Notes on Lee Miller (Excerpt)
1. When art historians talk about Lee Miller, they almost always begin with her face. As in, "her youthful, patrician beauty, and her soulful, saucy personality, Lee Miller swiftly ascended from apprentice/model to lover/muse for Man Ray... Five years earlier, Miller had taken the path seldom open to women once they have been positioned as muses, moving from the inspiring to the inspired when she asserted herself as an independent photographer. 'I would rather take a picture than be one' was how she put it to a journalist."
2. This is where I will begin. Elizabeth "Lee" Miller. American. Born April 23, 1907. Died July 21, 1977. Photographer, Surrealist.
3. In the darkroom I fumble for the scissors, the film canister, the roller, the cylinder it goes into. My hands learn the contours of each piece of equipment. I can see clearly with all the lights off.
4. Emmanuel writes, "You are so young and beautiful and free, and I hate myself for trying to cramp that in you which I admire most, and find so rare in women, or non-existent?" Lee explains to a journalist, "I would rather take a picture than be one." Lee will always be the one who leaves. She will travel first to England, then to New York to open her own studio. While Emmanuel escapes Germany during World War II, she will go there on purpose. She will photograph victims at Buchenwald at the end of the war. She will go home shaken, carrying around a depression so thick it can only have come from the connection between her index finger and the shutter of her camera.
5. "I would rather take a picture than be one." I think this is what I meant when I said to Elle that night at the diner, drinking cheap green tea, I will always be the girl who got on that plane for Paris. I will always be the girl who left him. I will always be leaving him, unless he decides to come with me. I would rather take a picture than be one. You only think this is what you like about me.
6. Unless he decides to come with me. This sticks in my mind as crucial. It suggests that maybe she didn't leave him. Or that, at least, maybe her leaving had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with her. That she went where she needed to go in order to be taken seriously as an artist cannot be questioned. Nor can it be ignored. And maybe that was never about him. Maybe it had nothing to do with him. Maybe that knowledge was even more painful to Emmanuel. Maybe the distance and the years and the juggernaut he built of ready-made metronomes emblazoned with her single, remote eye could have been averted if he had followed her to New York. Man Ray, after all, was an American too.
7. Buying groceries two months after I left, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" came over the store's speakers. It was a French cover version, followed impossibly by the Bonnie Tyler original. This is something I would have wanted to tell you, but didn't.
8. Thirty years before Sylvia Plath publishes The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Lee photographs her friend Tanja Ramm trapped underneath a bell jar from the neck up. Her eyes are almost completely closed. Her facial expression reads as pained, or even dead. She has the appearance of a specimen, an art object under glass. Some art historians claim that Lee's images of women literally presented as objects are a commentary on modeling, that they stem from her experience being photographed and treated as a thing.
9. After the bell jar, there are birds in cages on a balcony, thin wiry grating pressed against looped Parisian steel.
10. Years later, once she has moved back to New York, Lee finds a severed breast from an extreme mastectomy at the hospital where she is photographing. She takes it to the studios at Vogue, sets it on a dinner plate between a fork and knife, lights it, and photographs it until she gets kicked out.
11. Long after this photograph is taken, after Lee has died, her son, Antony Penrose, finds his mother's archive of photographs. He has never seen them before. Many of her photographs have been lost or destroyed. The ones that have survived have only been exhibited once. In her letters, Lee's son finds evidence that when she was a child, his mother was raped.
12. If the unprocessed negatives are exposed to light, the images will be lost. This happened to one of my rolls of film once. I forgot to turn on the red in-use light above the door to the film-loading room. When Nancy opened the door to load her film, I looked down at my fingers, at my negatives cradled between my hands, at the tiny red sparks of cuts the canister and scissors had made on them, and began to cry. She turned off the light and entered, slamming the door behind her, and even though we both knew it was too late, we re-rolled my film, tucked it into the canister, and processed it. When I unwound the processed negatives from the tank, a week's worth of images had become a line of uniform black rectangles.
13. The bell jar photograph is attributed to Man Ray. The image credit reads, "Man Ray (and Lee Miller?)."
14. It's the coldest winter Europe has seen in twenty years, and I am dreaming while wind threatens to unbutton the shutters. We are still in college in my dream. You are driving me home after our late-night decafs and crumbly slices of pie, and your favorite waitress's latest dramatic monologue on the art of fisting. I'm staring out the window at the stars over the valley, the quiet shadows of farms against the bottle-blue sky. I'm trying to remember when you made me feel something that wasn't dread. I want to answer all of your questions and I want my answers to be simple. But they won't be. They can't be. My first customs stamp came a month ago and I'm already addicted to movement. I will always be leaving.
