Lee Miller: Great Conflict Photographer, Not So Great Parent

When he was a little boy, Antony Penrose once bit Pablo Picasso and often played with a Man Ray assemblage. The son of conflict photojournalist Lee Miller and the painter/writer Roland Penrose, the young Penrose grew up around some of the most influential artists of the 20th century. However, in a recent interview, Penrose says he felt little connection to his mother, who before gave birth to her son had photographed the London blitz and the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald as a correspondent for Vogue. “For the first 20 years of my life, she was lost to me, deeply affected by post-traumatic stress disorder,” Penrose explains in an interview with the Peabody Essex Museum, which is currently hosting “Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism.” The exhibition examines the collaboration between surrealist photographer and painter Man Ray and Miller, the former fashion model who in 1929 became Man Ray’s apprentice, frequent subject and at times the victim of his abuse.

Penrose, the author of two books on his mother’s life and photography, tells PEM’s Lisa Kosan that as an adult he eventually became friends with his mom.  After her death, he went through her archive with David E. Scherman, a colleague and friend of Miller’s. “He helped me understand that my mother, whom I saw as a useless drunk, had had a career and been incredibly brave as a combat photographer with the US Army Infantry in Europe. He helped me see a different side of the person I’d been embattled with all my life.”

A sculptor who, like Man Ray, works in found objects, Penrose offers some keen insights into the PEM exhibition, his mother’s work, Man Ray’s art, and the philosophy and politics of their fellows in the surrealist movement. The full interview is available as a PDF on the PEM web site, www.pem.org/exhibitions.

If, as therapists say, you’ve only reached full maturity when you can see your own parents as whole people, Antony Penrose is a very mature individual.

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