Photographic Audiences, National Identities, and Ethics: Reflections on Lee Miller’s War by Matthew Bowman

In looking at the photographs taken by Lee Miller during World War Two, one question we might find ourselves asking would concern the intended audience for these images. Working as an official correspondent for Vogue magazine, Miller’s photographs of conflict were situated amongst other images that depicted the latest trends in fashion and it was those images that defined the magazine. The inclusion of war photographs, then, must have come across as a disruptive force. Vogue was not, of course, the only media space that brought war to its readers. The American magazine Life also famously did, while film footage was displayed in local cinemas. A growing media culture during the 1940s narrowed the distance between the frontline and home, between danger and relative safety. Such visual material betokened transformations in the distribution networks of media culture, but also correspondingly reflected the development of a new subjectivity increasingly versed in photo literacy. Through these growing media networks, photography fulfilled not only an objective educational function, but was used to engender a sense of patriotism and national identity.

While previous conflicts and wars had come before the camera’s lens, the second world war afforded a more intense level of photographic engagement compared to any that preceded it. The reasons for this are manifold: for example, one can assign technological considerations which dovetail with the both production and consumption sides of a rapidly growing photographic industry. Technological developments resulted in the availability of smaller, lighter cameras and the 35mm film format; what was lost in terms of sheer picture quality and detail was recouped by vastly improved portability and a more spontaneous, instinctually responsive mode of operation. In parallel to this were technical changes that benefitted the mass reproduction of photographs, resulting in a burgeoning culture of photographically-illustrated magazines and books during the 1920s, especially in Germany with publications such as the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. Such a culture in Germany not only played up the then-novelty of photography within print media—effectively signalling the downturn in the use of graphic illustrations—but also attempted to foster a new level of photo-literacy in which the conjoined notions of truth, history, memory, and a specifically modernist transformation in sensory perception would be at stake. The political and theoretical consequences of photography would be deeply examined by figures such as Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Lázló Moholy-Nagy, and John Heartfield over the course of the 1920s until reaching a state of crisis with the rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party.

The consolidation of the Nazi’s grasp upon German society, especially after the Enabling Act of 1933, forced many photographers, editors, and critics into exile while Josef Goebbels began retrofitting the media infrastructure for the purposes of a comprehensive propaganda machine. Some of those exiled found employment at Life magazine, a weekly publication which became fundamental to the development of an American photographic culture echoing that which previously existed in Germany. Having bought the rights to the name in 1936, Henry Luce published the first issue of Life in November 1936, intending to create a magazine that would devote substantial space to photography over text. Aside from its distinctive logo, the cover of each magazine was dominated by a full-page and often eye-catching photograph. For example, the front of the very first issue presented a black-and-white image of the Fort Peck Dam taken by Margaret Bourke-White who, like Miller, would later document the horrors happening in the concentration camps and those that had survived to tell the tale. Using photography to narrate the story and benefitting from its assumed objectivity or evidential force, Life was instrumental in the formation of photojournalism and, in retrospect, served as a counterpart to the photographic documentary practices undertaken by the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration agencies.

As the first American photo-magazine, part of Life’s success was in creating an audience that would underpin an emerging photographic culture in the United States: from an initial circulation of 380,000 copies per week, it grew in four months to one million, with other magazines following suit. It should be of perhaps little surprise, then, that after the attack on Pearl Harbour and the entry of America into the war Life would have a prominent role in photographically documenting the war, with forty of its photojournalists—six of whom were women—becoming embedded within the army. But as with other forms of media, stories from the frontline evinced both straight reportage and more-or-less propagandistic functions. Regardless of the actual intentions of the photographer, the dissemination of war images through the print media intermixed the desire to share information with the manufacturing of public opinion. This is not to claim that the war for the public was sugar-coated through careful selection of images, but that the terrifying grim realities depicted and publicized served to emphasize the difficult necessity of war. Indeed, Life was the first to show a photograph—taken by George Strock in 1942, but not published until 1943—of dead American soldiers without any sheet covering their lifeless bodies. And, of course, Life would present the first images from the concentration camps, with Bourke-White’s and George Rodger’s images of piled bodies and emaciated survivors searing into the public’s consciousness. Yet for all the dark magnitude of these photographs and their emphatic directness, there are ideological complications to navigate insofar as Luce called for, in the 17th February 1941 issue of Life, the birth of the new “American Century”; alongside their obvious denotations, a denotation that we must not ignore, there is potentially a shadowy ideological connotation that augers for the rise of America as the world’s foremost superpower in the face of the manifest failure of humanity in Germany and Europe more generally. In other words, one might wonder if the photographic message these images have been conscripted for is: America must lead when such horrors are unleashed on the far side of the Atlantic. Here it would appear that that the loss of a critical photographic culture in Germany during the 1930s and the consequent rise of a similar culture in the USA creates an historical disequilibrium. For if it can be argued that Life’s war photojournalism was used to legitimate an “American Century,” it can also seem that the surviving photographic documentation of the second world war is mostly American or, at least, created by Allied photographers. The loss of a German photographic culture to a Nazi propaganda regime has meant the paucity of reliable German images that could forge a more multifocal visuality in the face of the somewhat one-sided documentation that we currently have.

