New Knowledge

Lee Miller tribute

I’m writing about something unknown becoming known. I’m a sucker for this. If I stumbling upon a website, or blog, that promises five new facts about a person or place, then I’m there. I usually bypass the preceding paragraphs to get to the numbered lists, then often enough I’ve already heard about most of them. Sometimes I’m even knowledgeable enough to know they are false.

I’m not particularly intelligent, it just that I have a lot of experience digging after trivia. Very wide knowledge base, but only about two inches deep. I do have some pride in a few areas where it is deeper than two inches.

I taught in college level art areas for about forty years. The history of photography is one area where I go fairly deep. I also taught a general course for non-art majors for 4 or 5 years. Admittedly it ranged from cave art to modern art in 18 weeks, so we couldn’t get very deep on any decade, but we touched on the major art movements.

Naturally I spent a little more time on the movements where I had a personal interest. Impressionism, surrealism, and photography were in my wheelhouse. Did I know well every artist? Of course not, but I would have bet that very few had escaped being read about.

So, naturally, last year I was dumbfounded when Alice Neel, the great portrait artist, was a new discovery. How did that happen? Did a chapter fall out of the book I was reading? Did I miss the room in the museum I was visiting? (Well, that’s probably true!)

Fortunately I was able to get to know Alice’s work all at once, and coming late in life, I enjoyed it even more.

This should have prepared me for more surprises, but it didn’t. My daughter emailed a question for me, “What did I know about Man Ray, and Lee Miller?”

Ha, well… very early on I read about Man Ray. I mean the very name demanded attention. To find out that his medium included photography and that his work is classified largely as “surreal” meant that I had background knowledge.

However, with more thought I realized that as an artist I had about two inches deep on his life, and maybe 4 or 5 specific images. Mostly I remembered his work in solarized photographs, not even knowing that he popularized the technique.

And about Lee Miller? I replied to my daughter that I didn’t know a thing about him.

12 hours later I knew a few things about her. And mostly I knew how embarrassed I was that I was so ignorant.

Lee Miller, (1907-1977), born in NY, became a fashion model in the 1920s. Interested in getting behind the camera. She went unannounced to Man Ray’s studio in Paris, saying that, “you must study with the best,” so she became his model and intern, regardless of his opinion.

She became a fashion photographer, after years of being in front of the lens. She also had several shows of her surrealistic photographs. Man Ray introduced her to everyone in Paris. With the coming of the war, she went to London and worked for Vogue Magazine. She became one of five women that were war correspondents.

Lee Miller was at the D-Day landings, and took photographs all the way through the liberation of Europe. She also photographed the liberations of the concentration camps. She witnessed horror, and was deeply affected by it.

It turns out that I did know about her. I had seen some of her photographs, I just didn’t take the time to find out the photographer’s name. The sad truth is that when a painting or sculpture is viewed you natural want to know about the artist. When you are impressed with a book, you want to know about the author. When I see an interesting photograph, I don’t always think about the photographer. I want to change that.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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