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Works of Photographer Lee Miller on Display in Los Angeles - 2003-05-24

The works of American photographer Lee Miller, a central figure in the surrealist movement, are on display in Los Angeles. She was a fashion model, artist, and inspiration for other artists who may become the subject of a major movie.

Surrealism, says Weston Naef, the J. Paul Getty Museum's curator of photographs, shows the viewer familiar objects in a new perspective.

Lee Miller's life is, in a way, a surrealist work of art, a surprising combination of elements. She was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, a small city in New York State, and went on to become a celebrity fashion model in New York City.

Weston Naef says that was just the beginning of a fascinating story. "In this particular story, we have Lee Miller, who was a vivacious woman who had already in her late teenage years and early 20s in New York, become a model for some of the most celebrated photographers in the world," he says.

Lee Miller appeared in Vogue and other popular magazines of the 1920s. A classic beauty, she modeled for photographer Arnold Genthe, who pictured her as a muse, or inspirational goddess. The curator says she would serve as a muse to other leading artists. "So this exhibition is about how Lee Miller went from being a person in front of the camera, the subject of pictures, to being someone who made her own works and was a powerful creative spirit in her own right," he says.

Miller traveled to Paris in 1929, where she met the noted photographer Man Ray, and became his apprentice and lover.

She is seen in some of Man Ray's well-known photographs, and Weston Naef says she was a behind-the-scenes force in others. "Now I am looking at what is often called a self-portrait by Man Ray, where he is seen in complete profile, with an eight-by-ten inch tripod mounted camera to his right. His left hand is on the lens of the camera. The picture itself was made with yet a second camera, looking at him. And the question is, who was behind operating that camera? And the answer is, it was surely Lee Miller," he says.

She would also serve as an inspiration for Roland Penrose, a British artist and photographer with whom she had an affair and who she later married. His work, some focussing on Lee Miller and some inspired by her, is also central to the Getty exhibition.

The couple's circle of friends included Pablo Picasso, who painted Lee Miller five times. One of the paintings is on display at the Getty. In classic Picasso style, her head is seen simultaneously from the front and in side profile; one eye is vertical and the other is horizontal. "A wonderful work, a portrait that is both abstract and surreal at its heart, pink in the background, yellow in the face, her wonderful open eyes and big smile come clearly through, even though this is not at all a representational picture," says Mr. Naef.

Painted about the same time, Roland Penrose's portrait of Miller is filled with symbolism, in the surrealist tradition. "Her torso is blue and is like the sky and her hands are replaced by two birds, a dove and a raven, and where her torso is the earth, it is red, where she becomes grounded literally through her torso," he says.

Her flaming blond hair resembles the sun.

Lee Miller's own work includes scenes from Egypt, where she lived with her first husband, a wealthy Egyptian, and later returned with Penrose. The Middle East pictures include an unusual view of the Great Pyramid at Giza, seen only through its shadow, cast over a village. Another shows a desert scene of unusual beauty, viewed through a torn screen of a door or window.

Miller became a combat correspondent during the Second World War, and photographed vivid images of the destruction in Europe. At the war's end, she would chronicle the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Some photographs touch on lighter themes, even in the war years. One shows Miller bathing in Hitler's bathtub, after she entered his vacant house with advancing allied troops.

Lee Miller's son, Antony Penrose, still lives on Farley Farm, the family home in England, where the photographer died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 70.

Mr. Penrose says his mother was scarred by her wartime experiences and had problems with drinking and depression later in life. He says they had a difficult relationship, but reconciled before her death, and he later would come to appreciate her legacy as an artist.

He has sold the rights to her story to the actress Nicole Kidman, who would like to portray Lee Miller in a film. "Absolutely, that was the whole purpose. She bought the rights with a view to that happening," he says.

Screenwriter David Hare, who wrote the script for The Hours, has already written a screenplay based on Antony Penrose's book, The Lives of Lee Miller.

Mr. Penrose says his mother saw the world in unexpected ways when she was behind the camera, a gift she shared with others in the surrealist movement. As a personal legacy, the carefree manner of her youth endeared her to some of the giants of 20th century art, on whom she left her mark as a muse and collaborator.