Lee Miller's 1941 photograph "Women With Fire Masks" shows two can-do British volunteers at the entrance to a backyard bomb shelter in World War II.
One wears a helmet that looks like an African mask out of Picasso. The other, as pretty as a fashion model, sports a pair of bizarre goggles with plus signs for eyes.
The image, startling and strange, is one of the most memorable pictures made by Miller, a Vogue model who became a photographer and then a war correspondent. We get a compelling look at her art and life in a new show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Tall, blond and beautiful, Miller (1907-77) grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in a prosperous and offbeat family.
By the 1920s, she was discovered by Vogue publisher Conde Nast and became a model for Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen, who encouraged her to take up photography herself. (The first part of the exhibition
shows Miller the model: a blue-eyed flapper in a painting for the cover of Vogue; an ice princess in a ritzy gown for one of Steichen's studio shots.)
By the early 1930s Miller reinvented herself as muse and protege of surrealist Man Ray in Paris. She first began taking serious photographs with a Rolleiflex, which produces a large square negative suitable for magazine work. She learned Man Ray's technique of solarization and absorbed his off-kilter framing and tight cropping. On view are pictures of her arty crowd from Charlie Chaplin to Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala.
Once home in New York, she added celebrity portraits of Gene Tunney, Joseph Cornell and Gertrude Lawrence. Then she took off for Cairo in 1934, marrying a high-ranking official of the Egyptian government. Three years later, she fled to Paris, where she met her next husband, the English painter Roland Penrose. Her photography combined casual snapshots of her friends (Paul Eluard, Man Ray and their bare-breasted girlfriends at a picnic) with more directly surrealistic images.
Somewhat surprisingly, she turned out to have the strength and courage for battle and covered World War II as a photojournalist for Vogue. The onetime model recorded the carnage in military hospitals and the horror of the death camps. In one memorable image, a dead SS guard floats in a canal.
Toward the end of the show, there's a justly famous self- portrait showing her taking a bath in Hitler's own tub in Munich, with a framed portrait of Der Fuhrer perched in the corner of the tidy, tiled room and Miller's muddy combat boots on the floor.
"The Art of Lee Miller" organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, runs through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.