In discussing this American photographic culture, it might seem that I have strayed from the photographs of Miller, but it is important to place them within this context. Doing so, however, is not to assert that they are identical to this context but rather to propose that they stray from it in some measure. To a degree, I think it is because Miller stems from a different photographic tradition. Her early involvement in Surrealism—first as Man Ray’s assistant and then as a significant photographer in her own right—places her on a different trajectory from many of the photographers working with Life magazine. While their practices were generally marked by social reformism, documentary approaches, and the growing field of photojournalism (the last two items in that list were still rather new during the Second World War), all of which assumed the objective capabilities of the camera through the understanding of the photographic image as a reasonably direct transcription of the world, Miller’s own photographic training emphasized formal experimentation which foregrounded the potential for the camera to have a transformative effect in relation to the world. Surrealist imagery and texts, as André Breton explained, was not the presentation of some alternative reality, but rather was a way of rethinking reality and exploring how unconscious impulses displaced the sovereignty of the conscious.

It was arguably not only the use of photography, and the assumptions undergirding that use, which differed Miller from the Life photographers. Her connections to Surrealism, and, by historical extension, Dada, suggest a fundamentally different orientation towards war. As art historians have often argued, both Dada and Surrealism emerged in part as responses to the First World War. The origins of Dada, of course, reside in neutral Switzerland and the escape of various cultural figures from the frontline to Zurich and the influential Cabaret Voltaire. The spread of Dada to Berlin helped to delineate a more nakedly political aesthetic which foregrounded the photomontage: a visual practice that both contested the authority of the photograph and mapped the brutal violence enacted during the war (and afterwards in the precarious Weimar Republic) onto the cutting up and reassembling of images; John Heartfield’s dismembered and rejoined photomontage fragments were explicitly continuous with war’s physical mutilation of life and limb. By the same token, many of the early Surrealists served in the First World War and returned from the Front scarred by their experiences. Although Dada and Surrealism occasionally exhibited escapist tendencies, the overall direction of their procedures indicate a critique and rejection of the cultural conditions that result in war and social differentiation. Variously, the First World War was comprehended by the Surrealists as the unsurprising outcome of bourgeois rationality or as the traumatic expression of the repressed unconscious. Due to her association with the Surrealists in Paris, it seems plausible to presume that Miller broadly shared corresponding sentiments. Unlike other Surrealists, she may not have experienced the First World War directly, but through her social ties and the tense politics of the interwar years, the First World War would have likely very much exerted a negative pressure on her personal formation.

Some of this is evident, I think, in some of the difficult photographs taken by Miller during the Second World War. Here I have in mind not the tragic images of victims of the concentration camps—as difficult as they are—but the various photographs of Nazi soldiers and collaborators that you find. In the exhibition at Art Exchange, for example, there are two 1944 photographs—probably taken within minutes of one another—taken in the French city of Rennes. The first is shot from an elevated position and looks down to the street below. We see a cluster of people standing together, forming a kind of downward-pointing horseshoe shape. Amongst these people we see four figures, all of with their heads shaved; at first, perhaps, we don’t notice that all four are women. The photograph caption identifies them as collaborators, although the nature of their collaboration is impossible to tell here—were they ardent Nazis? Are they German or French? Supporters of the Vichy government? True believers or collaborating whilst inwardly resisting? Women who may have been seen socializing with German soldiers? Such questions remain unanswerable from the photograph, but is evident is that their heads have been shaved in order to mark them out publicly. The semi-ring of people around them carries a potential threat; perhaps the threat has already been carried out, the hairlessness and humiliation being the punishment weighed upon these collaborators. Looking at the photograph, it seems not unfair to hope—despite everything that happened in the years beforehand—that the shaving of the collaborators’ heads was the endpoint rather than the prelude to a harsher retribution. Potentially also troublesome in this first photograph are the figures in the crowd enclosing the collaborators that, knowing they are being photographed by Miller, look up towards her and smile. The smiles are ambiguous here: are they gestures of relief? Do they derive from the custom of smiling at the camera? Or could they be signs of people taking pleasure in the punishment being meted out? Again, such questions cannot be answered and so the photograph continues to haunt. The second photograph brings us ground-level amid the crowd and presents close-up two of the collaborators. In this photograph we come literally face-to-face with those collaborators.

