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‘Lee Miller: Nurses’

  • Art
  • Fitzrovia Chapel, Fitzrovia
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves
Lee Miller, US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves Churchill Hospital Oxford England 1943 © Lee Miller Archives England 2022. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk
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Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Rubbery, alien fingers hang from stands like beaks. Masked nurses work under suspended lights in an operating theatre. Grinning faces peek between tent fabric, overlapping guy ropes and washing lines drawing out a distorted grid. These photos could all be part of a black-and-white editorial 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 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. Later in life, she was even a successful gourmet chef. In this exhibition, she is a photojournalist and war reporter, documenting the life of women in the final years 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. 

Her boldness gleams from the other side of the lens: she presents the nurses as individuals, not robotic workers

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 Lee’s granddaughter, Ami, echoes around the walls, as she reads out extracts of Lee’s poetic, thoughtful prose. You can listen along or let the images speak their own story: with a set-up like this, it’s easy to indulge. 

The context of these photographs might be bleak, but they fizz with personality. Miller wasn’t commissioned for the project, she went out there and did it herself. Her boldness gleams from the other side of the lens: she presents the nurses as individuals, not robotic workers. We see women brushing their teeth, eating in groups at mealtime, flirting off-duty with a soldier. We see them deep in focus in a tent and one of them standing tall as male soldiers roll around the floor during physiotherapy. 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 editorial 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 surrealist roots.

There’s something brilliantly editorial about these photographs, as though they were taken in a studio rather than in a field hospital

There’s one photograph that stands out more than others. First, you see the dramatic swan-like curve of a nurse’s hat. Then you see the nurse crouched over a thin, frowning child in a hospital bed. ‘For an hour I watched a baby die,’ Miller wrote. ‘He was dark blue when I first saw him… there was nothing to do but watch him die.’

This image was taken 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 hospital. The photo was never published: it didn’t fit with the narrative of hope when the war ended. It’s hard to look at. It’s a glaring reminder that hardship is everywhere, it’s never-ending. But it’s a powerful statement, summing up who Miller really was: a daring woman who could recast joy, pain, 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 their heaviest in a generation – this small collection of images feels particularly poignant. And now, with a new war and new suffering in the world, Miller’s message remains grimly clear.

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

Details

Address:
Fitzrovia Chapel
2
Pearson Square
London
W1T 3BF
Price:
Free

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