I love biographies and memoirs and don't know why I don't read more of them. Maybe this will be the start of a new reading path for me. Even though they often read slowly (then again I read nonfiction very slowly in any case), I tend to find the subject matter of most biographies very engaging. Certainly Lee Miller was such an intriguing woman--more so than most--and I am finding it hard to put down Carolyn Burke's Lee Miller: On Both Sides of the Camera. Even with its teeny tiny print (all the more information packed into those pages, right?), I'm happy to spend my work breaks immersed in her life.
I'm not yet very far into the book, only a few chapters, but even by age twenty Miller had gone through some really devastating experiences. Although I have long been aware of her photography, it was last summer in San Francisco when I saw an exhibit of Miller's and artist Man Ray's work that she became a permanent blip on my radar. It was only a matter of time before I picked up a book about her and began reading in earnest. She was Man Ray's muse. The two were teacher-student and later collaborated and eventually became lovers for a short period. The exhibit I saw was excellent (I still vividly recall it more than a year later). A bit about the exhibit:
"From 1929 to 1932, Man Ray and Lee Miller lived together in Paris, first as teacher and student, and later as lovers. Their mercurial relationship resulted in some of the most powerful works of each artist’s career, and helped shape the course of modern art. The two artists inspired each other equally, collaborating on several projects. Though they lived together for only three years, the exhibition examines the lingering effect each had on the other’s art. Connecting photography with other media, the exhibition reveals how the Surrealists combined imagery in unexpected ways, creating extraordinary feats of imagination."
I'm quite tempted to break down and finally splurge on the exhibit catalog Man Ray/Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism by Phillip Prodger, which I lusted after last year (but the hardcover was just too hefty to drag home in an already full suitcase). But I digress. And I am getting ahead of myself (and my reading).
Miller was born Elizabeth Miller in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. I'm just ready to begin reading about 1925. She was the favorite child of her father and the middle sibling between an elder and younger brother. Her family was relatively comfortable middle class--her father ambitious and philandering and her mother in that traditional role of wife and mother, though the family was somewhat bohemian in their thinking and values. So, let me get the darker bits I've read so far over with and I imagine this may well explain a lot about Miller and her life along the way . . . At the age of seven she was raped by an acquaintance and contracted gonorrhea. It was an extremely traumatic experience, which would stay with her for the rest of her life.
Needless to say she was a very complex woman and I suspect that will be true as well about her relationships later in life as well as about her art. My teaser, however, is far more mundane. I just read this bit today and it's an example of what I love so much about biographies and memoirs from this era. I like learning all about the milieu of the subject, and in the case of Miller, she was a teenager just at the time when life was getting interesting for women. Yes, flappers.
"Elizabeth's teenage years coincides with the first half of the 1920s, when an upheaval in the mores of young people preoccupied the country. Critics blamed this permissiveness on the end of the war, the returned soldiers' hedonism, the movies, and, once Prohibition was enacted, the thrill of clandestine drinking--since to drink meant to break the law and consort with bootleggers and other lowlife. Others pointed to the changes in women's lives. Middle-clas girls left home to work in the cities even though their parents could support them; those who stayed home enjoyed greater freedom from surveillance due to the motorcar."
Welcome to modernity, yes? And I think Miller was going to be a very modern woman indeed. I have also brought home from the library Lee Miller's War by Antony Penrose to read, or at least look at, in tandem with this biography. I also have a video about her waiting for me and I might find another book or two on the library's shelves to give a broader picture about Lee Miller and her world. I'm sure I'll have more to say about this one later.