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BELIEVE IT! Lee Miller's Second World War Photographs as Modern Memorials



During the Second World War, the world's press faced the difficult task of recording the horrific scenes of conflict, death and destruction they had witnessed across Europe. Often these scenes were so incredible that many reporters found it impossible to articulate what they had seen into words and turned to photographers to translate the horrors into visual images. The war photograph, therefore, took on the crucial role not only of historical document, but also as a means to inform, provoke, shock and remind. This article discusses how the American Surrealist and war correspondent Lee Miller recorded horrors of the Second World War, and the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, in particular. Through the Surrealist practice of ‘fragmentation’ she was able to use her knowledge of art to break down, or ‘fragment’, scenes of death and destruction into smaller, digestible chunks for the readers of Vogue magazine on both sides of the Atlantic. As hybrids of art and historical documentation, Miller's concentration camp photographs become ‘modern memorials’ to the victims of war and the Holocaust.
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Journal of War & Culture Studies
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BELIEVE IT! Lee Miller's Second World War
Photographs as Modern Memorials
Lynn Hilditch
To cite this article: Lynn Hilditch (2018) BELIEVE IT! Lee Miller's Second World War
Photographs as Modern Memorials, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 11:3, 209-222, DOI:
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BELIEVE IT! Lee Millers Second World
War Photographs as Modern Memorials
Lynn Hilditch
Liverpool Hope University, UK
During the Second World War, the worlds press faced the difficult task of
recording the horrific scenes of conflict, death and destruction they had wit-
nessed across Europe. Often these scenes were so incredible that many repor-
ters found it impossible to articulate what they had seen into words and turned
to photographers to translate the horrors into visual images. The war photo-
graph, therefore, took on the crucial role not only of historical document, but
also as a means to inform, provoke, shock and remind. This article discusses
how the American Surrealist and war correspondent Lee Miller recorded
horrors of the Second World War, and the concentration camps at Dachau
and Buchenwald, in particular. Through the Surrealist practice of fragmenta-
tionshe was able to use her knowledge of art to break down, or fragment,
scenes of death and destruction into smaller, digestible chunks for the
readers of Vogue magazine on both sides of the Atlantic. As hybrids of art
and historical documentation, Millers concentration camp photographs
become modern memorialsto the victims of war and the Holocaust.
keywords Lee Miller, war photography, Second World War, Holocaust,
Surrealism, memory, concentration camp
According to David Bathrick, Visual representation of the Holocaust has proved to
be an absolutely integral but also highly contested means by which to understand
and remember the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War(Bathrick, et al.,
2008: 1). For the war photographer, the real problem is not necessarily documenting
the effects of human destruction and dealing with the ethical connotations that
images of war inevitably provoke. The primary issue is having the ability to interpret
the horror in both the photographic and conceptual sense of the word and, perhaps
more importantly, having the insight to comprehend the short and long-term
All images discussed in this essay are digitally accessible via the Lee Miller Archives website at
journal of war & culture studies, Vol. 11 No. 3, August, 2018, 209222
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group DOI 10.1080/17526272.2018.1490076
significance and value of the images and the subject matter that they divulge.
American-born photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller approached the
Second World War by applying her knowledge of creative photography and Surre-
alist methodologies and practices to capture the atrocities of war through an aes-
thetic eye. As a former Vogue model and apprentice / muse to the Dada-Surrealist
artist and photographer Man Ray in Paris between 1929 and 1932, Kate McLough-
lin believes that Millers artistic background and professional experience brought to
her understanding of visuality a depth greater than that found in work of other con-
temporary correspondents(2013: 336). Using the creative process of fragmenta-
tion, for example, Miller deconstructed the horrors of war and the Holocaust,
in particular to enable the viewers of her photographs to absorb the horrors
piece by piece as they attempted to comprehend what they were witnessing. Sub-
sequently, this practice of artistic deconstruction enables the viewer, not only to
see but also to remember the specific details rather than simply an overview of the
war. In other words, war photographers like Miller have been able to use their
medium and artistic skills to reconstruct the horrors of war as a form of modern
memorialfor future generations by deconstructing, or fragmenting, history
through interpretation.