A face-to-face relationship is manifest in her photographs of Nazi soldiers that are also being shown in Art Exchange. To a great extent, it is difficult to know how to respond to these works, especially after seeing the emaciated corpses of those killed in the death camps, the charred remains of a skeleton in an industrial oven, or the images of those who barely survived the rigorously administrated terror. One photograph, previously published in Vogue, is a profile image showing a Buchenwald guard who has hanged himself. His face is blotchy—possibly the result of hanging—while blood is around around his ear and copiously spilt on his clothes. As part of a Vogue article, the photograph perhaps conveys contrition on the suicide’s part, and thereby a confirmation of not just personal guilt but the guilt of Nazi regime, too. It might even contend that the man’s death is suitable retribution in some measure. And yet, it is hard to shake the feeling that Miller is pictorializing something that is more awkward than that: namely, a reminder that death and violence is spread amid all sides engaged in the conflict. This is perhaps at its most striking in the next photograph shown in the exhibition. Here we see the face and upper torso of another Buchenwald guard against a dark background. The brightly-lit face accentuates the dark uneven lines running along his nose and the patches on the side of his face. It is clear that the guard has had his nose recently fractured: the dark lines glisten, indicating that the blood is still fresh and flowing, and there are substantial blood stains visible on his short and jacket. It is not just the injury that haunts our attention but also the guard’s eyes: wide-open and staring out wildly, we see within them clear signs of trauma and pain. Given the evidence, it seems likely that the guard had been beaten by an Allied soldier. Rather different in style and yet continuing to ask difficult questions is a third photograph. Again, it presents us with a Buchenwald guard, but here there is a mixture of signals which problematizes judgment. On the one hand, we immediately see that the guard, in a gesture of defiance, performing a Nazi salute directly in front of Miller. The way that he is photographed from a lower angle generates the effect that he almost towers over us in a way that could be threatening. On the other hand, however, his face appears grim rather than defiant—making the salute seem more demonstrative than patriotic—and there is heavy bruising around one eye. A final image in this sequence depicts yet another Nazi guard, though this time he is dead rather than imprisoned. His corpse floats, almost serenely, just below the surface of the water, his face somewhat fragmented by the refraction of light. This time there are no evidentiary traces bespeaking the cause of death or harm. Suicide or killed—we cannot know. It might also be said that this photograph in particular serves as a reminder that Miller’s photographic origins reside not in the American photojournalism that came into being during the 1930s, but rather in the formal and psychological experiments undertaken by Surrealist photography and image-making during the 1920s and 1930s (although very differently, I am reminded, for example, of Raoul Ubac’s 1938 photograph Portrait in a Mirror).

The difficult histories of dictatorship, war, and occupation entail that collaboration in general becomes sometimes a complex, ambiguous stance within society, involving at its extremes collusion or inaction, careerism and survival. It threatens to distort the dividing line separating ally and enemy, good from bad; horrendous situations create confused moral positions. None of this is to justify collaboration tout court, but I would like to suggest Miller’s photographs are less interested in presenting visual documentation that neatly assigns guilt and innocence, easily distinguishing between aggressor and victim, in the manner that is evident in the photographs published in Life magazine. Instead, there is a worry in the pictures that the violence cannot be contained to particular social groups—war appears universal. Even the most “just war” can bring out the worst moral degradation. Indeed when we look, for instance, at the photographs of the Nazi guards, it is mostly only the accompanying captions that particularize the figures here; without those captions it would be hard to know—perhaps impossible—to know that the hanged man, the man with his nose broken, and the dead man beneath the water’s surface were Nazi guards rather than Allied soldiers; they could be anybody. Historical memory only truly fulfils its purpose if it remembers and works through everything rather than selects details based on the imbalance between winners and losers. And yet, for all that darkness, we should perhaps also cling onto the moments of happiness in the exhibition—the French children gleefully grabbing chocolate, the friendships amongst soldiers, and the ultimately unbroken spirit of the liberated Jewish survivors singing for food—for the possibility of peace and community is in itself a potent critique of war.