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Photographer Lee Miller, illuminated by The Dali in St. Petersburg

From fashion model to photojournalist war correspondent, Miller lived life on her terms.
"The Woman Who Broke Boundaries: Photographer Lee Miller" is on display at The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg through Jan. 2, 2022.
"The Woman Who Broke Boundaries: Photographer Lee Miller" is on display at The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg through Jan. 2, 2022. [ DAVID DERANIAN | Courtesy of the Dalí Museum. ]
Published Oct. 29
Updated Nov. 1

ST. PETERSBURG — A larger-than-life glamour portrait of her greets you at the exhibition “The Woman Who Broke Boundaries: Photographer Lee Miller” at The Dalí Museum. Flanked by a photo of her dressed in army gear, it’s a fitting introduction to a dynamic woman who had a unique vantage to some of the early 20th century’s most significant events and people.

Through more than 130 images, the exhibition introduces model, muse and prolific photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller as a groundbreaking artist who constantly reinvented herself and resisted conforming to societal norms.

Much of the exhibition focuses on her portraits of artists and writers, mainly surrealists, with whom she had personal relationships. Her compositions are interesting, and surrealist ideals are evident in some of the more whimsical images.

"Salvador Dali and Gala," c. 1930, by Lee Miller. The photograph is on display in The Dali's "The Woman Who Broke Boundaries" exhibition.
(no number) © Lee Miller Archives England All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk.
"Salvador Dali and Gala," c. 1930, by Lee Miller. The photograph is on display in The Dali's "The Woman Who Broke Boundaries" exhibition. (no number) © Lee Miller Archives England All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk. [ Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

Her fascinating life story is well documented through wall texts and an informational tour on The Dalí app.

Born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Miller was discovered by magazine publisher Condé Nast in Manhattan, where he saved her from getting hit by a car in 1927. She modeled in Vogue and Vanity Fair and was featured in Jean Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet. She was the it girl of the early 20th century’s fashion and art world.

Self portrait (variant on Lee Miller par Lee Miller), Paris, France, c. 1930, by Lee Miller. © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved.
leemiller.co.uk
Self portrait (variant on Lee Miller par Lee Miller), Paris, France, c. 1930, by Lee Miller. © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk [ Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

Bored with being the muse, Miller moved to Paris in 1929 to become a photographer and sought out American surrealist photographer Man Ray. She became his apprentice, as well as his model and lover. Together, they created solarized prints, after an accident in the darkroom in which she turned the light on after a critter crawled over her foot. The brief exposure created an effect that outlined the portrait’s subject.

Solarised Portrait (thought to be Meret Oppenheim), Paris, France, 1932, by Lee Miller (NC0058-5) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk.
Solarised Portrait (thought to be Meret Oppenheim), Paris, France, 1932, by Lee Miller (NC0058-5) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk. [ LEE MILLER | Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

She was hired as a photographer at Paris Vogue.

Described as a libertine, Miller didn’t subscribe to the idea that women shouldn’t be as free with their sexuality as men were. She had many affairs.

After ending her relationship with Ray, Miller moved back to New York and opened her own portrait studio.

A selection of self-portraits highlights the inventive techniques she employed.

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Self portrait [with headband], Lee Miller Studios Inc., New York, USA, c. 1932 by Lee Miller (NYS 12-6-C) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk.
Self portrait [with headband], Lee Miller Studios Inc., New York, USA, c. 1932 by Lee Miller (NYS 12-6-C) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk. [ Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

In 1937, after returning to Europe, she met British surrealist painter and writer Roland Penrose. The pair met Pablo Picasso that year, marking the beginning of a long friendship. Miller and Penrose fell in love and enjoyed a “hedonistic” summer together with other surrealists, which she documented.

"Picnic, lle St Marguerite," (Nusch and Paul Éluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray, Ady Fidelin, Cannes, France 1937 by Lee Miller (P0146)
© Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk.
"Picnic, lle St Marguerite," (Nusch and Paul Éluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray, Ady Fidelin, Cannes, France 1937 by Lee Miller (P0146) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk. [ Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

Miller moved to London and landed a position as a fashion photographer for British Vogue. During World War II, she captured an image of women wearing fire masks for protection from air raids.

Fire masks, Downshire Hill, London, England, 1941, by Lee Miller (3840-8)© Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved.  leemiller.co.uk.
Fire masks, Downshire Hill, London, England, 1941, by Lee Miller (3840-8)© Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk. [ Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

Miller became an accredited war correspondent and eventually a combat photojournalist. It’s likely she was the only female one to cover the war’s front-line battles. She recorded the first use of napalm, the Liberation of Paris and documented the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau.

The Liberation of Paris offered Miller the chance to check on artists in her circle, including Picasso. Accompanied by Life Magazine photographer Robert Capa, she went to his studio, relieved to see him alive and well.

Picasso and Lee Miller in his studio, Liberation of Paris, Rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, France 1944 by Lee Miller (NC0002 1) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk.
Picasso and Lee Miller in his studio, Liberation of Paris, Rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, France 1944 by Lee Miller (NC0002 1) © Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All Rights Reserved. leemiller.co.uk. [ Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives England ]

At the war’s end, Miller and Life Magazine photojournalist David E. Scherman gained access to Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich and symbolically washed off the grime of the war in his bathtub, photographing the event. (The image was not made available for publication in the Tampa Bay Times by Lee Miller Archives England.)

The atrocities she experienced during the war gave Miller PTSD and depression. She struggled with alcoholism. She and Penrose moved to Farley Farm House in East Sussex, England, where they got married and had a son, Antony.

Later in life, Miller reinvented herself again as a gourmet chef. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and cooked up surrealist dinners for famous friends. Photos from this era reveal lasting friendships with artists and favorite pieces of collected art.

Miller died in 1977. In a quote included in the app tour, she says, reflecting on her life, “I didn’t waste a minute all my life — but I know myself, now, that if I had it all over again, I’d be more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection.”

If you go

“The Woman Who Broke Boundaries: Photographer Lee Miller.” Through Jan. 2. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays. Advanced online timed tickets are required. $12-$29. The Dalí Museum, 1 Dalí Blvd. (Bayshore Drive and Fifth Ave. SE), St. Petersburg. 727-823-3767. thedali.org.