Behind the lens, these women have created photographs that span decades

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Lee Miller, Self-portrait with blindfold (variant), 1932 gelatin silver print, Lee Miller Studios Inc., New York Image: Lee Miller Archives

Would you buy a headband from this woman? Lee Miller took the photo for a fashion article. A pretty woman could sell lots of headbands to avid photo magazine readers. And Lee Miller (1907-1977) was certainly pretty.

Model, photographer, muse and lover of the surrealist Man Ray, lover (perhaps also muse) of many more men than Man, photojournalist, accredited war correspondent for vogue, Lee appears, in profile with blindfold, in two current museum exhibitions: The woman who broke boundaries at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and The new woman behind the camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

I asked Peter Tush, curator of education at the Dali Museum, what would have happened to Miller if she hadn’t been so beautiful.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he replied.

Picasso and Lee Miller in his studio, Liberation of Paris, Rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, France, 1944 by Lee Miller

Picasso and Lee Miller in his studio, Liberation of Paris, Rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, France, 1944 by Lee Miller Image: Lee Miller Archives England 2020. All rights reserved

Lee Miller looked good, but she was also a great photographer

Homai Vyarawalla, <em>The Victoria Terminus, Bombay,</em> early 1940s giclee print, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi Courtesy HV Archive / The Alkazi Collection of Photography” class=”lazy” data-original=”https://media.npr.org/ assets/img/2021/07/19/homai-vyarawalla_the-victoria-terminus-bombay_early-1940s-1-_custom-04ca7777d6457893982b23c9c36fb5f4f5e5eb50.jpg” src=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/images/loading/homai -vyarawalla_the-victoria-terminus-bombay_early-1940s-1-_custom-04ca7777d6457893982b23c9c36fb5f4f5e5eb50.jpg” data-loading=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/images/loading/homai-vyarawalla_the-victoria-terminus-bombay_early- 1940s-1-_custom-04ca7777d6457893982b23c9c36fb5f4f5e5eb50.jpg”/></a></p>
<p>Homai Vyarawalla, <em>Victoria Terminal, Bombay,</em> early 1940s inkjet print, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi Courtesy HV Archive / The Alkazi Collection of Photography Image: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts</p>
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<p>Miller’s beauty has opened many doors.  But that was not its only advantage.  She was intelligent, witty, extremely sure of herself, up for adventure, reckless, restless.  And a friend of Picasso.</p>
<p>Lee met him in Paris through Man Ray, as she met so many top artists in her circle.  (His portraits of some are featured in the Dali Museum exhibition.) Covering World War II for<em> vogue,</em> Lee reunited with Picasso as the Allies liberated Paris.  She broke the story that he was alive, much to the relief of <a class=art lovers around the world.

“It’s extraordinary,” said Picasso upon seeing her. “The very first Allied soldier I find is a woman, and that’s you.” He painted his portrait six times.

Some of Miller’s war photographs are in the Met show, The new woman behind the camera. This is a scan of images from the 1920s to the 1950s by 120 women from over 20 countries. Lee’s 1945 photos of Dachau concentration camp prisoners, a dead SS guard, the rubble of war, are haunting. “She was really good,” says Mia Fineman, who installed the New Woman exhibit at the Met (more on that show below.)

Oddly enough, especially now that scholars are paying attention to Miller’s work as well as her appearance, the wartime image I find most compelling shows her naked (a state of undress she often sported in self-portraits), and was taken by a Life magazine photojournalist she traveled with. It is definitely worth your click here to see – scroll down for more of his powerful – and often disturbing – war images.)

The New Women take their place behind the camera

Ringl and Pit, <em>Hahn Petroleum, </em> 1931, Gelatin silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery” class=”lazy” data-original=”https:// media.npr.org/assets/img/2021/07/19/ringlcand-pit-p-trole-hahn_custom-2349c1872e0f4fb4069cdf58901058f0b37975ff.jpg” src=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/images/loading/ringlcand -pit-p-trole-hahn_custom-2349c1872e0f4fb4069cdf58901058f0b37975ff.jpg” data-loading=”https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/images/loading/ringlcand-pit-p-trole-hahn_custom-2349c1872e0f4fb4069cdf58901057fff.jpg></a></p>
<p>Ringl and Pit, <em>Hahn Petroleum, </em> 1931, Gelatin silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art</p>
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<p>Miller<em> </em>was the epitome of the New Woman, just like the photographers of<em> The new woman behind the camera </em>At New York.  Andrea Nelson, who curated the exhibition at its next destination, the National Gallery in Washington, says these new women were independent, competent and – especially in the 1920s – found themselves at a time when they were fighting for, then were gaining the right to vote, “and had really begun to examine their lives, their marriages and their children”.  They were also exploring what it meant to be professional photographers.  “It was a time when photography replaced <a class=drawings in every magazine,” Nelson explains. And women could easily sell their advertisements and fashion photos.

In the years before cell phones, people went to commercial photo studios to have their picture taken. In the early 1920s, Florestine Perrault Collins set up her own studio in New Orleans. Collins was African American and sometimes passed as white to train at white-owned studios. In the studio she eventually opened, most of her clients were black and Creole.

How confident Mae looks, in a down-to-earth way. No straight feminine pose for her. “A real New Woman of the 20s,” says curator Nelson.

And what about this Miss:

Scary, right? Ellen Auerbach and Grete Stern ran the advertising agency Ringl and Pit in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. This is their ad for Pétrole Hahn, a hair spray. Their perfect New Woman model has a beautifully hammered hairstyle, waved in place with goop. She is dressed in a ruffled blouse and, coming out of a sleeve, a real hand (that of the partner), holds the precious Petroleum.

A decades-old image yet so modern

The last image in this essay (so difficult to choose just a handful in this ambitious exhibition) dates from the early 1940s.

The image captures a scene you might see today in India. The British started building this Victorian Gothic terminus in 1878 and it still stands in the city that is now called Mumbai. But “it’s such a modern image,” says curator Andrea Nelson. The way photographer Homai Vyarawalla plays with focus, angles, dimension. “The old station in the background and in front, a car pushed into the foreground like a frame, enclosing people, a bus, a handcart.” The photographer first sees what we see, then uses the camera to shape how she wants us to see it.

Often we say that certain paintings are timeless – speaking to us through the ages. It’s rare to think of photographs – those quick defining moments – in this way. But the greats – like many in these two exhibits – leap over the decades to provide fresh and lasting experiences for our eyes.

The art where you are is a casual series showcasing offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

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