The photograph I didn’t take

It was winter and we were walking back to our rented apartment in the 14th arrondissement from Monoprix, with a borrowed buggy filled with basics – toilet paper, dried pasta, yogurt. We traipsed down a road called rue Campagne Première. Norman stopped to take a photograph of some ceramic tiles that had caught his attention. I dawdled along, and found myself looking at this plaque on the wall.

Hey, I thought, here are some names I recognize. Erik Satie who wrote those Gymnopédies for the piano (I can sort of play some of them). Louis Aragon, who wrote Paris Peasant (which I can sort of read in the original French). Marcel Duchamp who made toilets into art (which I have seen in a retrospective). And Man Ray, that surrealist photographer from the United States.

I photographed the plaque (alas, it isn’t a very good shot). And because Norman was still busy, I photographed the building it was attached to, the Hotel Istria, with its line of lamps hanging from the wall. That made a better shot.

Dang. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have photographed the building next door – 31 bis rue Campagne Première. The one with the interesting ceramics. Because that is where Lee Miller met Man Ray for the first time in 1929. It was an important meeting for both of them, and for the history of photography. I won’t miss my chance next time.

I had become interested in Lee Miller years ago after seeing a photograph of her by Man Ray in a book called The Women We Wanted to Look Like (St. Martin’s Press, 1977). The text said that she had gone from being a model to being Man Ray’s student/muse/companion, and later a war photographer, and that after the age of 53, she had not taken a single photograph, because, as she said, “You can’t be an amateur when you have been a professional.”

And here was the building where it all began – well, some accounts say they met here, others that they first saw each other in a nearby bar – but this was where they worked and collaborated and where Lee learned to be a professional photographer.

Only recently did I read a biography that filled in the details that earlier book had hinted at.

Elizabeth (Lee) Miller was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the indulged daughter of a wealthy businessman whose hobby was photography. Over the years, he got into the habit of photographing his daughter in the nude (her biographer, Carolyn Burke, does not speculate on his motives, and neither will I).

He continued this hobby even after the day that his seven-year-old daughter, who had been briefly left in the care of a friend of the family, was sexually abused. And, if that were not bad enough, she contracted gonorrhoea from this single episode, which required ongoing and painful treatment for years thereafter. One cannot even begin to imagine how she felt.

Elizabeth Miller grew up something of a troublemaker and was expelled from nearly every school she attended. In 1925, aged 18, she was sent with a chaperone to a finishing school in Nice, in the south of France, but she never got there. After a few days in Paris at the beginning of the trip, she decided this city was where she belonged. The chaperone went on to Nice without her.

Elizabeth enrolled in a school for stage designers, lived in a chambre de bonne (a maid’s room on the upper floor of a typical Parisian apartment building) – I did the same when I was a student – and spent a blissful few months steeped in bohemian Paris culture. But when her course was finished, her family decided that enough was enough and her mother firmly escorted her home.

Back in the United States, Elizabeth did some theatre work, and became a model for Vogue. Did I mention that she was amazingly photogenic, with a graceful figure, an impossibly long neck, and deep-set blue eyes?

It took a few more years for Mr and Mrs Miller’s daughter to leave the nest for good. She changed her name from the prosaic Elizabeth to the androgynous Lee and went back to Paris in 1929. She made her way to 31 bis rue Campagne Première, found Man Ray, and announced that she was going to be his new student/apprentice. He said he didn’t take on students and was about to leave town anyway. She said she would accompany him, and she did. They spent the next three years together.

It probably wasn’t quite that simple, but that is the story Lee told people later, and stranger things happened in the 1920s. In 1930, she moved to her own studio on rue Victor Schoelcher, opposite the Montparnasse Cemetery, but she remained Man Ray’s muse and lover – at least for a while. She broke Man Ray’s heart, in the end. But during the three years they were together, she absorbed enough knowledge to become a reputable photographer.

Man Ray had two sides to his career. He photographed the rich and fashionable (anyone who was anyone in Paris in the 1930s had a portrait taken by Man Ray). And he was part of the surrealist group, pushing at the boundaries of representation and artistic convention.

Lee Miller had more than two sides to her career. She modelled for French Vogue (known as Frogue). She took portrait photographs, and she photographed street scenes and landscapes that were not exactly surrealist, but were not realistic either. She does not fit neatly into any category.

She earned surrealist credentials, however, playing the part of a statue that comes to life in the Jean Cocteau film Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet). Cocteau painted eyes on her eyelids and told her to walk with closed eyes across the set, wearing a sort of armour that made her look armless and was applied to her body with butter and flour, which cooked itself under the intense lights. On top of all that, the old mattresses that were being used as soundproofing rained down bedbugs on the cast and crew. Nobody ever said it was easy being a surrealist. Still, the film became something of a cult classic. (If you have ever taken a film history course, you will probably have seen it.)

Lee went back and forth between Paris and New York in the 1930s, married an Egyptian in 1934, and lived briefly in Cairo, but it took a world war for her to find something really meaningful to do. She became a war photographer, photographing everything from London during the Blitz to the opening of the death camps in Germany after the war. (Amazingly, Vogue published her realistic photo journalism – not the sort of thing one can imagine in today’s version of the magazine.) There is a famous photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich in 1945: the house had been commandeered by the American army, and she was invited to stay for a few days.

She was one of those people whose wartime experience was so intense that everything afterwards seemed inconsequential. After the war she divorced, remarried, and went to live in England. She did some work for British Vogue (aka Brogue), produced a few pieces of photojournalism, and achieved renown as a gourmet cook, but nothing ever lived up to her wartime experience. Nothing ever could. I have encountered other Second World War veterans like that. They used up all their emotion and adrenalin in the war and postwar life never came close to that feeling of immediacy and importance. In 1960 Lee Miller gave up photography, and in 1977, aged 70, she died of cancer.

And it all began, really, on the rue Campagne Première, a few blocks away from our rented apartment, in a building that I didn’t think to photograph, beside the Hotel Istria.

Further reading: Carolyn Burke, Lee Miller: A Life, New York: Knopf, 2005.

Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie; additional photograph by Norman Ball.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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4 Responses to The photograph I didn’t take

  1. Alex says:

    Loved this post – Lee Miller sounded like a fascinating character and you’ve made me want to get the biography!

  2. Ann Fry says:

    Hey Philippa – read this after reading your piece about Mme Recamier.

    I too write for a paper and am married to a photographer, but that’s an aside…..I was hoping to convert you to the cause of Rene Chateaubriand who gets a bit of a bumpy ride in your piece on Mme Recamier.

    I was looking for more photos of his statue in St Malo and was struck by the similarity of its fate with that of the statue of Dylan Thomas in Swansea i.e.both statues were meant to stare moodily out to sea and now one supervises traffic and the fishdock while the other stares moodily at a block of flats. I’m thinking of starting a campaign to get Dylan re-sited so he can sing in his chains again

    Just wanted to say I admire your stuff and wondered if you have advice for would be photo journalists
    Best wishes, Ann Fry.

  3. CBImages says:

    I was in Montparnasse this weekend and this building made me stop dead in my tracks. So beautiful. I’m a photographer but only had my iPhone with me at the time so took a couple of shots but have been driven to find out the history of this building. So, I googled and came upon your very lovely post! I’m still searching for more information on the architect, style, etc. But really thrilled to know at least this part of the puzzle. Thanks so much for your post!

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