An exhibit of Lee Miller's photography inspired me to take on the challenges of analogue photography.
Although I had always enjoyed photography, I never had any pressing urge to use photography as a creative outlet. That changed in 2012, when the San Francisco Legion of Honor museum exhibited the Man Ray and Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism exhibit. I had seen art photography before (and since), but never was I so immediately and completely inspired to take up a camera as when I saw the photography of Lee Miller.
I particularly enjoyed her photographs taken while living in Paris in the 1930s. Her former life as a model, her schooling in stage and lighting design, and her tutelage in the technical aspects of photography all crystalized into a series of immensely confident photographs of small, curious moments.
Being surrounded by Surrealists in Paris also influenced her art. Her photos seem to capture the dream-like, sometimes comedic qualities of life: A line of four white mice perched on a narrow ledge are photographed tail forward. Surrealism also valued experimentation and spontaneity. It was during the 1930s that Miller and Ray developed their iconic solarization method to create the stark contrast of light in photographs. (Miller accidentally discovered it after a mouse running over her feet in the darkroom caused her to turn on the lights, ruining the original photo, yet creating the solar halo effect.)
But, it was how Miller captured the city she was living in that resonated with me most of all. Her photos were deceptively simple yet deeply emotional: darkened alleys out of The Third Man, shop windows overlaid with reflections, and empty carousels slashed with dark shadows. One of her most iconic photographs is Untitled [Exploding Hand] (1930). The photo is of woman’s hand (a common theme for both Miller and Ray) and a peculiar burst pattern etched into a department store glass door as, one by one, the small scrape of giant diamonds worn by the well-to-do ladies of Paris accumulated over time.
My favorite photograph of the Legion of Honor exhibit, one that drew me back repeatedly to take in with greedy eyes, was also of a hand. Contrasted against a blazingly white sky, a man’s hand extends up to almost reach the silk fringes of a Parisian cafe table’s umbrella. Untitled [Hand in Silhouette] (1931) captured a sense of freedom, but at the same time, a sense of longing. It’s abstract, yet real to life: a Surrealist moment on film.
Having left the museum full of inspiration, I decided to be bold and visit my local Lomography store. As luck would have it, a Diana F+ True Blue was on sale. So, after spending many hours pouring over the manual and various YouTube videos, I began capturing my own intimate, ephemeral moments during my wanderings in San Francisco:
The Ghandi statue in the middle of the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, on a typically foggy San Francisco day:
Contrasted against the jeweled colors of a vegetable stand on the same day:
It wasn’t always easy. Early on, I struggled adjusting to the delicacies of film photography, specifically how essential—actually, vital—light was. Many moments would remain cloaked in darkness, despite my best efforts. But, some would take on new atmospheric tension. A shot of a bright cypress tree seen on a hike along the Monterey coastline became a tense view of a gnarled forest, not at all what I intended.
I still go through my mental checklist to make all the correct adjustments for each shot (flash, focus distance, shutter speed), which makes capturing that “of the moment” feeling that I loved so much in Miller’s photography almost impossible. But, I realized that instead of fixating on needing to create a perfect photo, I needed to just take the photo.
And sometimes, I got lucky. In one of my most recent batches of film, the right mixture of sun against the rippled San Francisco bay created a classic, dreamy Diana F+ photo.
Then, there’s when the lack of perfect light creates a photo much better than what I intended. The geometric shape of the Contemporary Jewish Museum edged against a complete, solid shadow created the type of abstract vision that drew me to Miller’s art in the first place. It’s also the type of photo that encourages me to continue my journey with analogue.
To view some of the Lee Miller photographs I mentioned, along with hundreds of others, you can visit The Lee Miller Archives © website (http://www.leemiller.co.uk/).
If you are interested in reading more about other inspiring female photographers, take a look at Top Five Iconic Female Photographers (http://www.lomography.com/magazine/lifestyle/2014/03/06/top-five-iconic-female-photographers), right here on the Lomography website.