Modern memorials
In the aftermath of the First World War, there was a sense of urgency by the mourn-
ing public to remember and commemorate the war dead. However, as Jay Winter
writes, ‘…the search for meaningafter the Somme and Verdun was hard
enough; but after Auschwitz and Hiroshima that search became infinitely more dif-
ficult(1995: 228). Writers and theorists such as T.W. Adorno, Elie Wiesel, and Saul
Friedlander, according to Carol Zemel, warned against the aestheticising dimen-
sions of Holocaust representation, its problematic proximity to visual pleasure,
and its immortality in the face of atrocity(Zemel, 2003: 205). Millers relationship
with Man Ray in Paris developed her understanding of Surrealism as outlined in the
writings of André Breton and there is evidence throughout her photography that she
was fully aware of Bretons theory of convulsive beauty; his assertion that beauty
can project both pleasure and pain simultaneously. Miller confirmed in her essay, I
Worked with Man Ray, published in Lilliput in 1941, that Man Ray had taught her
that beauty is present in every object and person and that the artists job is to find
the moment, the angle, or the surrounding that reveal that beauty, regardless of how
terrible the object or surroundings might be. Therefore, Millers war photographs
support Paul Fussells idea of modern memory, which is derived from the influence
of modernism in the interwar period. Winter explains, [Modernism] describes the
creation of a new language of truth-telling about war in poetry, prose, and the
visual arts(1995: 2). Miller, as a Surrealist and a modernist, therefore, uses photo-
graphs to progress the idea of the memorial from being predominately
traditionalistto essentially modernistthrough her Surrealism-inspired photo-
graphic representations of war.
Traditional memorials are generally encased in patriotism (and occasionally sen-
timentality) as objects created to preserve the memory and heroism of the war dead
a justistification to the population that the fallen did not die in vain. However,
while Adorno contentiously declared that there could (or should) be no art or
poetry after the Holocaust, Millers photographs, which are surrealism-inspired
artefacts as well as historical documents, seem to remove all elements of over-
romanticising and justification, instead preserving the facts: the actuality and conse-
quences of war in its rawest form. Many traditional memorials record the names
(where identified) of those killed in battle. One example is the First World War mem-
orial in St John the Baptist Church, situated in the rural Cotswolds village of Great
Rissington. The memorial, a tablet and pediment with black lettering beneath a
carved sword and festoon, depicts the names of thirteen men from the village who
died in the Great War. However, unlike most traditional war memorials, the
names are accompanied by thirteen framed photographic portraits, therefore perso-
nalizing the fallen with an image as well as a name. The text above the photographs
reads Forget Me Not. According to The Burns Archive, this form of visual memor-
ialization was not uncommon before the Second World War and the concept of using
memorial photographs had been part of the mourning process and a form of com-
memoration during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Photographic images of the deceased were common features on gravestones
across Europe, particularly in Jewish cemeteries, and had been used during the
American Civil War of 18601865. Likewise, in Britain during this period, Victorian
families would circulate memorial cards displaying photographs of dead relatives,
for example, to mourn the premature death of a child. In contrast, the dead in
Millers modern memorials are nameless, often without any means of identification,
and killed not as a direct result of warfare but at the hands of tyrants. Cornelia Brink
The photographs of the liberation [of the concentration camps] have long
become part of Western countriescollective visual memory. They mostly
impress themselves on our sentiments and conjure up a threatening, mute
and nameless sense of once upon a time. Then as now they set off strong
emotional reactions, of shock and terror, of compassion as well as rejection.
(2000: 135)
In a letter to Audrey Withers shortly after her visit to Dachau, Miller described her
own memories of the camp following its liberation and expressed anger and sympa-
thy towards the treatment of prisoners:
I fell on my knee once and the pain of the tiny sharp stone on my kneecap was
fierce; hundreds of Auslanders (foreigners) had fallen like that every day and
night. If they could get up they could live, if they hadnt the strength, they
were left to be hauled off to an unidentified end, just another unknown soldier.
(Burke, 2005: 261)
Millers nameless dead are victims of a dictatorial regime and, as Winter points out,
the traditional monuments aux morts recorded the harsh history of life and death in
wartimeand invite us to recall the more central facts of loss of life and
bereavement, just as Millers war photographs do (1995: 78). According to
Janina Struk:
Like memory, photographs are ephemeral, subject to change according to
whom the memory belongs. But unlike memory, a photograph is evidence
that a moment in time did indeed exist. As people learn to interpret photo-
graphs, they can also learn to interpret memory. At Yad Vashem, survivors
are tutored in testimony classes, trained in vocabulary and how best to
bring order to their fragments of memory and the confusion of the past. Photo-
graphs, like memory, can reveal evidence of a moment-in-time but they can also
conceal the story that lies outside the image. (2004: 212)
It is at this point of concealment or vagueness that the imagination process ulti-
mately takes over.
