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Presentation by Antony Penrose
about war and fashion photographer Lee Miller.
I had mixed feelings about the arrival of Wednesday 30th November. Pleased because I was attending a photographic presentation, which, apart from entering the 'Picturing Democracy' and 'Farmers Weekly' photo competitions, marked the end of a couple of weeks of inactivity in that area. Concerned, because the presentation was at a camera club.
So what's the problem with camera clubs you may ask? Well, they're almost totally oblivious to the real world, that's what. For a start, they restrict themselves almost 100% to presenters who know little about photography beyond what happens on the camera-club circuit. Secondly, they're riddled with competition judges who are incapable of seeing beyond the 'text-book' definitions of what makes a good image, and so give the same boring old opinions time-after-time. Finally, they fail to grasp the need to actively sell themselves, and wonder why overall attendance levels are in a state of decline.
Therefore, it was with great pleasure and surprise that I heard that Towcester Camera Club was to host a talk about the life of someone who lived very much in the real world, the legendary American fashion and war photographer Elizabeth ('Lee') Miller. Now with the exception of a talk by John Swannell at Swavesey Camera Club in September 2008, this was the first event that gave me any hint that camera clubs realise that there's something else out there. Well, that's not strictly true to be honest. The reason I say that is because for a while I was Syllabus Officer at Kempston Camera Club, along with my wife Pauline. Whilst in that position, we personally organised talks by real-world togs Steve Bloom, Joe Cornish, Ben Osborne, Derry Brabbs, Will Cheung, and Mike Maloney. Now I know it sounds arrogant to blow our own trumpet, especially as those photographers are not all world-famous. But, apart from one wonderfully-inspired idea to carry out a public photoshoot, when we raised over £700 for BBC Children-in-Need, no-one came up with anything to vary the same old month-in, month-out format of inter-club competition, lecturer from the camera-club circuit, and studio session.
Anyway, I've never seen another presentation like that about Lee Miller, which was delivered by Antony Penrose, son of Lee and her husband Roland Penrose. Whereas often we're shown groupings of images related by subject matter, with associated context and anecdotes, in this case we roughly followed Lee's lifeline, with images from various photographers relevant to the situations. It's these images (and the work of Roland also), that have become an all-encompassing passion for Antony, with his later life being consumed by the desire to document and publicise his invaluable legacy. This passion came across not only in terms of the physical work he's done to this end, but also in the manner in which the talk was presented. Very slick and very refined it was, and presented entirely without assistance apart from a few short quotations. This professionalism comes not only from the talk having been delivered many times, but also, I'd say, from the intense and extensive worldwide research Antony Penrose has personally carried out over a number of years. He presented a deep insight into the colourful and often sad life his mother led: his delivery was forceful, his voice varying in pace, tone and emphasis as if coming from an actor, but with empathy that could only come from a relative. Yet strangely, throughout the whole talk, his arms stayed resolutely down by his sides: no folding of arms and no hands in pockets, but also no gesticulations, no sleights of hand, no clenched or banging fists etc, that typically illustrate a message being delivered so dramatically.
Also strange to me, considering the intensity of the connection to Lee that's implied by Antony's efforts in recent years, and the fact that he probably now knows his mother more intimately than most other children know theirs, is the way that he was able to talk frankly about her. Antony, however, doesn't recognise a contradiction, as he describes as 'detached' his relationship with his mother. As I imply, the overall feel of the presentation makes it really difficult for me to accept that view, although it shouldn't amaze me I know, as he never really knew Lee when he was young. You see, Lee was depressed during those early years and drank heavily, and as such, she was hardly fit to cope with raising a son. It's not surprising therefore that he was raised by his nanny, and Antony actually thought of her as his mother.
So it's because of this 'detachment', that he could talk openly of Lee's often less-salubrious life. In the teen years for instance, of the nude modelling for her own father Theodore. In the late twenties, of her appearance in an Edward Steichen image used in a Kotex ad, that effectively ended the New York modelling career with Vogue offered to her by Conde Montrose Nast. Later in life, of the 'loose' personal relationships, of the depression and heavy drinking, and of one bizarre incident where she served up the severed offcuts of a mastectomy to someone she felt had an unhealthy obsession with female breasts. Of interest to me was Antony's linking of Lee's 'free love' attitude to surrealism, a movement she was involved in from her early twenties when she moved to Paris for the first time. Now I realise that surrealism can be related to a 'free-thinking' attitude, but I never understood it to have sexual undertones. However, when I see samples of 'surrealist' work, I have to admit that I find it difficult to understand much at all of the mindset of those associated with the style.
