I have been promising for a couple of weeks to write an update on our trip to see Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum. Apologies – time just seems to have flown by! I’ve been busy working on the ways to make the collections online more accessible, as well as writing design briefs for the new displays here at Cromer Museum, but more about that another time – for now, here’s a quick run down of the second half of our research trip in February.
After our trip to see the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A (see my post from 17th February) we made our way across London to a packed IWM in half term to see their retrospective of Second World War photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, which runs until 24th April 2016. We were really impressed with the exhibition, which combines original prints with reproductions on an grand scale, including huge lightboxes and projections, as well as contextual objects such as costume, cameras, letters, and even surrealist art. There is also a short film, and opportunity to hear Miller herself talking about her experiences during the war in recorded interviews available via telephones installed in the gallery. Where Julia Margaret Cameron was a treat for anyone interested in early original prints, A Woman’s War is perhaps a more accessible exhibition, with a huge variety of images, objects and themes – enough to interest any visitor, not just those with a special interest. I especially loved the inclusion of costume, and found myself wishing we had some of Edis’ marvellous hats in our collection – especially her NWM hat, as worn in this self portrait as part of her commission from IWM (then known as the National War Museum).
A Woman’s War was particularly interesting to us because it is billed as the first exhibition to address Miller’s vision of gender, and focuses particularly on how Miller documented women’s lives during the Second World War. Edis’ brief from the Imperial War Museum before her trip to Europe in 1919 was specifically to photograph the work and lives of women in the armed forces, and as well as documenting changes to women’s lives at the start of the 20th century, so there are some really interesting parallels there. In many ways, Edis embodied these changes, as a woman making a living as a photographer and taking commissions that would previously have been given to a man. This is a theme that we really want to draw out in the redisplays of Cromer Museum’s Edis gallery, and in the travelling exhibition that will tour around North Norfolk in 2017, so it was fantastic to see some of the same ideas coming through in the displays at IWM.
As with Cameron, it’s easy to see make a comparison between Edis and Miller. Both had successful careers as photographers before taking on war work – Miller was a fashion photographer for Vogue before being accredited as an official US war correspondent in 1942. She was originally sent to photograph away from the front lines, and like Edis, was commissioned to photograph the work of army nurses. She took many photos of the women’s armed services, including the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), which had its roots in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps), who were the subject of Edis’ photographs in 1919. She also travelled through Europe at the end of the war, and captured the devastation left behind, much like Edis. Miller too had been forgotten by history until after her death in 1977, when her son discovered her work in the attic of the family home.
After the V&A show, we were left wondering if Edis was influenced by Cameron’s work. As we looked at Lee Miller’s work, we wondered if she could in turn have been influenced by Edis? Thematically and visually some of their images have noticeable similarities, for example this Edis photo (right) from the IWM’s collection showing a member of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps acetylene welding at a Royal Air Force engine repair shop pairs neatly with this Miller photograph entitled “Factory Scene” (click to open at LeeMiller.co.uk).
Similarly, this Edis image (left) of a group of Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) at their telephone signal post can be compared to this photo by Miller of two office workers at the Red Cross general headquarters. Of course it may just be that both photographers were focusing on the women’s services, and women undertook the same types of work over the course of the two wars! I don’t know enough about Miller to make any guesses as to her influences or her awareness of earlier photographers, but it is very interesting to look at the similarities between the two and the stories they chose to tell. If you have any thoughts on this, please do get in touch, as it’s something we’d like to explore further.
In terms of style and atmosphere, A Woman’s War is closer to what we’re imagining for our displays here at Cromer and in our travelling show. We want a good variety of types and sizes of images and objects, and we want to consider new and different ways of displaying and interpreting the work. We have some amazing objects, such as several of Edis’ cameras, including (we think) the camera that she took on her trip to photograph the Canadian Rockies in 1920, an Edis-patented diascope for viewing autochromes, advertising ephemera from her studio, correspondence, magazine articles, and even a plaster bust of an unidentified man which we believe was made by Edis when she as a young woman. We’re very much looking forward to including some of this material in the new displays.
I hope you’ve found these last few posts interesting! Things will be a little different over the next month, as most of my blog posts in March will be lifted directly from Edis’ war journal, which she began on 2nd March 1919. I can’t wait to share her travels with you – she’s a very entertaining companion! Join me tomorrow for the first leg of the journey.