Joyce’s Dublin as seen by the woman in Hitler’s bathtub

Lee Miller was an American fashion photographer who became a photojournalist during the second World War. A new exhibition showcases her rare photographs of Dublin in the aftermath of the Emergency

Tue, Jun 10, 2014, 01:00

The life of American photographer Lee Miller reads like an improbable Hollywood plot. As a child she was raped and infected with gonorrhoea. By her early 20s she had become a Vogue model before turning photographer. She travelled to Paris and became Man Ray’s assistant and mistress, and befriended many of the surrealist artists of the period.

When the second World War broke out, she became a photojournalist for Vogue and documented events such as the Blitz in London and the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. She still featured in photographs as well as making them – she was famously photographed in Hitler’s bathtub by Life photographer David Scherman when the Allies took Munich.

After witnessing the concentration camps she became depressed and turned to alcohol, retreating to the English countryside with her second husband, the British surrealist artist Roland Penrose. In Essex, she raised their son and became a chef. She died from cancer in 1977.

As remarkable as this skeleton of a timeline is, it does not do justice to Miller as an artist or as a human being. The war had a huge effect on her artistically – she switched from being an artist who photographed models and fashion with a surreal streak to becoming a photojournalist, documenting events including the horrors of the just liberated concentration camps. “I implore you to believe this is true” read the telegraph she sent to Condé Nast as the general caption accompanying the story and images she sent back from the camps. She later destroyed many of the images.

After the war, Miller continued to work for Condé Nast, and, in November 1946, she was commissioned by British Vogue to illustrate the article “When James Joyce lived in Dublin” by Joyce’s friend Constantine Curran. Miller photographed numerous places and people in Dublin, many with a connection to Joyce. The article and photographs appeared in American Vogue in May 1947 and British Vogue in 1950. The pictures provide a remarkable record of Dublin in the aftermath of the war. Dublin then was still living in the poverty and constricted times of “the Emergency” – rationing continued until the early 1950s.

The exhibition Lee Miller in James Joyce’s Dublin showcases these rare photographs – many of them never printed before. It provides an interesting portrait of post-war Dublin, including many fascinating images relating to the life and work of Joyce, including some important Joycean locations that were thought never to have been photographed.

Miller’s journalistic work was shot mainly in square format on a Rolleiflex, and she deliberately shot a little loose to allow designers free range in their layouts for Vogue. The surrealist twinkle occasionally sparkles in this exhibition – look out for a delightful take on the Joyce Tower framed by schoolboys at play, a shawl-wrapped flower seller on a fashionable street, and human dynamics in a photograph of card players on a Dublin street. That so much of Miller’s work survives is a credit to her son, Antony Penrose, who manages her archives and artistic legacy.

Lee Miller in James Joyce’s Dublin opens today at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. jamesjoyce.ie

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