Photographs as evidence
Miller had been working for Vogue magazine as a model and photographer since
1927 and despite the conflicting relationship between fashion and war photography,
continued to work for the magazine throughout the war helping to temporarily
transform the primarily fashion-orientated glossy into a magazine that kept its
readers informed about wartime conditions. After being accredited to the United
States Army as an official war photographer in December 1942, Millers aim, like
most photojournalists, became to document the war as historical evidence. Yet,
through her images she intended to provoke and occasionally shock Vogues
readers, especially in the United States, into a stark realization that such atrocities
had, and were still, taking place across Europe. As General Dwight
D. Eisenhower declared following his tours of the concentration camps in 1945,
Let the world see!(Zelizer, 1998: 86). Susan Sontag, in her book Regarding the
Pain of Others (2004) describes the photographs of the camps as a means of
making real(or more real) matters that the privileged and the merely safe
might prefer to ignore(2004: 6). In other words, the principle aim of these atrocity
images was to inform the unaffected or sceptical of the realities of war. Barbie Zelizer
further explains that, Through its dual function as carrier of truth-value and
symbol, photography thus helped the world bear witness by providing a context
for events at the same time as it displayed them(1998: 86). Therefore, Millers
photographs of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau provide an eye-
witness account of the consequences of the Nazi atrocities and, as visual records, act
as insightful reminders of human capability.
On 8 May 1945, the date that marked the official end of the war in Europe,
Miller sent a telegram to the British Vogue editor Audrey Withers in which she
earlier, in his 15 April 1945 CBS radio broadcast from inside the Buchenwald
camp, Millers friend and ally Edward R. Murrow also pleaded with his American
listeners: I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have
reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no
words. Murrow ended his report, If I have offended you by this rather mild
account of Buchenwald, Im not in the least sorry .Prior to the liberation of
the first concentration camps in Eastern Europe during the summer of 1944, the
general opinion of the western world towards any allegations made against the
Nazis was that the reports had to be propagandist lies. However, in January
1944, Hungarian-born British journalist and writer Arthur Koestler attempted
to express his frustration in supressing these beliefs in his essay On Disbelieving
Atrocities, originally published in The New York Times in January 1944 and
later published in a three-part collection of essays titled The Yogi and the Commis-
sar (1945). Koestler writes:
There are few of us, escaped victims or eyewitnesses of the things which happen
in the thicket and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wire-
less, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theatres and cinemas.
Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute We, the screa-
mers, have been at it for about ten years. (Zelizer, 1998:4142)
Koestler refers to the atrocities that Jews, in particular, suffered at the hands of the
Nazis as the greatest mass-killing in recorded historyand describes how a series
of photographs present on his desk while he writes accounts for my emotion and
bitterness. People died to smuggle them [photographs] out of Poland; they thought
it was worthwhile(1945:8892). The British journalist Richard Dimbleby, who
broadcasted from the Bergen-Belsen camp, echoed Murrows tone by declaring,
I must tell the exact truth, every detail of it, even if people dont believe me,
even if they feel they should not be told(Dimbleby, 1975: 193). However, the
scenes were so implausible that reporters and broadcasters, like Murrow, Koestler
and Dimbleby, had found it difficult to articulate what they had seen into words
and consequently turned to photographers, like Miller, to translate their written
horrors into a visual language. As Jack Price wrote in the American trade
journal Editor and Publisher, the public, long subjected to floods of propaganda,
no longer believe the written word. Only factual photographs will be accepted
(Zelizer, 1998: 86). In his essay War Journalism in English(2009) Leo Mellor dis-
cusses how the worlds press had attempted to describe the horrific scenes they had
witnessed through in-depth narrative detail while, in many instances, experiencing
difficulties such as the physical problems of reporting from a battlefield, exposing
themselves to violence, and encountering strict censorship. Mellor writes, These
reports not only refute the historic tropes of war, courage, and descriptive
excess; they also offer a starting point for a literary question that has proved
central since 1945: what language might be adequate to engage with the Holo-
caust?(Mellor, 2009: 78).
