by Jonathan Blaustein
I have a dirty little secret. Photography is not my favorite medium. I have equal love for Painting, Sculpture and Cinema, which inspire me greatly as an artist. Perhaps they should take away my cool-guy-photographer club membership?
But when in professorial mode, my first lectures are always about the magic of photography’s essence. Light and time. Harnessing powerful elements of the Universe. Freezing people and moments, forever. Thinking about that gets me every time.
Unfortunately, a by-product of living in a time of unprecedented image saturation, I’d be hard pressed to say I see that magic within the rectangle, very often. I see a lot of photographs in my line of work, and then we all do via our massive media addiction. We’re all drowning.
Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I visited the Legion of Honor Museum on the edge of the Presidio. The gorgeous, resplendent building abuts a golf course, and sits above the rocky cliffs jutting up from the Bay. The fog was thick, sitting in a bank that touched the tops of the Eucalyptus trees.
I didn’t even know the museum existed, but there were banners plastered around the city, promising a Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibition. That was enough to draw me. Who wouldn’t want to see his work? I’d heard of Ms. Miller before, but didn’t know her work or backstory at all.
Down some old-school-curved-stone stairs, with vaulted arches hard at work, the exhibit was in the bowels of the historical building. Did it used to be someone’s mansion? What was the history? I didn’t have a chance to find out, as the museum was about to close when I arrived.
Time to cut to the chase. The gorgeous Ms. Miller stole the show, as well as my heart. Wow. What a presence. And through the exhibition, it was clear that my name is only last on a very long list of the infatuated that included Man Ray, Picasso, and probably every man she met in Europe before World War II.
She was tall and blonde, with striking blue eyes. Ms. Miller was beautiful the way Grace Kelly was beautiful. Just the perfect, Upper Class-looking WASP goddess. Normally not my type.
She exuded a kind of wounded, cold, intelligent reserve. Bottled up, statuesque. In fact, early in the exhibition, there are a couple of photographs of her playing a statue in a Cocteau film. The verisimilitude was off-the-chains.
Her photographs begin in the second room, alongside of Man Ray’s. It seems as if the show has been designed to show her off, as she is better represented than he. And subsequent rooms show only her work, and the work of others who were inspired by her.
Man Ray’s photographs of Lee Miller amp up the sexuality. He fetishizes her, and when you see the portraits of him, you can understand his excitement that he got to have sex with her at all. In her self-portraits, though, she is subdued and classical, her intellect beaming out. Two completely different visions of the same woman.
I’m still weirded out that I had powerful urges towards someone I knew to be dead. The whole notion of freezing time, of encoding moments from the rush of history, was foremost in my thoughts. In the bowels of this old museum, on a misty late afternoon, it was almost as if there were ghosts about. (Let’s hope she’s young and hot as a ghost. I’ve no interest in the 70 year old Lee Miller haunting my dreams.)
OK, the photographs are what this 2nd Annual column is supposed to be about. Ms. Miller had one image of breasts that had been lopped off in a mastectomy. Just sitting there. Right below a photo of dead rats hanging in a shop window. Of their moment, as surrealism, they screamed of the dark soul looming within the model’s body.
And she was also tough enough to go into the Concentration Camps after the end of the War. Her photos of German officer’s bodies, after suicide, reeked of that same Surrealist training. She knew from absurd, which was a fine a response as any to the atrocities, the death and destruction. Crazy photographs. Crazy. Together, they were definitely the best photographs I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet.
Man Ray and Lee Miller eventually broke up. She married an Englishman. I have her biography on the shelf, given to me by a friend, but I haven’t opened yet. (I’ll get there.) This friend, in the know, told me that Lee Miller had been sexually abused as a child. Common knowledge, apparently.
Upon hearing that morsel, it all fit. I’d known something was wrong with her all along. That’s why I was so smitten. In those years that she and Man Ray documented, she had it all. The looks. The brains. The creativity. And the soul scars that seared her humanity into celluloid.