FEATURE image: The Millers in 1920. Lee, Erik, Theodore, Florence and John.
The Millers, Theodore, Elizabeth Lee, Erik, John and Florence, in 1923.
By John P. Walsh
In the first decades of the twentieth century it became increasingly common practice for established American families to reflect and display their personal lives as well as social status in the timely gathering of photographic portraits. Progressively, the American family unit grew more compact in tandem with its greater personal affluence in an economy increasingly dominated by mechanization and the manufacture of consumer goods, all of which worked relentlessly to replace farming as the engine of American enterprise.
The Millers of Poughkeepsie, New York – a seventeenth century town eighty miles north of New York City which in the eighteenth century had progressed to an early state capital and, by 1910, a significant stop on the railroad line1 – shared that prototypical family form as they gathered for their family portraits between 1914 and 1932.
After 1900, camera availability and quality had markedly improved. Moving into the popular culture, photography allowed the display of a family image that is relaxed and natural as well as a time capsule of its members. In the instance of the Millers their formal and informal photographic portraits capture what appears to be a cohesive family unit expressive of their times. They are within a thoughtfully creative pose and posture likely managed by the head of the household, Theodore Miller, an energetic lifelong amateur photographer.
These portraits are ambitious for an aesthetic which manifests as a controlled vibrancy in the sitters as well as overall composition. The outcome for these portraits which all include Lee Miller as a child and teenager are photographs that combine the qualities of the fine arts with the more delicate workings of a machine.
Lee Miller at about eight months old, c. December 1907. Taken by her father Theodore Miller, the amateur photographer would photograph his daughter near incessantly from her childhood into adulthood. Part chronicle, part creative project, their photographer-model relationship could be unusual as he photographed his daughter nude at times over the same time period.
Lee Miller at 8 years in a photograph by her father, Theodore Miller, in 1915.
The Millers, headed by highly credentialed mechanical engineer and amateur photographer Theodore Miller (1872-1971) and his wife Florence (1881-1954), saw the couple produce a handsome family: brothers John MacDonald (December 15, 1905-2008) and Erik Theodore (born May 22, 1910-?) and middle daughter, Elizabeth Lee, later Lee Miller, Lady Penrose (April 23, 1907-1977).
In childhood, Lee was curious, had her special interests and likes, especially the newly invented movies, and was encouraged by her parents to be free and active. Rambunctious in youth, Li-Li (Elizabeth Lee’s nickname) expressed herself as a sort of tomboy and later a definite teenage rebel. In school she was often undisciplined and, as the ringleader, provocative.2
When she was ten years old in 1917, her father gave Li-Li an inexpensive and popular Kodak Brownie to take photographs. Kodak used the box camera to sell more products and popularize photography. Almost more like a toy, the Brownie series was first introduced in 1900 and extensively marketed to children,3 although they were taken by soldiers into World War I.
Kodak Brownie similar to the first camera Lee Miller had when she was 10 years old that was given to her by her father.
In the age of American invention, teenage Li-Li Miller, intelligent and creative, was fascinated by her father’s enduring experimentation with new camera gadgets including stereoscopy. That photographic application produced two-dimensional images which, when combined in the brain, gave the perception of three-dimensional depth.4
The Millers in 1914. Florence, Erik, Lee, John, Theodore.
Lee Miller and her mother in 1914.
In an almost desperate search for an academic program to constructively engage their daughter’s interest, the Millers placed Li-Li in and out of several schools around Poughkeepsie. Lee traipsed through Governor Clinton school to Oakwood Quaker to St. Mary’s Catholic to Eastman Business College to Putnam Hall known as the prep school for local Vassar College.
Even with extra-curricular dance and theater activities as well as sojourns into creative writing – along with extended trips to New York City and, accompanying her father on business trips, such as to Puerto Rico on a cruise – by 1920 Li-Li seemed only most uniquely prepared to embrace the intrepid nonchalance of the flapper whose age had arrived thanks to the appearance of This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“The Flapper” as conceived by American illustrator Frank Xavier Leyendecker (1876-1924) for Life magazine in 1922. It seemed by the start of the 1920’s, the teenage rebel and provacateur Lee Miller was ready to embrace the Flapper’s nonchalant image.
The Millers in 1920. Lee, Erik, Theodore, Florence and John. The teenager bobbed and later permed her golden hair to match a new decade’s fashionable style as she looked for the next exit out of Poughkeepsie.
At the end of a record-cold spring of 1925, Li-Li, called spoiled and well-to-do by many of her neighborhood classmates, took a ship for Paris, France, on May 29. The Millers’ intention was not to internationalize the shortcomings of their daughter’s educational career, but to assist in the rebellious 18-year-old’s discovery and development of a talent and skill to match her artistic temperament.5
No one could predict in 1925 that after spending this short period of time in Europe as a teenager, Li-Li Miller of Poughkeepsie, New York, will, as Lee Miller, finally return to Europe to spend most of the rest of her life, over 50 years.
In the cold spring of 1925, Lee Miller is joined by her father as the 18-year-old Lee boards the ship that will take her to Paris to study. The family’s hopes include that in Paris Lee will find and develop some talented skill to express her artistic temperament.
1. Burke, Carolyn, Lee Miller: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006, p.6.
2. Haworth-Booth, Mark, The Art of Lee Miller, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 14; provocative-Burke, p. 24.
3. Roberts, Hilary, Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, Thames & Hudson, 2015, p. 190.
4. see Lincoln, Tom, Exercises in Three Dimensions, 2011. http://www.lincolntom.com/pages/Exercises%20in%203D.html- retrieved April 17, 2019
5. Roberts, p.194; https://thestarryeye.typepad.com/weather/april/page/2/