War photographs, as with most photojournalism, usually require captions to
explain the contents and context of an image and, certainly in Millers case, are
usually accompanied by associated written correspondence. However, sometimes
the subject is so explicit that a lengthy narrative, or even a caption, is simply not
necessary. In another telegram sent to Withers in April 1945, Miller declares, I
usually dont take pictures of horrors. But dont think that every town and every
area isnt rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel that it can publish these pictures
(Haworth-Booth, 2007: 188). American Vogue did decide to publish a selection
of Millers photographs, along with the extract from her telegram and very little
additional text, in a photo-essay for the June 1945 edition of the magazine with
the headline in a large, bold font: BELIEVE IT. British Vogue, however, chose to
publish only one of Millers photographs from the death camps and in a June
1945 photo-essay titled Scales of Justiceinstead focused optimistically on the
victory of war rather than the consequences. The photograph of Millers selected
for publication depicted a statue of Justice brandishing scales and a sword next to
Frankfurt cathedral, an image which, according to Vogue, conveyed, the Christian
and cultural heritage which the Nazis aimed to destroy. Now they are themselves
destroyed. But statue and spire remain, symbols of justice and peace(Burke,
2005: 265). When questioned some years later about her decision to omit the con-
centration camp photographs, Withers explained, The mood then was jubilation. It
seemed unsuitable to focus on horrors(Burke, 2005: 265). That unsuitability
would inevitably be replaced with a sense of necessity in the aftermath of the
Second World War in order to reflect on the war through photographic
Deconstructing horror
Millers images of the Holocaust may appear to some as being in stark contrast to
her photographs taken at the beginning of her photographic career the
Surrealism-inspired artworks, the Vogue fashion shoots and the studio portraiture
of artist friends, society figures and celebrities that, along with her war portfolio,
make up her artistic oeuvre. From a critical perspective, one might question the
ability of a photographer with such a background to comprehend and reflect on
the sights she witnessed at Buchenwald and Dachau. Others may argue that
having worked as a muse for some of the twentieth-centurys greatest artists in
what was essentially a male-orientated, one might say misogynist, artistic circle,
Miller had gained invaluable experience for her later role as a female war photogra-
pher. Certainly, Antony Penrose believes that her role within Surrealism had
equipped her with the perfect foundation for photographing the horrors of war.
As Penrose explains:
Lees Surrealist eye was always present. Unexpectedly, among the reportage, the
mud, the bullets, we find photographs where the unreality of war assumes an
almost lyrical beauty. On reflection I realise that the only meaningful training
of a war correspondent is to first be a Surrealist then nothing in life is too
unusual. (1998: 19)
Linda Nochlin adds, the human body is not just the object of desire, but the site of
suffering, pain and death, which perhaps further explains how the close relationship
between pain and desire, as reflected in the work of the Surrealists, provided Miller
with the correct mind-set to photograph war (Haworth-Booth, 2007:8889).
Unlike many of her peers, such as Margaret Bourke-White who tended to take a
photograph and then quickly depart from the war scene, Miller preferred to spend
time carefully working on her photographic composition and form, often taking
strikingly perceptive photographs from positions that were difficult and challenging
both physically and psychologically. Miller demonstrates her artistic approach to
photographing the war in an image taken at Dachau titled US Soldiers Examine
a Rail Truck Load of Dead Prisoners, Dachau, Germany, 1945. To compose the
shot, Miller positioned herself inside the compartment of a cattle train filled with
corpses to create a perspective that forces the viewer to adopt a stance next to one
of the victims. Outside the train, two medics stand arms crossed constructing a
psychological protective barrier between themselves and the appalling vision
before them predominantly, a glassy-eyed, open-mouthed corpse. As Jean Galla-
gher writes, It is a picture not only of a Holocaust victim but of American observers
looking and disbelieving. It represents being caught as an observer within the frame
of proximity to incomprehensible damage and at the same time straining against
that frame, attempting to insert distance between seer and seen(1998: 86).
Amongst the thousands of images taken of the Dachau death train, Millersis
the only photograph to construct an individual, horrific viewpoint from within
and, subsequently, takes her interpretation beyond the scope of understanding
both artistically and psychologically. Sharon Sliwinski describes Millers courageous
actions as crossing what seems like an impossible boundary, entering into the mon-
strous, unimaginable space, this gruesome community of the dead. As spectators of
this image, we too are imaginatively brought into railcar-cum-coffin(2010: 392).
