Man Ray and Lee Miller


I lead a dull life! On Tuesday night, I attended a talk at the Art Gallery of Ontario by Antony Penrose called Man Ray and the Magic Man and came to this depressing conclusion about my life after hearing all about the much more interesting lives of Man Ray and his muse, Lee Miller. Penrose is the son of Lee Miller and has spent his life promoting the work of his mother and his father, Roland Penrose. Penrose started off his presentation with a fabulous portrait of his naked mother taken by Man Ray. She was certainly a looker! I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any naked portraits of my mother and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable showing them in front of a crowd of people if I did. It sure made an impression on the audience.

Man Ray, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Kiki of Montparnasse, Salvadore Dali and Picasso are all linked together with surrealism and that magical environment of Paris in the 20’s and 30’s. Man Ray was a prolific photographer and artist. Dali and Picasso need no introduction. Roland Penrose was a surrealist painter. Lee Miller was probably the most interesting of the bunch. They all lived the life of the starving artist in Paris, with a very free attitude to nudity and sex.

Lee Miller was discovered in New York by the famous Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue magazine. Miller was about to walk out into the street in front of a car and Nast snatched her back from the jaws of death. He was so struck with her beauty that he signed her up as a model for Vogue. Miller modeled for Vogue for several years until she appeared in an ad for Kotex tampons. This was quite a scandalous action at the time and she never worked as a professional fashion model again.

Miller then embarked for Paris with the intention of becoming an assistant to the reluctant Man Ray. She eventually convinced Ray to take her on and she became equal parts assistant, muse, model, lover and protege. After three years with Ray, she returned to New York and set up a studio where she took portraits of New Yorkers and exhibited her photographs. Shortly afterwards, she met a rich Egyptian business man and moved to Cairo. Tiring of the Egyptian, she returned to Paris and took up with Roland Penrose, the surrealist painter and eventually moved to Hampstead in England. Do you see what I mean about my life being dull? This woman got around!

Wait, there’s more. World war two broke out and Miller became a famous war photographer and correspondent, working for Conde Nast Publications and teaming up with friend (and lover) David Scherman. When you think about it, war photography would seem a natural avocation for a surrealist. Her photographs of battles, concentration camps and war zones were amazing. Here’s a photo that David Scherman took of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub (note the portrait of Hitler):

lee-miller bathtub

After the war, Miller ended up as an alcoholic, suffering from post traumatic stress. Somehow, she managed to get it together and have a son at age 40. Sadly, Miller gave up photography and died of cancer at age 70 in England.

After she died, Antony Penrose discovered boxes of her works in the attic and set about promoting her work very successfully. He wrote a number of books on Ray and Miller including The Lives of Lee MillerThe Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their Circle at Farley Farm, Lee Miller’s War and Man Ray / Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism. Miller’s work has been exhibited around the world. There is an excellent online photo gallery of her work where you can view images. You can also order prints on the same web site.

Fortunately for us, many of Man Ray’s images can also be viewed online at the Man Ray Trust site and can be ordered as digital downloads or prints for very reasonable prices (roughly 100 euros, depending on the size of the print).

If you ever get a chance to see Man Ray or Lee Miller’s works, seize the opportunity! If you happen to travel to England, make sure you visit Farley Farm in Hampstead where you can see many surrealist works by Picasso, Ray, Dali and Miller. The farm is open to the public on Sundays during the summer. And, if you get a chance to listen to Antony Penrose, please do. It is rare to find a man who devotes himself to promoting his parent’s work and he does it with charm, humour and love.


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