“My Senses Shook”—Lee Miller’s Dachau Photographs
By LIZ HAGER
Lee Miller, Dead SS Guard in Canal, Dachau, Germany, 1945, silver gelatin print, 1945. © 2007 Lee Miller Archives.
Photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977) led many lives, all of which were on view in “The Art of Lee Miller” show at SF MOMA. (Regrettably it closed this past Sunday.) Among the numerous fashion photographs and portraits were her sobering shots of war taken on the front lines: in London during the Blitz; in St.-Malo, France, during German bombing raids; in Hitler’s villa; and at newly-liberated Dachau.
Nowhere does Miller evidence poetic impulses more strongly than in the shots taken in Dachau. They are challenging images, for they evoke a wide range of responses not associated with most art—disgust, voyeurism, horror, outrage. That was Miller’s intention. In her letter to Vogue at the time, she alluded: “. . . I usually don’t take pictures of horrors. But don’t think that every town isn’t rich with them. I hope Vogue will feel they can publish these pictures.”
The anticipation of death fills us with fear; even in the abstract it is frightening to contemplate. And yet, as artists and viewers, we are endlessly drawn to images of death, the ultimate unknowable mystery of life. To compensate for the pain and finality associated with death, we often liken it to sleep, a soothing, beautiful, and less scary activity.
In her photo of the dead soldier above, Miller expertly plays on our complicated relationship with death. Rolled on its side with eyes closed, the corpse looks as if peacefully dreaming. (Was this the state in which Miller found the body, or did she prod it along? See Fake Takes for more on the staging of war by photographers.) Moreover, the murky water acts like a shroud around the submerging body, reinforcing the death/dream metaphor.
The title abruptly pulls the viewer out of contemplative reverie—this is an SS guard at Dachau, after all. The leather coat provides a subtle clue as to the subject’s identity, but overall the image has no recognizable context without its title. With that, the image immediately assumes the mantle of catastrophic horror attached to one of darkest chapters in human history.
Certainly, the photograph is powerful because it trades on some of the most compelling symbols in the human psyche—sleep, dreaming, and death. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that this photograph would not have elicited such strong reactions, if the man in the canal had been a Russian bricklayer. It’s precisely because he is identified as an SS guard that we at once recoil and keep staring.
Life is a mass of contradictions.
There is one slight complication, however. I had not been born by the time this photograph was taken. For me (and not doubt thousands of others who viewed the exhibition) this photograph does not reference my own singular memories, but a collective memory supplied to me through texts and photographs of the second World War. I am not suggesting that the Holocaust did not happen. But this photograph causes me to wonder about the nature of an image that elicits emotions of events with which I have no direct experience. Are my emotions authentic?
Susan Sontag covers the nature of collective memory convincingly in her “Regarding the Pain of Others.” Though she doesn’t cover Miller’s Dachau work, I think she would probably have agreed that the photographs provoke disturbing thoughts about the repugnant side of humanity, the role of beauty in recording horrific acts, and the often thin line between visual reporting and propaganda.
Finally, in this contemplation of death, the opening lines of Richard Eberhart’s poetic cycle of decay and regeneration, “The Groundhog” seemed especially appropriate:
In June, amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook,
And mind outshot our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer
His form began its senseless change,
And made my senses waver dim
Seeing nature ferocious in him.
Judith Thurman— profile of Lee Miller in The New Yorker. Abstract only available online.