This photograph contrasts with a second photo taken from outside the same train
with two GIs framing the horrors within. These two images show two different per-
spectives of the same scene, the first photo arguably the more evocative due to
Millers position within the train providing the viewpoint of the victim within in con-
trast to that of the bystander without. As Lorraine Sim comments, Millers war pho-
tography seeks to dialectically engage the viewer through its often narrative
qualities, unusual viewing positions and, at times, manipulation of the gaze
(2009: 48).
Similarly, in Dead Prisoners, Buchenwald, Germany, 1945, Miller constructs a
feeling of entrapment by using fragmentation to create an abstract expressionist
form; filling the frame with the random, merging shapes of body parts to ensure that
the viewer absorbs the entire scene through the confrontation of detail. The viewers
gaze is first drawn to a distorted blood-smeared face in the centre of the frame. By
focusing on that face and registering the features, the corpse is instantaneously trans-
formed into a human being among the anonymous, faceless dead. This reading is
even more poignant if we consider that, according to Penrose, Miller would con-
sciously search among the faces of the dead hoping to find her Parisian friends
who had been captured by the Nazis (Penrose, 2007). The viewers eye is, in turn,
forced to navigate around that central face to focus attention on the surrounding
body parts and hanging skeletal limbs. Miller effectively captures just one fragment
of a much larger atrocity by using carefully organized composition to allow, and
often manipulate, the viewers gaze forcing an interpretation aligned with what
the photographer or even the prisoners would have seen. There are no complete
bodies in view in this photograph, just fragments of bodies that only suggest the
true extent of the horror. As John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing (1972), Every
time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer
selecting the sight from an infinity of other possible sights(1972: 10). Miller uses
her Rolleiflex camera, to guide the viewers gaze into and around the scene so
that they can absorb every minute detail in extreme close-up as Miller herself had
experienced it. It could be argued that as part of this artistic process Miller was
also combining a need to inform with a propensity to shock or to evoke an emotion-
al response from the viewer. As Gallagher describes this methodology:
The photographs are close-up, clearly focused images with virtually no spaces
between the figures of the bodies and the frame. The corpses occupy completely
the field of vision, leaving no space of escape or relief for the viewers line of
sight, eliminating distance from what must have evoked (and certainly still
does evoke) reflexes of revulsion, of looking away, of disbelief, and a desire
to distance. (1998: 87)
This description of a scene that must have evoked reflexes of revulsioncan be
applied to Julia Kristevas writings on the abject. However, in contrast to Kristevas
theory, Sontag believes that when confronted with images of death and destruction
the natural human response is not to look away from the scene but to look at the
scene, which aligns with Bretons theory of convulsive beauty. Curiosity draws
our attention to the horrible or the taboo. As Sontag explains, It seems that the
appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for
ones that show bodies naked(2004: 36). There is a sense of shame or guilt in
looking at a dead body as much as a sense of shock or curiosity, which raises
ethical debate about the role of the atrocity photograph in addition to its importance
as an historical record and visual memorial to the war dead.
In MillersVogue photo-essay ‘“Believe It”—Lee Miller Cables from Germany,
published in June 1945, photographs of healthy, well-fed children and idyllic,
orderly villages are juxtaposed with images of furnaces and charred remains at
Buchenwald (1945: 103105). In a photograph titled Released Prisoners in
Striped Prison Dress Beside a Heap of Bones from Bodies Buried in the Cremator-
ium, Buchenwald, Germany, 1945, Miller has composed the scene diagonally into
two halves to symbolize the thin line between life and death. The bottom left half
of the image contains the charred bones while the top right half reveals the legs of
five camp survivors, three still wearing the distinctive striped prison uniform,
observing the sight before them. Although the heads of the prisoners were included
on the original negative, in Millers final cropped photograph only the mens legs
and bottom half of their torsos are present within the frame an omission which
alters the meaning of the photograph and permits the viewer to imagine the reflec-
tive expressions on the mens faces. As for the viewers of these war photographs
today, imagination must inevitably replace knowledge when viewing some
scenes of war; only those who were there at the time and bearing witness to the
event could possibly have produced anything close to an accurate representation
of the scene. The viewer is never able to observe the full picture, only one individ-
uals representation or interpretation of it, therefore, Bergers theory of absence
versus presencemight be applied to Millersreleased prisonersimage. For
example, Miller has purposefully removed an important part of the scene
through her use of composition and cropping allowing the viewer to imagine
the emotions and expressions within the image. Therefore, what is absent from
the scene is just as important as what is present within it. As Berger writes in
Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things (1972), A photograph is effec-
tive when the chosen moment which it records contains a quantum of truth which
is generally applicable, which is as revealing about what is absent from the photo-
graph as about what is present in it(1972: 181). In other words, to imagine is to
reconstruct a version of reality. However, to remember is to reconstruct an histori-
cal or personal (or both) memory.
Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida (1981) that the camera is a mechanism
for documenting evidence. However, although this is partly true it is not the
cameras sole purpose. John Tagg refers to Barthesbelief in this photographic
realism by writing, Beyond any encoding of the photograph, there is an existential
connection between the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the
lensand the photographic image: every photograph is somehow co-natural
with its referent. What the photograph asserts is the overwhelming truth that
the thing has been there”’: this was a reality which once existed, though it is
a reality one can no longer touch, unless, of course, the scene has been staged
or manipulated (Tagg, 1993: 1). Miller does use her photographs to document a
fragment of history which once occurred but no longer exists, but as many of
her war photographs illustrate, documentation and art often merge to produce
images that are both aesthetic and horrific and where an element of the reality
has been manipulated or removed. Therefore, while in some respects photography
can be viewed, according to Barthes, as a direct and naturalcast of reality
more so than in painting, this belief is debateable (Tagg, 1993: 1993). Sontag
writes, A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photo-
graphs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence(2004: 42). However, by
analysing Millers war photographs we can establish that while it is true that some
photographs, particularly war images, can be classed as straightdocumentary
photography by providing the evidence that certain events occurred, some war
photographs can both show and evoke through an element of manipulation by
the photographer.
Berger in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing writes, We only see what we look at.
To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within
our reach though not necessarily within arms reach(1972: 8). Millers photo-
graphs, in their function as surreal documentation, often omit an element of the
reality and the result is a conscious process of audience participation that allows
the viewer to use their minds eye to fill in the gaps. In some cases, Millers use
of omission acts as a defensive shield for the viewer, safeguarding them from
the authentic full-scale horror of war. Of course, photographs cannot capture all
aspects of the war scene the smells, the sounds, for example and perhaps
some of the more disturbing sights that Miller would have inevitably experienced
were intentionally left undocumented. After all, the viewer is only able to see what
has been captured by the photographer within the photograph and therefore can
only imagine what is absent or being consciously omitted by the photographer;
viewers remain ignorant of, or must use their imaginations to establish, what
horrors lie beyond the frame. While what Berger says is essentially true, that it
is the viewers choice whether to look at a photograph or not, it is also the photo-
graphers choice to decide what the viewer can see within that photograph and
what should be left to the imagination or open to individual interpretation. In
other words, a photographer, like a painter or writer, has the power to manipulate,
to restrict and to direct the viewers gaze, thus emphasizing that an element of
artistic control is involved. As Walter Lippmann stated in 1922, Photographs
have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had
yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come,
we imagine, directly to us, without human meddling, and they are the most effort-
less food for the mind conceivable The whole process of observing, describing,
repeating, and then imagining has been accomplished(1922: 92). The process of
remembering should also be added to that list. However, omission and manipu-
lation have always been common factors within photography, even within the
genres of war and documentary photography, and as Sontag writes, Photographs
tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something may be
beautiful or terrifying, or unbearable, or quite bearable as it is not in real
life(2004: 68). Therefore, by incorporating the Surrealist practice of fragmenta-
tion it could be argued that Miller is using a selective vision and is therefore
being sympathetic towards, even protective of, the viewers of her photographs
by providing them with smaller insights rather than subjecting them to the full
impact of the complete picture, if this result is indeed possible.