Very much associated with surrealism of course, and in Lee Miller's circle of friends in Paris, were Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and, most significantly, Emmanuel Radnitzky. Better known as Man Ray, Lee became deeply involved with him, both personally and professionally, and the association gave rise to at least one milestone in the history of photography. Whilst developing glass plates in the darkroom with him, something ran over her foot. Turning on the light to find a rodent in attendance, thus was reborn the solarisation technique, widely (but incorrectly) credited to this incident.
To Man Ray's extreme distress said Antony Penrose, Lee left Paris and returned to New York in 1932. But after just a couple of years there, she moved again, this time to Egypt with her new husband Aziz Bey. And whilst in the Middle East, near Siwa in the Western Desert, she took what is widely regarded as one of her best surrealist shots, 'Portrait of Space'. But why it's regarded as surrealist, I just don't know: it's a very simple collection of elements, feasibly juxtaposed, and so unlike what I think of as the incongruous 'surreal'. Further proof that I'll never understand the 'surrealist' mind I think.
On the move again after just a few years, Lee arrived in London and met British surrealist painter Roland Penrose. Roland was to become her husband, and eventually, father in 1947 of our eloquent presenter Antony. In the meantime however, Lee attempted to become an official British war photographer, but the fact that she was female was enough for the straight-laced Brits to turn her down. Not so the United States however, and she was soon taking photographs as the war correspondent for Conde Nast. It was whilst in this role that she met American photographer David Scherman, who accompanied her on many assignments. Not surprising, considering the time Lee and Scherman spent together, they became lovers and so formed a menage a trois with Roland Penrose. Roland accepted this arrangement however, gaining comfort from the fact that he at least knew who Lee was with whilst away.
Probably one of the most poignant of the Lee and Scherman joint assignements, although far from the most harrowing or significant, was the shoot in Hitler's home bathroom in Munich around the very time he and Eva Braun were committing suicide in their bunker. In the specific shot Antony showed us, Lee is sitting in the bath: a portrait of Hitler and one of his sculptures have been strategically positioned around the bath rim by the two photographers. In the foreground are the boots worn by Lee that day, and tainted therefore with the 'foulness' of a concentration camp she had visited earlier: they had been deliberately positioned, to 'bring home' to Hitler the physical and mental torture of his victims. As I say, hardly a stunning shot photographically, but definitely so in a historical sense. Sickeningly more memorable, were Lee's shots inside Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, which she insisted on publishing in the belief that they would help deter similar conflicts in the future. It's an argument I've heard a number of times before, but unfortunately, I think we'll still be hearing it even after the next thousand wars.
War over, home for Lee eventually became Farley Farm House in East Sussex, which played host to many of her friends including Max Ernst & Picasso. Picasso may have regretted one particular visit mind you, as it was there that Antony bit his hand. But Picasso did bite back, 'the first Englishman I have ever bitten' he claimed. It was after moving to the farm that Lee lost interest in photography, instead becoming an accomplished cook. She still retained the surrealist influence however, well-highlighted by the image we were shown of a pair of iced boobs, and gold-leaf covered fish (or was it meat?).
Farley Farm House has since become the high-tech nerve-centre of Antony Penrose's promotional efforts, and a shrine to the work of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose. In addition to their own creations however, it houses gifts to them of surrealist prints and sculptures etc from such luminaries as Henry Moore and the aforementioned Man Ray, all visible on tours that are available. Apart from these tours, Antony's efforts to promote Lee's work follow diverse routes, including major international exhibitions of course. And it was one of these exhibitions, the 2006/7 'Lee Miller: Photographs 1930 -1970' that was held at Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg, Germany, that has given him most satisfaction he says. Wolfsburg is significant in Nazi history as the city where Hitler built the Volkswagen factory, so an exhibition strongly featuring holocaust images could have stirred deep-rooted prejudices. But not so, as it turned out to be one of the most popular and well-received events Antony has ever set up.
Well-received also describes the talk we attended at Towcester, together with absorbing, fascinating and so enlightening. And all justifiably so considering the professional presentation, the breadth and depth of content, and the passionate reverence for his mother that exudes from Antony Penrose. It's almost exclusively to his credit that the lives of Lee Miller will be eternal.