Saturday, August 13, 2011

12-Books-in-12-Months Challenge: A Book from a Genre You Don't Normally Read

I was going to do an historical bodice ripper for this but ended up reading a biography while on vacation and realized it's a genre I don't normally read for good reason.

Book: Lee Miller a Life
Author: Carolyn Burke

I've always wanted to know more about Lee Miller. She was a great beauty who started out as a model at Vogue, moved into photography, moved to Paris to study with Man Ray, became his muse and student, was a muse in Jean Cocteau's first film, became the first woman photographer to be on the front lines during WWII, one of the first photographers at Dachau when it was discovered by Allied forces and later became a mentor to young women helping them go through the doors that she had opened.

From Cocteau's Blood of a Poet

Her personal life was interesting and sad in many ways. She was raped at the age of 7 by a family friend's friend. Her father took nude photos of her and her friends throughout a good deal of her life. I think the author and I both had a hard time about it because Lee Miller never really talked about it but had a great relationship with her father and the photos were done with her consent and nothing else untoward seemed to be going on. She also probably suffered from PTSD after the war although they did not have a word for it yet. This probably led to her drinking problems later in life or at least spurred the one she already had on. It also led to her basically giving up photography for the most part and becoming somewhat of a hausfrau although one with surrealist touches to her cooking. She actually dove into cooking around the same time Julia Child did even going to the Cordon Bleu which was interesting. But also a result in a period of her life when she should have had showings of her work and been talking about it, she didn't, so her legacy suffered somewhat.

Picasso's portrait of Lee Miller
The problem with biographies is that often you don't have much actual insight into the subject's personal life. It seemed to be very true for Lee Miller who although she was writing letters to her family didn't really talk too much about her personal life. As a result a lot of conjecture takes place. "Perhaps she did this or felt this way due to her childhood trauma." Also the author seems to focus on how selfish Lee Miller was or the comments that other people at the time made while also recounting generous things she did. There are tales of her being a horrible mean drunk to house guests and yet somehow they managed to have full houses for parties at their country house up until her death for most part. I'm sure Roland Penrose (Lee Miller's 2nd husband) was a nice guy but it doesn't mean that people would trek out to the country for his company if they hated his wife.

Lee Miller in Hitler's bathtub.
To be fair to Ms. Burke, I think these sorts of contradictions are true for any life. I think they're probably even more pronounced when someone is a barrier breaker like Lee Miller was. If you're relying on 2nd and 3rd hand accounts to fill in your story of a woman who does as she pleases in the 1920s and beyond people are going to resent her and thus give a skewed picture in accounts of her at least to 21st century sensibilities.

The one thing I do blame the author for and that I think should be against the law is describing in great deal the importance of a photograph or painting done by your subject and not including the photograph or painting in your book so the reader can see what you mean. Especially for someone like Lee Miller whose work has been neglected to some degree. I would have preferred it to the pictures of her scattered throughout the book.

Overall, the book was enjoyable. I did find myself wondering if she hadn't been considered quite so beautiful how much would she have gotten away with by force of will? I do admire though her ability to set her own rules. So that although she was part of a rather misogynist group (The Surrealists) she could and did cut her own path taking what she wanted and leaving them wanting more from their muse.

Most of the photos borrowed from A Blind Flaneur.

I hope that you, too, will join the 12 Books in 12 Months challenge. Details are on Armchair Squid where you can also read up on what he's been reading.


  1. Hooray! Good review. I'll link shortly.

  2. I, too, avoid biography. As a historian I prefer processes and communities to individuals as they tell me the things I need to know about how *my* world was constructed. That said, Miller fascinates the artist in me. Her work is contemporaneous with Dorothea Lange here in the States. Comparing the two can say volumes about how the US and Central Europe differed in values in the 20th C, valuable in understanding our participation and response to WWII. I'm not entirely sure that our own world can ever completely understand hers, but if we fail to try we fail utterly.

    PS all volumes of history need more graphics: maps, art, photos allow us to understand on a more primal level