Ulrich Baer has written about the role of Holocaust photographs after the Second
World War exploring whether the ontotheologicalconcernsraised by theorists
like Adorno, will diminish and finally disappear with the passing of the last survi-
vors and witnesses. Baer writes:
Even when part of laudable efforts to document and commemorate, these once
shocking and now ubiquitous images may lead today to the disappearance of
memory in the act of commemoration. They represent the past as fully retrie-
vable (as simply a matter of searching the archive), instead of situating us
vis-à-vis the intangible presence of absence, which Jacques Derrida has called
the hell in our memory.(2005:6970)
Today, it could be argued that the emotional reactions once generated by scenes of
war have now been replaced by a sense of disinterest from overexposure via televi-
sion and video footage. The more images of war we see, the more normal war
appears to the extent that the viewer is less easily shocked. As Leon Wieseltier
noted in his article After Memorypublished in the New Republic in 1993, In
the contemplation of the death camps, we must be strangers; if we are not strangers,
if the names of the killers and the places of the killing and the numbers of the killed
fall easily from our tongues, then we are not remembering to remember, but remem-
bering to forget(1993: 20). Writing in 1972, during the last years of the Vietnam
War, the first televised war, Berger argues that the idea of the viewing public
becoming immune to images of war was a somewhat cynical justification (1991:
42). However, more than thirty years and several conflicts later, this transparent
cynicismas Berger calls it, is not quite as transparent. The viewer is so commonly
confronted with images of war that televised scenes of destruction inevitably have
a lesser effect on the human psyche. John Taylor describes this concept as com-
passion fatigue(1998: 19). Sontag adds that, due to this reaction, still photographs,
as well as moving images, lose the emotional chargewith the possible exception of
those horrors, like the Nazi death camps, that have gained the status of ethical refer-
ence points(1979: 21). In other words, the initial amazement and disbelief a viewer
once experienced when being presented with war photographs has been replaced by
an instantaneous curiosity, intrigue or sadness. As with television itself, news footage
of another suicide bombing in the Middle East has increasingly become background
noise in many households, and the popularity of the virtual reality of violent com-
puter games only increases our immunity towards the actual reality of war and
death. Sontag writes:
The sense of taboo which makes us indignant and sorrowful is not so much
sturdier than the sense of taboo that regulates the definition of what is
obscene. And both have been sorely tried in recent years. The vast photographic
catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a
certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary
making it appear familiar, remote inevitable. (1979:1920)
Perhaps this idea of increased immunity or the undermining of response is not,
however, applied to all war images, but only those war photographs or newsreels
that do not directly affect us as individuals, as a nation or even as a continent.
Certainly, the closer we are to conflict or terror attacks the more affected we become.
If it is true that over the years we have developed a lack of interest in or sensitivity
towards images of war, perhaps this change in attitude brings into question the effec-
tiveness and role of war photographs as modern memorials for future generations.
Marianne Hirsch has written extensively about postmemory, a term she uses to
describe how future generations, the generation after, connect to past events.
Hirsch claims that photographs, like memories, fade over time and that the
changes images go through mirror the movement from memory to postmemory
(Hirsch, 2012: 37). Therefore, with time, like a visual Chinese whisper, the signifi-
cance of an image changes, meaning alters and truth becomes misrepresented. In
other words, the reality is lost to imagination, or continuous reinterpretation,
again recalling Bergersabsence versus presencetheory. However, photographic
memories can never replace those photographic images inside the heads of the wit-
nesses and victims of the Holocaust; those unmoveable, undeletable images that stay
in the mind for a lifetime. Nonetheless, it is essential for future generations that these
images are reviewed and transformed from an individual interpretation into some-
thing more long-standing although this reconstruction of historical memory is not
a straightforward process. Sontag suggests that photographs act as frozen
moments in time, or in other words, visual representations of those moments sus-
pended snapshots, fragments and it is those suspended representations that we
recall when we think of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Although it is true that there is a danger that photographs might eclipse the event
themselves in the remembering process, through Millers photographs we are given
partial access to a scene to witness what it may have been like without having been
subjected to the atrocities first hand. While Brad Prager, Shelley Hornstein and Flor-
ence Jacobowitz, have discussed the problem of realism and representation(2003:
3), and others, such as Berel Lang, have questioned the idea of Holocaust artwith
its provocative consequences for the relations between form and content, the aes-
thetic and the ethical, the particular (or historical) and the universal (that is, the aes-
thetic or the ethical)(Hornstein & Jacobowitz, 2003: 23), I would argue that
Millers concentration camps photographs, as examples of surreal-documentary,
incorporate Surrealist practices, like fragmentation, to justify the artistic relationship
between documentation and artistic methodology. Although Millers photographic
style often reflects Bretonian Surrealism by amalgamating, or convulsing, horror
and beauty, her photographs also demonstrate how images of war, and the Holo-
caust, in particular, dominate the historical record where verbal communication
fails, thus ascertaining that the visual image is arguably more significant in the
memory process than the written word. As Miller herself said in an interview on The
Ona Munson Show in 1946, I hope no one will forget the subject of these photo-
graphs, because I wont(Lee Miller Archives).
