A photography exhibit opening in June at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass. promises to unveil the love, lust, desire and obsession between two artists from the Surrealist movement: the provocateur photographer Man Ray and the object of his desire, Lee Miller.
Miller burst onto the cultural scene of the late 1920s, quite literally by accident. “She was about to be run over a truck in Manhattan when Conde Nast saved her life,” said Philip Prodger, PEM curator of photographer. “”He looked at her and said: ‘You’re beautiful!’ And the next thing you know, she’s on the cover of the March 15, 1927 of Vogue.
Miller was transformed into Manhattan’s “It” girl of the moment and photographer Edward Steichen’s favorite model too.
But it wasn’t enough.
By 1929 she was in Paris at Steichen’s suggestion, tracking down Man Ray. She found him in a bar not far from his studio. “She said ‘My name is Lee Miller, and I’m going to be your new assistant,’” Prodger said. “They became apprentice and master, and there was also a romantic dimension. For about three years, they worked together in Paris, and in 1930 she went out on her own.”
While much of Ray’s work took place in the studio, Miller took to the streets, for surrealist vignettes of Parisian street scenes. They both worked to perfect a darkroom technique of solarization, where a light was quickly flicked on and off as an image was being developed, yielding an inky outline around a gray figure. “She was in the darkroom when a mouse ran over her foot and she reached for the light,” Prodger said. “They thought it was a valid technique for making pictures – that chance favors the prepared mind.”
After she and Ray parted, she remained a photographer for two decades, including a seminal period as World War II war correspondent for Condé Nast. A first-hand witness to some of the worst atrocities of the war, including the first napalm attack and the liberation of Buchenwald, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that would later hamper her productivity. She would marry Roland Penrose, one of Ray’s best friends, and live in Great Britain.
“One really wonderful part of the story is that Ray made her works of art to cheer her up and make her feel better,” he said. “They visited each other, and hung out together.”
Man Ray died in 1976, and Lee Miller, a year later.
“Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism” opens at PEM on June 11 and runs until December 4. For more information, go to http://www.pem.org/