Lee Miller’s ‘fire masks’, 1941

This image was taken outside the air-raid shelter in the garden of Roland Penrose’s house in Downshire Hill, Hampstead, north London, at the height of the Blitz in 1941. Penrose was a Surrealist artist by trade, but also worked as an air-raid warden during the war. The ‘fire masks’ pictured here were issued to wardens as protection against incendiary bombs.

The image is from the collection of Penrose’s wife, Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller, the famous war photographer and journalist. And it forms part of a new exhibition on her work, subtitled ‘A photographer between war and glamour’, running until September at the Bucerius Kunst Forum in Hamburg, Germany. Divided into chapters, and with 150 photographs on display, the exhibition explores Miller’s interests in Surrealism, fashion, landscape, and, of course, conflict, and is a testament to the ongoing interest in her life: a new biopic, Lee, starring Kate Winslet, was filmed last year.

At the time this image was taken, Miller was working as a photographer for Vogue magazine, reporting primarily on the Luftwaffe’s bombing of British cities. The following year, she was to become one of the few accredited war reporters with the US Army. Initially her assignment was to cover military hospitals, but the forthright Miller made her way to the front, going on to report from the invasion of Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and – most harrowingly of all – from the newly uncovered concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau in 1945. ‘I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils,’ she said many years later.Paris held altogether more fragrant memories for Miller, as she had worked there as a model in the late 1920s. Rubbing shoulders with the many artists living in the city, including Pablo Picasso (whom she revisited after Paris was liberated in 1944), it was here that Miller first began to take pictures of her own.

The visual experiments of artists such as Picasso and the Surrealists heavily influenced Miller’s approach to photography, particularly in how she recorded the devastation of war-torn Europe. Indeed, there is something faintly surreal and absurd about this image, with the ‘fire masks’ worn by the models likely to have offered very little protection from the furious rain of Nazi bombs. • Lee Miller: a photographer between war and glamour is at the Bucerius Kunst Forum in Hamburg until 24 September.

Text: Calum Henderson / Image: Lee Miller Archives