023, Kate Winslet (center) is magnetic in the title role, and was so inspired by Miller’s story that she wrote the foreword to Lee Miller: Photographs, a book by Miller’s son released this past October.

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This article is a selection from the December 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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