Lee Miller’s early life was shaped by a love of art, adventure and a refusal to conform to stereotypes and expectations. As a 19 year old Art Student, Miller fell into a modelling career, wanting more she soon sought to create her own photo-journalism. Time spent in France in her early 20’s exposed Miller to a wider artistic community where she became influenced by surrealist contemporaries, and in turn influenced them. Most notably Lee Miller and Man Ray worked together during this time.
Returning to the states Miller enjoyed success in her own studio before becoming disillusioned with making photographs. She married at 27 and moved to Egypt where her thirst for culture, adventure and independence grew; as did her desire to return to the camera to document her experiences.
Making Europe her home Miller sought work at British Vogue as a photographer. Routine fashion, advertising and celebrity portrait assignments grew dull and she began to collaborate with two fellow Americans on a book titled “Grim Glory: pictures of Britain Under Fire”.
Lee Miller’s “Non-conformist Chapel” was presented in Grim Glory in 1941 alongside 108 other examples of black and white blitz photography, interspersed with text. At first sight the image appears to be an objective documentary record of the damage done to London’s buildings during the night time bombing raids of Hitler’s Germany.
The photograph is in sharp focus throughout and shows a scene composed of stone, brick and twisted metal. The picture is anchored by a single doorway which fills the centre of the frame. The viewer is drawn in by converging lines, compelled to focus on bricks and stone pouring from the doorway.
The scene is rough and disordered, we understand the violence of the apparent collapse; a fragment of a closed door remains in place; the rest of the door has been smashed away. Debris has surged from the doorway, twisting through a wrought iron fence in front of the building, carrying on through the bottom of the frame.
A poster remains in place to the right of the door advertising a “Children’s Sunday School”, the poster shows children running towards an open armed Christ. There is space for a similar poster on the opposite side of the doorway, however the poster is missing - it’s been torn down.
We’re drawn back to the bricks to re-evaluate their appearance, pouring from the doorway, each one shown in harsh contrast. We ask if this congregation is fleeing the church, or perhaps fleeing religion which no longer offers sanctuary. The top face of each brick is brightly lit by the sun creating areas of high contrast; are these faces looking to the heavens with hope or despair, will they be answered?
Columns of stone frame the door and leave the top of the photograph abruptly a couple of feet above the doorway - we glimpse the open sky on either side of the columns. The columns form vertical lines which lead the viewer out of the frame. It is impossible to know how much of the building remains intact, but our eyes are forced upwards in an attempt to seek an answer, just like the rest of the congregation.
Every facet of humanity was tested to breaking point during the horrors of this time. Lee’s photograph goes beyond describing the blitz and perhaps the illusion of the brick congregation hides the base nature of this photograph. As we take stock of the image and of our own thoughts around the story it tells, we stare back at a mouth unable to contain the sickening horror of war.
Perhaps this photograph is simply a mirror.
Antony Penrose, 1995. The Lives of Lee Miller. Edition. Thames & Hudson.
Jane Livingston, 1989. Lee Miller Photographer. First Edition. Thames & Hudson.