Dangerous diversity?

The photographer Lee Miller has always been a glamorous figure (modelling for Vogue before deciding that her skills were better suited to the other side of the camera), and the contents of the MI5 file on Miller, released into the public domain this month, only work to accentuate her status as a Twentieth Century icon.

Sanchia Berg recently reported on MI5’s monitoring of Miller for BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.

MI5 opened a file on Miller in summer 1941 and monitored her for 15 years until 1956. A colleague of Miller’s at Vogue had told the UK government that she had communist sympathies.

Miller was never a member of the Communist party but lived the sort of lifestyle that was considered odd at the time; the MI5 file opens with what, today, looks like a stream of non-sequiturs:

“I have been told by a friend on the staff of Vogue magazine that Lee Miller is a strong communist. She keeps a very open house and has a very varied circle of friends. I think lives in Hampstead.”

The Special Branch also interviewed Lee Miller’s boss, Harry Yoxhall, who confirmed that: “She is eccentric and indulges in queer food and queer clothes.”

It’s fascinating to see how establishment views have changed. Whatever the problems of our post-modern, multicultural society, at least we no longer live in an age where having a “varied circle of friends” is considered subversive.

In appreciating the positives about the world we live in now (and, despite its many flaws, there is probably a lot to be grateful for), it’s good to remember the trailblazing courage of a woman like Miller.

Not only was she intelligent and talented, she lived a life that many women, even today, could only dream of: working as a respected photographer (and securing lovers and husbands) in New York, Cairo, Paris and London.

She was ambitious and, certainly for a while at least, unstoppable. Her circle of friends included Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and other leading surrealist artists.

Technical expertise was something Miller had in bucketfuls. She knew how to use various different cameras, she knew how to frame a shot, she knew how to get exactly the right type of lighting.

Because we are shaped so much by the image of ourselves we see in media and entertainment, women in technical roles that shape our popular culture are particularly important. Miller’s unique humour and character shine through in her pictures, so I think it’s important to remember her on Ada Lovelace Day.

Miller’s photos are copyrighted so I can’t use them here but an online archive of her work is maintained by her son, Antony.