The rubbery, alien fingers of sterilised gloves hang from stands like bird beaks. Masked nurses work under suspended lights in an operating theatre. Grinning faces peek between flapping tent fabric, overlapping guy ropes and washing lines plot a distorted grid. These photos could almost be part of a black-and-white fashion shoot. But look closer, and you’ll find a raw grittiness to these images that spells out a haunting reality.
Lee Miller was many things: she was a model, she was surrealist artist Man Ray’s muse, she was the bad bitch that photographed herself in the bath in Hitler’s Munich apartment on the day he killed himself in 1945. Later in life, she was even a successful gourmet chef. In this exhibition, she is a photojournalist and war reporter, documenting the lives of ordinary women in the final year of WWII.
Miller was accredited with the US Army in 1942 and on D-Day, she crossed the Channel to France, where she immersed herself in the graft, grief and horror of the front line. Following the day-to-day lives of nurses, her photographs and articles were published in US and UK Vogue, and a mere 13 have been selected from the archives to feature in the Fitzrovia Chapel’s powerful new exhibition.
Built as part of Middlesex Hospital, the chapel reopened to the public in 2015, to share cultural projects relating to the hospital and nearby area. Surrounded by towering new-build apartments, it’s a hidden sanctuary, with shining stained glass and a gold mosaic ceiling that would give Moth Club a run for its money. A recording of Miller’s granddaughter Ami echoes around the walls, as she reads out extracts of her grandmother’s poetic, thoughtful prose. You can listen along or let Miller’s images tell their own story.
She presents these young women as individuals, not robotic functionaries.
The context of these photographs might be bleak, but they fizz with personality. Miller wasn’t commissioned for the project, she just went out into the field and did it herself. Her boldness gleams from the other side of the lens: she presents these young women as individuals, not robotic functionaries.
We see nurses brushing their teeth, eating in groups at mealtime, flirting off-duty with a soldier. We see them deep in concentration in a surgical tent and one of them standing tall as soldiers roll around the floor during a physiotherapy session. We even see the ghostly outlines of their uniforms hanging up to dry, a gentle reminder of their never-ending domestic duties. There’s something brilliantly considered about these photographs, as though they were taken in a studio rather than in a field hospital. From the composition of shadows to the careful juxtaposition of hard and soft, we’re constantly reminded of Miller’s roots in surrealism.
There's something brilliantly considered about these photographs.
There’s one photograph that particularly stands out. First, you see the dramatic swan-like curve of a nurse’s hat. Then you see its wearer crouched over a thin, frowning child in a hospital bed. ‘For an hour I watched a baby die,’ Miller wrote about the image. ‘He was dark blue when I first saw him… there was nothing to do but watch him die.’
Miller took this photograph in Vienna in 1945, after the Nazis had surrendered. The city had been taken over by black marketeers who’d stolen all the drugs from the hospitals. The photo was never published at the time: it didn’t fit with the narrative of hope and reconstruction after the war ended. It’s still hard to look at. It’s a glaring reminder that hardship and pain are everywhere, it’s never-ending. But it’s also a powerful creative statement, summing up who Miller really was: a daring woman who could recast joy, despair and truth in a way that people would remember as art.
Today, with the backdrop of the past two years – when nurses have been overworked, and when grief and uncertainty have felt at their most overwhelming in a generation – this intimate collection of images feels particularly poignant, more so for its sombre, reflective setting. And with a new war and new suffering in the world, Miller’s message remains grimly contemporary.