In an article for British Vogue published in 1943, the American war photographer Lee Miller detailed – often with dry wit – her observations of the lives of nurses at a US Army base in Oxford: “They are not forbidden, but not encouraged, to marry. They may not serve in the same unit as their husbands, nor stay in the Service or war zone if they start a baby. They may only go out with officers or civilians. They don’t get a ration of silk stockings.” 

It was the height of the war effort, and Miller, an established fashion photographer, had been newly accredited as war correspondent for Vogue. As one of very few women to document the war, she was keen to record the contributions of women in both words and pictures for posterity, arriving in London in 1939 to cover events such as the Blitz. The first photographs Miller took of nurses in Oxford for Vogue reveal their daily lives and duties – but with unusual framing and unconventional details: in one image, dozens of empty gloves hang eerily on stands as they are sterilised; in another, uniforms hang to dry in front of a window, playing on the diaphanous textures and suggestive formal qualities of the natural light. They are among a suite of little-known images of nurses taken by Miller during the second world war presented at an exhibition at the Fitzrovia Chapel in London from 11 May to 5 June.

Once one of New York’s most in-demand fashion models (appearing on the cover of Vogue in 1927) Miller moved behind the lens at the end of the 1920s. In 1929 she relocated to Paris to pursue her career in photography, where she became the collaborator and then lover of Man Ray – many of Miller’s early works are often mistakenly attributed to Man Ray.

The celebratory and stylish nurse images “represent a real cross-section of how Lee worked”, says Hannah Watson, curator of the exhibition and chair of the board of trustees of the Fitzrovia Chapel. “They range from beautiful images, which show her amazing use of light and composition, to showing women at work, which illustrate her interest in women as subjects. There are also hard-hitting, heartbreaking images – which show her fearlessness.”

“Working on the selection and examining Lee’s work around nurses connected a lot of dots,” agrees Lee’s granddaughter Ami Bouhassane, who runs the Lee Miller Archives, and appears in the exhibition in audio form, in a series of recordings of Miller’s Vogue articles. “She felt passionately about doing her bit, and was also extremely driven, beyond what was expected for a woman’s magazine, in wanting to show what women were contributing to the war effort.” Her photographs of the end of the war, including the siege of Saint Malo, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, became her most famous wartime images, but her portraits of nurses across Europe – including German prisoner of war nurses, and those on the front in field hospitals in France – have remained unexplored.

The audio enriches the narrative and Miller’s personal experiences. One excerpt recounts “the first real meal which the nurses and medical staff had had in 30 days. It was hot bully-beef, tinned peas, tomatoes, peaches. We ate on white enamel plates, drank from shallow six inch basins, caught our breath, and asked questions.”

“Lee writes with such grit and honesty, it’s as if you are there in her head with her,” Bouhassane says. “When I read her manuscripts, I felt I’d touched another dimension of who she was.”

To coincide with the exhibition – which also marks the occasion of International Nurses Day on 12 May – a sumptuous new platinum print edition of “US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves, Churchill Hospital, Oxford, England, 1943” will be available as an edition of 10 at the exhibition and will be a highlight at Sotheby’s Photography sale (from 13 to 19 May) where it will be auctioned with the negative.

Proceeds of the sale will be donated to support the work of both the Fitzrovia Chapel and the Lee Miller Archives. As Watson says: “[The pictures] show the spectrum of life and war through a woman’s perspective which feels reflective and nuanced, but very emotive.” In tandem with the exhibition, the print and the negative – both on display at Sotheby’s for the duration of the auction in May – represent a piece of global history and preserve a distinctive, subtle part of Miller’s visionary oeuvre that is often overlooked.

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