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Gallagher, J. 1998.The World Wars Through the Female Gaze. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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Notes on contributor
Lynn Hilditch is an independent researcher in visual culture based at Liverpool Hope
University. Her research interests include the depiction of war and destruction in art
and photography, representations of the Holocaust in the visual arts, and the socio-
historical representation of gender in twentieth-century popular culture. She has
published work on various aspects of visual culture including book articles on Lee
Millers war photography, aesthetics and war, surrealism and photography,
memory and memorialization, and fan culture. Lynn is the author of Lee Miller,
Photography, Surrealism and the Second World War (Cambridge Scholars Publish-
ing, 2017).
Correspondence to: Lynn Hilditch, Liverpool Hope University, Hope Park, Liver-
pool L16 9JD, UK. Email:
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Sontag discusses war and atrocity imagry. "The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images". Meaning and response to a photo depends on words. Photos are useful against an unpopular war but "absent such a protest, the same antiwar photograph may be read as showing pathos, or heroism." Photos help us remember, but not understand. "Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us." "Image-glut keeps attention light, mobile, relatively indifferent to content. Image-flow precludes a privileged image". Images are meant to invite reflection and consideration but "cannot dictate a course of action".
In the spring of 1941, the American reporter Robert St. John was not so much in the field as running through many fields. He left Belgrade, fleeing south across country and then by sea, joining British troops as they retreated through Greece to escape the rapidly advancing German army. On the way, he noted the sights produced by mechanized war: the dying soldier eviscerated but still talking, the maimed girl, and the ambulance driver who was burnt alive. On arrival in Cairo, St. John expressed disillusionment with the necessary twisting of events into a narrative suitable for transmission to London: “we were just leeches, reporters trying to suck headlines out of all this death and suffering.” But then, upon seeing the military censors, it became clear that little of his material would be passed: a few sections were acceptable but the ambulance driver would have to have been “shot” - a more decorous way to die. This brief episode typifies some key practical difficulties of war journalism in the Second World War: the physical problems of reporting from a fluid battlefield; the exposure to violent death; and the pressure of censorship. Yet it also shows the level at which some correspondents were aware that they were constructing narratives - literary works - burdened by the concomitant questions of authority and authenticity. These complexities have made it harder in recent years to dismiss such journalism as valuable only for its immediate importance as reportage and its subsequent historical usefulness. A full definition of Second World War literature should include the writing that was produced in closest proximity to the action; and such writing, as I shall demonstrate in this chapter, covers a plethora of possibilities in terms of form and content.
The literature of World War II has emerged as an accomplished, moving, and challenging body of work, produced by writers as different as Norman Mailer and Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi and Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and W. H. Auden. This Companion provides a comprehensive overview of the international literatures of the war: both those works that recorded or reflected experiences of the war as it happened, and those that tried to make sense of it afterwards. It surveys the writing produced in the major combatant nations (Britain and the Commonwealth, the USA, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the USSR), and explores its common themes. With its chronology and guide to further reading, it will be an invaluable source of information and inspiration for students and scholars of modern literature and war studies
Susan Sontag's On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977—$7.95)Melissa Milar and William Brohaugh, eds. 1978 Photographer's Market (Cincinatti, Ohio: Writer's Digest, 1977—$9.95)John S. Carroll's Photographic Lab Handbook (Garden City, N.Y.: Amphoto, 1977—$10.95, paper)Dieter Frobisch and Hartmut Lamprecht's Graphic Photo Design: Lab Techniques in Color and Black and White (Garden City, N.Y.: Amphoto, 1977—$14.95)Dennis Longwell's Steichen: The Master Prints, 1895-1914: The Symbolist Period (New York: Museum of Modern Art/Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1978—$35.00)Neal Slavin's When Two or More are Gathered Together (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976—$12.95, paper)Arnold Newnan's Faces USA (Garden City, N.Y.: Amphoto, 1978—$5.95, paper) Prophotos 1 (Garden City, N.Y.: Amphoto, 1978—$4.95, paper) Light Vision: Australia's International Photography Magazine (75 Wilson St., South Yarra, Vic. 3141, Australia—19 Australian dollars by surface mail to the U.S. with other and air rates available)Hal Fischer's Gay Semiotics (NFS Press, P.O. Box 31040, San Francisco 94131—$6.95, paper)Kent E. Wade, Alternative Photographic Processes (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, 1978—$11.95, paper)The Nikon Manual, Incorporating the Nikkormat and Nikonos (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, 1977—$24.95)