Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lee Miller and Louise Brooks

Lately, I've been paging through Lee Miller: A Life, a new biography by Carolyn Burke. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in Surrealism, especially Man Ray. For those who may not know, Lee Miller and Man Ray - both photographers - had a brief, but significant and tempestuous affair (around 1930). They also influenced each other's work.

In the introduction, Burke writes: "Mesmerized by her features, we look at Lee Miller but not into her. We think of her as a timeless icon. To this day, her life inspires features in the same glossy magazines for which she posed - articles explaining how to re-create her 'look.' This approach turns the real woman into a screen on which beholders project their fantasies. Looking at her this way perpetuates the legend of Lee Miller as 'an American free spirit wrapped in the body of a Greek Goddess'  . . . . In Lee Miller's time, her admirers were equally spellbound by her beauty, but they also saw her as an incarnation of the modern woman - in the United States of the twenties, as a quintessential flapper; in the Paris of the thirties, as a subversive garconne or a maddeningly free femme surrealiste - one who sparked creativity in others but played the role of muse only when it suited her, and sought, despite her lovers' objections, to keep her energy for herself."

I was struck by how applicable this text is to Louise Brooks - and the way we think about her today. While reading the introduction, I was surprised, as well, to soon come across Louise Brooks herself. Burke writes: "Breaking free of conventional roles for women, whether in traditional or avant-garde circles, Lee Miller stired up trouble for herself and for those who loved her. Like screenwriter Anita Loos and actress Louise Brooks (whose careers she followed), she helped reshape women's aspirations through her embrace of popular culture . . . ." Checking the index, I found this is one of nine references to the actress in the book! Who would have thunk it? Though near contemporaries, I don't think the two ever met - nor does the biographer suggest it - though Lee Miller, apparently, attended a Denishawn performance which included Brooks in Poughkeepsie, New York in January, 1923.

There are other fascinating similarities between the two women, who were born only a year apart. I won't go into them, except to add that I am really looking forward to reading this book sometime very soon. (Does the biographer know, I wonder, that Man Ray was also taken with Brooks? According to Brooks' biographer Barry Paris, "[Man Ray] now lived in Paris and was struck by Brooks's face when he saw it in the magazines during the Prix de Beaute filming. He never forgot her and in the late fifties sent her one of his abstract paintings, which hung thereafter on the wall of her bedroom.")

For those interested, the publisher provides this description of the book.

"A trenchant yet sympathetic portrait of Lee Miller, one of the iconic faces and careers of the twentieth century. . . . Carolyn Burke reveals Miller as a multifaceted woman: both model and photographer, muse and reporter, sexual adventurer and mother, and, in later years, gourmet cook - the last of the many dramatic transformations she underwent during her lifetime. A sleek blond bombshell, Miller was part of a glamorous circle in New York and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s as a leading Vogue model, close to Edward Steichen, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. Then, during World War II, she became a war correspondent - one of the first women to do so - shooting harrowing images of a devastated Europe, entering Dachau with the Allied troops, posing in Hitler's bathtub. . . . Burke examines Miller's troubled personal life, from the unsettling photo sessions during which Miller, both as a child and as a young woman, posed nude for her father, to her crucial affair with artist-photographer Man Ray, to her unconventional marriages. And through Miller's body of work, Burke explores the photographer's journey from object to subject; her eye for form, pattern, and light; and the powerful emotion behind each of her images. . . . A lushly illustrated story of art and beauty, sex and power, Modernism and Surrealism, independence and collaboration, Lee Miller: A Life is an astute study of a fascinating, yet enigmatic, cultural figure."

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