Lee Miller’s Remington Silent, London, England, 1940, captures a smashed typewriter lying on shattered stone. The image dates to a time when the artist began documenting World War II for British Vogue. It clearly depicts what Miller successfully achieved in many of her pictures of war that would follow, revealing the macabre beauty of horror.
Two years earlier, in the extended essay “Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf claimed that for men there is a necessity and satisfaction in war that isn’t there for women. Surveying Miller’s wartime output—which forms the most impressive section of “Lee Miller. A Photographer Between War and Glamour”, a survey exhibition comprising selections from all phases of her oeuvre—one suspects that the photographer must not have been immune to the sensations Woolf ascribed to her male counterparts. Only, when Miller fought, she did so not with weapons but with her camera in a battle to make things visible. US Army nurses billet, 1943, observes the crumpled laundry that a nurse has hung out to dry at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. With this intimate, quiet scene, Miller underlines the difficult working conditions under which this nurse (and many other women) saved lives during the war.
Another shot, Beaten SS prison guard, 1945, frames the bloody face of its titular subject after the liberation of the concentration camp in Buchenwald. There is no right adjective to describe this image; beauty, certainly, does not play a role here. This man stares into the camera with his eyes wide open, a witness to countless atrocities. How could Miller bear to meet this gaze? Could she have experienced something of the satisfaction Woolf described in the tiny triumph of using a camera to proclaim an end to the violence and suffering?