“My Senses Shook”—Lee Miller’s Dachau Photographs


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.

Wider Connections

Judith Thurman— profile of Lee Miller in The New Yorker. Abstract only available online.


Lee Miller Archives

Covering the war in France, excerpt from Lee Miller: A Life

11 Responses to ““My Senses Shook”—Lee Miller’s Dachau Photographs”

  1. This man was most likely a Waffen-SS soldier, not a guard at Dachau. Most of the guards had escaped the night before and regular soldiers had been sent from the battlefield to surrender the camp. After they surrendered, they were shot by American soldiers while they had their hands in the air. This was a violation of the Geneva Convention and as such, it was a war crime. The victorious Allies didn’t have to worry about that. If this German soldier had lived, he would have automatically been a war criminal because the Allies had already designated the SS as a criminal organization. Dachau was turned into a War Crimes Enclosure for 30,000 SS soldiers who were treated much worse than the former inmates of Dachau ever were.

    • martin Norris Says:

      You are correct. The man is not wearing a leather greatcoat. You plainly see it is pea pattern spotty. Something the guards would not have.

      • Gen.Patton Says:

        by the end of the war it was VERY common to have soldier/guards issued with the wrong colors based on availability. Also All SS guards knew they were going to be killed for what they did so many of them would steal regular army uniforms or whatever they could. Many Waffen SS soldiers used this tactic to get out of being punished after the war for there crimes. It is easy to see how people can be lead when your fooled based on what coat a man was wearing. It was the Reichsfuhrer-SS (himmler) who put on peasant clothes and tried to escape. Dont be blinded to the truth people. Just because a soldier is wearing a regular army jacket doesn’t mean he didn’t just stab a mother and daughter to death only minutes earlier.

    • martin Norris Says:

      Just remembered. After the Battle Magazine printed some pictures of the Americans shooting them.

    • Tracey Smith Says:

      Oh well – I for one don’t care. And I for one have no pity for this man. And I for one do not believe for one second that the SS soldiers were treated worse than the former inmates of Dachau. How on earth could they have been? I find your statement at best ridiculous, at worst offensive

  2. Mark Erickson Says:

    How odd that Geseke refers to the Geneva conventions and war crimes committed by the victorious Allies and expresses an absurd and laughable opinion that the SS soldiers confined to the enclosure were treated worse that the former inmates of Dachau were. Does Geseke have evidence of these SS members being fed into the furnaces as the former inmates were. As usual, revisionist opinions such as Geseke’s reveal stultifying ignorance and stupidity.

    • Mark – why do you call Geseke a revisionist? Is it wrong to stick to a historical truth i.e. the killing of SS personnel at Dachau, which in fact has been a violation of the Geneva convention? The truth is the truth, and one truth does not make another truth less worthy. Of course Dachau is one of the darkest places of human history, and the people killed by the US liberators may have been war criminals. But if we believe in a democratic system, in human values, we cannot afford to not name what an action is: a crime. This is what the G.I.s gave their lives for – that human values (including the truth) will prevail. There is no such thing as a clean war.

  3. Very moving photo. Beauty and terror. If one didn’t know, it could have been a suicide. One thinks of Ophelia drowning, it almost looks like without trauma. Maybe there were men in the SS who were glad to be dead, to stop thinking about the things they had witnessed. I think of Ursula Hegi’s book, Stones from the River, about the collective memories of people from around Dresden; and the shrinking, claustrophobic feeling in people as more and more “enemies of the state” got disappeared. And mothers with these soldier-sons, how miserable it was, no matter which way you thought and felt about Hitler and his idealized craziness called the Third Reich. About 10 years ago, after the iron curtain came down, the Russians released the records of what happened at Stalingrad– where the entire German 6th army died and froze. They thought that these records would not matter to many people, but the phones were ringing off the hooks for months, as the families tried to retrieve the dogtags of their sons, husbands, uncles, fathers– over 50 years later. Stalin killed around 30 million people. Maybe it can now be agreed that he was a worse tyrant than Hitler.
    I have always respected Eisenhower, who demanded that they get photographers to immediately and thoroughly document what they found at Auschwitz. Without the photographs, the horrific scenes could be denied, rewritten, turned into a myth. Even with the photos, this is happening. People do not want to believe the terrible things humans do to other humans.
    There is a fantastic book about WWI, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. At that time, there was no insight into the psychology of battle-fatigue and wipe-out. Pat Barker, an Englishwoman author, wrote a trilogy, which starts with a book called “Regeneration”. She got the Booker prize for one of the books. I also loved another book of hers, about a woman sculptor married to a war photographer who had been killed in Bosnia. It had to do with the issue mentioned in Liz’ comments above, about how good photographers set up the photos and how this “frames” the way we “see” a war. The husband, Abe, had taken a photo of a girl in Bosnia, murdered on a stairwell, and the photo haunts the whole book. We never see it, but we imagine it graphically in our minds. Good photography bridges reality to meaning. It is not just a craft, but also an art. And the art is “framing” or giving depth and context to what we know and understand.

  4. Martina

    Thanks for this thoughtful response to the post with fantastic reading suggestions. (I adore Pat Barker’s books). In the sense that some facet of our humanity (good along with evil) is revealed in all wars, I can understand the continuing obsession with the WW 2 experience, particularly the incomprehensible act of genocide that is central to that war. Though farther from us, I find the WW1 era even more fascinating for the utter paradigm shift that occurred as a result of modern mechanized war (aka “shock and awe”).

    Robert Kaplan elegantly pointed out in his book “Warrior Politics” that our humanity shifted irreparably when weapons were developed that allowed for greater destructive range. The axe or the sword was a direct physical extension of the human body; although you were killing another human being, there was still a psychic connection. Once machines became involved (I’m even thinking of the guillotine) killing became a faceless pursuit.

    In this regard, I find the Lee Miller Dachau photos even more moving. Despite our best efforts to make it otherwise, murder (mass and otherwise) does have a face.

    In the vein of Pat Barker, if you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sebastian Barry’s novel “A Long Long Way.” It packs a double whammy, as it is set against the backdrop of not only the trenches of WW1, but the Irish rebellion. A truly beautifully conceived and written book.

  5. One other thought— If you have not seen the movie “Before the Rain,” a contemporary movie set in Macedonia during the 1990s Balkan war, I’m guessing from the above discussion that you’d really enjoy that too. I’m struggling to explain its simple yet universal story—woefully ineptly, I would describe it as a recounting of the small acts of humanity (and punishments) that occur during the war in an isolated mountain community on the Macedonian coast. The setting is achingly beautiful to boot, which makes it all the more difficult to watch the story unfold. See trailers here, but do see the whole movie properly!


  6. This is obviously a Waffen SS soldier, not a guard from a concentration camp. His jacket, shiny form water, which may look , like a leather coat is a herringbone twill m44 dot camouflage tunic… That was a story, which was covered quickly after, than G.I. s had executed many front soldiers taken from a hospital near Dachau Concentration Camp, taking them as a guards, after they found that horrible place. That was also nothing more, like another war atrocity, never paid for by anybody… History likes the winners…

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