15. In my Photography 1 class in college three years before I move to Paris, we examine Man Ray's rayographs during a lecture day. Dark shapes on white. We look at Rineke Dijkstra's teenage subjects. I am distracted by the 1990s cuts of their swimsuits. We watch Francesca Woodman's naked body disappear into a wall, and I am exquisitely sad when our professor tells us that she committed suicide shortly after the photographs were taken. We trace our fingers along the purple half moon of Nan Goldin's black eye. We are stared at disdainfully by Tina Barney's tyrannical WASP queens in matching bathrobes. We are puzzled by Diane Arbus's pudgy adults in wheelchairs, their childlike faces partially obscured by sequined masks. We even look at Annie Liebowitz, whose commercial style is the modern-day equivalent of Man Ray's Vogue assignments, the ones he would often pass on to Lee. In class, two things occur to me. One is that I will never be that good of a photographer. The second is that Lee is never mentioned.
16. In December there's an exhibition of surrealist photography at the Centre Pompidou. "This exhibition brings together nearly 400 works, giving us a rare overview of surrealist photography," reads the catalog text. "A broad selection of the finest proofs by Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Claude Cahun, Raoul Ubac, Jacques André Boiffard, Maurice Tabard will be shown alongside rarely seen images which reveal a number of surrealist ways of using photography…" The photograph of Lee Miller's neck is pasted in every metro stop in the city by way of promotion. A week after the exhibition opens, I scale the intubated escalator at the Centre. I'm on a mission to see Lee's prints. But I don't find any.
17. When friends in Paris ask about it, I use euphemism, metaphor, and simile to describe what I don't have the words for when I talk about you. Some of these are more heavy-handed than others. Kryptonite. Stunted growth. Time travel.
18. I used to keep a postcard of a Man Ray print in my room. It's the one most people know, of a woman's naked back superimposed with a violin's curved F-holes. The violin and the body are both containers for lungs. The woman in it is Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray's lover before Lee. I can't look at it anymore. I print out one of Lee's images and tape it above my desk.
19. (I choose the one with the birds.)
20. Walking across the Pont des Arts one night, Travis says, "The thing is, people will always surprise you." It's cold, but we're pretending spring is here, clutching beers and trying to stay warm in our thin jackets, our speech clouded with strange French grammatical structures, our guts longing for home, our minds unsure if home is where we think we left it. We've walked across this bridge hundreds of times on similar nights, but this is the first time I've noticed the clusters of locks secured to its slender metal railings. "Huh," I say. "What do you think all these are about?" "It's a tradition," says Travis. By the time I get home that night, cigarette smoke sunk into my coat, my feet sore from walking what must have been miles through the city, still a little drunk off the beer, I take off my boots and brush my teeth while French hip-hop buzzes through the wall between Samuel's and my rooms. I fall asleep without remembering to look up the origin of the locks.
21. I only remember three months later when I've moved back home. The answer shouldn't be surprising. The locks are tokens of love. I don't know if I'm more charmed by the idea of the Pont des Arts forever collecting locks or alarmed at the permanence and even entrapment that their use suggests. Perhaps permanence is what Man Ray wanted from Lee. Perhaps it was his belief in this kind of certainty that launched a thousand metronomes.
22. For a surrealist, this seems like particularly unimaginative thinking.
23. (Perhaps this is also what you wanted from me.)
24. A few months after the surrealism show, I'm back at the Centre Pompidou with Travis. We are standing in front of a Sonia Delauney painting. The title is "Avec Moi-Meme." "'By Myself,'" I say. "Yeah," he replies. "But do you think she's lonely?" I look up at the green and black and red swirls, and Sonia Delauney's thick, lightweight strokes. She must have used her biggest brush. She must have been obsessed by circles and a limited palette. Paintings just like this one fill an entire tracklit room. I imagine her sitting in a studio for hours making them. I can't imagine that a woman who would do that would be lonely in her solitude. "No," I say out loud, finally. "Me neither," says Travis. We stare up at the circles for a few more moments, at the loops of color and the strokes of black. Then we go into the next room.
25. I load a new roll of film into my 35mm camera. My trigger finger is out of practice. I look through the viewfinder into the middle distance. I press down. The shutter opens and closes with a satisfying crash.
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