Discovering Lee Miller

A primary reason for starting Informative Outlooks was my growing application for various art forms. I’m still reading and learning to gain a fuller understanding, yet by doing so my appreciation continues helping me to contextualise an artists’ meaning. On the subject of photography I have been drawn to real and candid moments specific photographers have captured (see my comments in my previous posts https://informativeoutlooks.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/close-up-photographers-at-work/ and https://informativeoutlooks.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/imagine-mccullin-2013/).

My appreciation for photography has continued upon discovering Lee Miller. For those unfamiliar with Miller she was a former photographic model who gained an interest in the arts (studying Italian art and culture for a year) before persuading Man Ray, a renowned figure of the surrealist movement to become his apprentice which began her photography career. Miller became acquainted with Ray professionally and personally, establishing relationships with other artists connected to the surrealist movement and consolidating herself as an photographer. Miller furthered her career by becoming a war photographer in Britain for Vogue and later a war correspondent for American forces capturing the aftereffects of the Second World War upon humanity. Throughout Miller’s surrealist and wartime periods, her use of composition, technique and engagement of subject matter is what draws me to her photography which I’ll elaborate through analysing my favorite Miller photographs.

Surrealism dealt with the unconscious mind where human desires of sex, violence and death are imminent. Miller’s surrealist photography dealt with sexual desire and gaze as shown below. The composition of the model’s breasts exposed from the sabre guard, traditionally to protect the torso creates an impression of overwhelming sexual desire. The surrealists wanted to show how sexuality is a powerful, overcoming emotion. The breasts exposed represents sexualities’ triumph within human desires making this photograph greatly symbolic of surrealism’s relationship with sex.

Nude wearing sabre guard (1930)

Nude wearing sabre guard. 1930

Surrealism’s notion of unconscious desires was represented in solorisation, a technique Miller accidentally discovered whilst working with Ray and later perfected. This accidental discovery was perfect for surrealist aesthetics as it gave subjects a dream-like quality. The close-up composition of Dorothy Hill’s head shot, Miller applied solorisation to make Hill a mysterious figure to be gazed at. Solorisation allows spectators to apply their abstract interpretations into what the dream-like visual represents, thus activating their unconscious.

Dorothy Hill (1933)

This last surrealist image I’ll analyse is not so much part of surrealism in its techniques or compositions, it is the people involved living by their artistic integrity. This photograph captures an intimate moment of Miller’s friends from the surrealist movement (Nusch and Paul Eluard, Ronald Penrose, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin) with particular focus on Eluard’s and Fidelin’s nude bodies. This photograph conveys a highly charged sexuality sufficient amongst the group whose surrealist tendencies were clearly personal as well as professional.

Picnic (1937)

Miller’s war photography captured moments of stark humanity wherever it be horrific or tragic. The photography below shows a beaten SS Prison Guard who had been recognised by former prisoners whilst disgusting himself as a civilian. I find this photograph to contain immense emotional power, framed in a close-up it is directing spectators into defining their feelings of the horrific violence brought upon him. This was a great technique by Miller to confront spectators. From my perspective it shows the SS Prison Guard’s consequences for his association with the Nazis. Acknowledging this might give spectators a sense of justified pleasure.

Beaten SS Prison Guard (1945)

The photograph of a child evacuee contains a similar quality to the beaten SS Prison Guard in its directness, spectators cannot help but be drawn into the subject matter. Like the beaten SS Prison Guard photograph, Miller is capable of capturing immense emotion power. The Second World War’s consequences on humanity were once again evident within Miller’s photography. The child evacuee’s facial expressions conveyed a sense of loss and vulnerability, what a global war zone has inflicted upon individuals. This was emphasised in the composition as the child evacuee shown in the wide shot is isolated, as if his troubles will continue.

Child evacuee (1944)

Continuing with the Second World War’s consequences upon humanity, Miller captured the body of a young German woman who had committed suicide. Incidentally the position she is in creates a dream-like quality, as if she is only sleeping. However knowing the truth changes these assumptions to tragedy. Despite the fact the woman in question was affiliated with the Nazis and took her own life before facing justice, there is no sense of judgement indicated as was in the beaten SS Prison Guard photograph. Miller framed the photograph from a close perspective, her technique seems to offer sympathy towards a life wasted through suicide as repercussions of Nazi politics.

Nazi Female suicide (1945)

Miller’s surrealist and war photographs were always encapsulating within her use of composition that was direct. This related to her technique of making spectators automatically engage with subject matter and be drawn into her photography wherever to be intrigued or horrified. Photography which has such power should be given substantial recognition.

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Imagine…McCullin (2013)

Being an admirer of Don McCullin’s photography, this recent BBC documentary certainly appeased my viewing satisfaction.

Chronologically charting McCullin’s career photographing local teddy boys, Cyprus’ civil war, the Vietnam war and secular conflicts in Beirut, there is a deep appreciation to be had for McCullin’s extensive work in dangerous environments. Understanding the back-story of McCullin’s photographs was key to contemplate the situation he placed himself in as McCullin explained throughout the documentary. In particular lying to the CIA was a potentially hazardous decision but McCullin got the images he wanted. Such actions emphasis what a war photographer has to be for their work to be a stories’ core. It only goes to show McCullin’s bravery.

Simply learning about the locates of McCullin’s photographs would have been interesting enough but McCullin explained his working psychology. McCullin seemed to be a conflicted personality that only fascinates my interest more as McCullin felt the thrill of being amidst violent conflict yet horrified by his subjects’ reality. As he explained “it’s a very fine line” between his work and the subject’s lives which from time to time blurred McCullin’s reasoning.

This is a compelling documentary about the psychology, morality and contextualisation of McCullin’s work that is equally satisfying as an admirer and a brilliant introduction for those unaware of McCullin.

Don McCullin

Close Up: Photographers at Work

With Close Up: Photographers at Work, Rebecca Dreyfus succeeded in creating an engaging documentary filled with delightful insights into a number of established photographers whose openness helps even the novice understand what motivates their photographic drive. On a personal level this openness expands mindsets to photography’s essence as Albert Maysles noted “it gives us a basis to find a common ground with people and events who otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to connect with”.

Albert Maysles in his search for the common ground he sees as vital in photography.

Albert Maysles in his search for the common ground he sees as vital in photography.

Not only is the importance of Maysles’ statement embodied through the work shown in Close Up, the process which leads up to each photograph establishes the formation for the common ground towards subject and spectator. Maysles roaming through the streets of Harlem gracing his charm observing ordinary people, Andrew Moore’s vivid colourful city – scapes enthusiastically capturing the perfect moment and Sylvia Plachy wanting to reveal the depths within her human subjects. It all comes back to show photography’s reliability, the common ground Maysles defined as they aim to place themselves as a mediator between us as spectators and the subjects, letting us understand each photographs’ significance.

By Close Up going in depth with a variety of photographers, it allowed spectators the opportunity to expand and question the capabilities of what the profession entails, in particular Gregory Crewdson and Tim – Greenfield Sanders. Opposite from the direct simplicity in technique seen from Maysles and Plachy, Crewdson went to great lengths in constructing his photographs in a sophisticated style offering intrigue towards the mysterious and Sanders’ repetitive use of still portrait in photographing subjects in a controlled, dignified state to reveal their sense of character. Despite the large contrast in each photographers’ style, they all share a common interest in exposing an underlying sensation regarding individual forms of beauty that they strive for perfectly conveying Close Up’s alluring essence as an insightful documentary out to prove photography’s relevance.