Overcoming great adversity in her youth, having been exploited by her father as a child, Elizabeth "Lee" Miller became a model for Vogue at the age of 19 after being spotted walking down a Manhattan street by the magazine's then-publisher. After two years of being New York's most sought-after couture model, Miller left for Paris to meet master surrealist artist Man Ray. There, she became his model, muse, collaborator and lover. She became active among the Parisian Surrealist movement, counting Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau as close friends. Leaving Man Ray and Paris for New York in 1932, she set up her own photographic studio and began exhibiting her own pictures. After meeting an Egyptian businessman, she lived in Cairo, before marrying English artist Roland Penrose before World War II and settling in Hampstead, London – which is where this story begins.

Lee Miller: A Woman's War is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum. This exhibition contains not only over 150 of Miller's photographs of the conflict, but also portraits of the artist by her contemporaries, including Picasso. But the exhibition is not only about Miller, but also the women whose bravery and dedication to the international war effort often goes underrated.

Of course, it's easy to focus on the famous images: the photo of two women wearing masks, staring disarmingly into the camera – which was the cornerstone picture that described how British women were coping with the war in a feature for Vogue. Or the portrait of Miller taken by her sometime lover, David Scherman, in which she bathes in Hitler's bathtub while on reportage in Germany, following her witness of the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau.

But for an exhibition titled Lee Miller, she is only the conduit through which we examine how women are portrayed in contemporary photography. Does an image of a woman bear any difference from an image of a man? The only way to properly explore that question is to document and examine the female experience, which is precisely what Miller did, but always with bravery and full dedication – putting herself first under the same scrutiny as her subsequent subjects.

Lee Miller: A Woman's War is on display at the Imperial War Museum until 24 April.

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