If you were one of the few women photographers accredited by the U.S. Army at the start of World War II, chances were you were far from the frontlines. Military regulations at the time dictated that female photojournalists, unlike their male counterparts, were not to enter combat zones. But, the Poughkeepsie-born photographer and noted Surrealistoperating as British Vogue’s war correspondent, was not one to be constrained.
And as she grew less interested in posing for pictures than taking them, Miller brazenly determined that none other thanMan Raywould be her photography teacher. “He said he didn’t take students, and anyway, he was leaving Paris for his holiday,” she later recounted of approaching the Surrealist in 1929. “I said, ‘I know, I’m going with you’—and I did.”Amidst a series of cross-Atlantic moves and shifting relationships (Miller was famously a subject of the art and affections of eminent artists, includingPablo Picasso
), she remained steadfast in her photographic pursuits—from developing the printing technique of solarization alongside Ray (with whom she had an affair and creative partnership), to starting up her own studio in New York in the early 1930s, to her thoughtful solo explorations of Surrealism during her time in Cairo in the mid-1930s. When Miller settled in England with the painterRoland Penrose
in September 1939—the month the Nazis invaded Poland (and England declared war on Germany)—she volunteered as a studio assistant for British Vogue, which proved to be her first step toward war photography.
“I think she made a deliberate decision to bury her career, and this was partly as a result of her war experiences, partly as a result of her post-traumatic stress,” said Penrose of his mother to NPR in 2011. The entirety of Miller’s oeuvre—60,000 negatives, 20,000 prints and contact sheets, and several documents and keepsakes—was discovered in the family home’s attic after her death in 1977 at age 70. Were it not for this chance finding, her key documentation of the women of World War II, and her contributions as a Surrealist—rather than simply one of their subjects—might’ve been forgotten. It seems a fitting conclusion to Miller’s life story, which, through to the end, was as surreal as her photographs.