Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elizabeth (Lee) Miller

Elizabeth Miller (also known as Lee Miller) was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907 to parents Theodore and Florence Miller. It was her father who first introduced her to photography, and she was his model as a teenager. She was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer after learning a lot from the photographer Man Ray. During WWII, she became an distinguished war correspondent for Vogue magazine, as she covered events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

I think I must be drawn to war photographers. At first I picked Elizabeth Lee Miller just because we have the same last name and same initials, and when I found out she was a model I expected to find a lot of fashion photos, etc. Instead I found this.

I think that photographs that document the Holocaust are particularly interesting. There are images, such as this one, that absolutely shock and horrify people, just because they are so graphic and violent and, to be honest, frightening. At first they made me really uncomfortable, and actually I guess that's still the case because I certainly don't like looking at them. However, I can see how, especially in context with the Holocaust, they can be important. It seems to me like photographs like these serve as a sort of brutal reminder. They show the horrible things that human beings can do to one another, and I used to think that that was all they were good for, and I thought that was absolutely sickening and horrible. However, then I began to believe that perhaps we have to have reminders of the terrible things that have happened, as a sort of tribute to those who suffered through them, and also as a way to make sure nothing so horrible ever happens again. It's far from pleasant, but it's not without purpose.

I found this particular photograph interesting just because of the framing, and the juxtaposition of the two groups of people - the corpses and the crowd of people looking at them.

Sorry to go off on a bit of a morbid tangent here, but I think that some of the reason that this photograph is so interesting and well known is because of humanity's general fascination with things that frighten us. It's the obsession with the strange or the eerie or the downright scary that drives us to slow down and look at car crashes as we pass them, go to haunted houses, watch Fear Factor and horror movies. Sometimes something can really be so horrible you can't look away.

On the other hand, I think this photograph also inspires compassion. Someone looking at it really does feel for the person in this photograph, and the emotion is not one of pity so much as "I wish I could help."

I've mentioned before on this blog that I've come to believe that communication is a huge part of photography. Well, I certainly think that this image is an example of communication between a photograph and the person viewing it. I would normally never look at something like this, because I wouldn't believe that any good could come of it - I would only make myself sad and scared. However, the reason that I do look at it is because it speaks to me. It is a photograph that stirs up emotion in the person looking at it. It is heart wrenching, and I feel almost as though I am being dragged into the photograph, because I suddenly care about the people in it. It does leave me with a sort of sense of helplessness, because I want to help the people in the photograph and I can't. But it also leaves me with a sense of hope, or something like that, because I want to help others now, almost in an attempt to make up for not being able to do anything for these two.

Viewing these photographs feels almost the same as watching a tragedy for me. It doesn't uplift me in the typical happy go-lucky kind of way, not at all, but in the end I am left with a sort of feeling of catharsis. It's more of a cleansing feeling than a helium balloon one (if that makes any sense at all), but that doesn't mean that it isn't a good feeling.

This is probably my favorite Elizabeth Miller photograph. Not only because it doesn't scare me or leave me sad, but because I think it is another example of communication (just a different kind). This picture seems to both give and take - it is appealing, the lighting is absolutely gorgeous, and the contrast is interesting and lovely. But it is also confusing, to tell the truth. I don't know exactly what I'm looking at. And I have the feeling that I could look at it for a long time and still have not idea what I'm looking at, but it is because of this that it feels like the photograph is almost having a conversation with the viewer. Also, I've recently kind of fallen in love with this idea that things don't have to make sense to be beautiful. I first stumbled across this in my Wire/creative writing class, because I used to write very straightforward poems and I used to only really like very straightforward poems. However, as I started expanding my horizons and reading poetry that wasn't at clear, I started realizing that maybe it wasn't about understanding exactly what I was reading. I could find beauty in the sound of the words and the number of syllables and the way the poem rolls off my tongue like butter, and even if I had no idea what it was about, I could still love it. I think that I can relate this to photography as well. I don't quite understand what I'm looking at, but I can still enjoy it. I can still love the contrast, and the framing, and the space, and the fact that I can do that is what makes this photograph (for me at least) so lovely and interesting.

This photograph is also pretty interesting - sad, again, but peaceful. It has more of a melancholy feel. I've come to love the way that light is reflected in water lately, and I think that it works nicely in this photo. This photograph is actually kind of a breath of fresh air from lots of war photography, because it's not gory or bloody or violent. It's certainly not happy, but it's not horrifying either. Also, I love the textures in the pictures - the smooth plants on the side, each individual ripple in the water.


Mr. Patteson said...

Very interesting insights, Emma.

Anonymous said...

Just so you know, that "peaceful" photo that makes you feel so sad is of a dead SS guard at Dachau concentration camp, who had quite a bit of innocent blood on his hands. Still feel sorry for him?