Tag Archives: women

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Lee Miller in focus

Telling the story of my Finding Ada heroine for 2010 – photographer Lee Miller – requires taking a broad perspective. Her life’s achievement is a composite of a number of key strands: art, photography, fashion, technology and war reporting, bound together by a pioneering spirit.

This hurried blog isn’t the place to explore and understand these all in detail. Lee Miller was a breakthrough figure for a number of reasons – this is just a snapshot.

Lee Miller self portrait, New York 1942

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York state in 1907, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller left for Paris at the age of eighteen where, according to Ursula Butler:

“She studied lighting, costume and theatre design at Ladislas Medgyes’s School of Stagecraft. She later returned to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League. There she met Condé Nast and he introduced Miller to the world of modeling. From 1926-1929 she modeled, but eventually wanted to see what life was like behind the camera. Miller studied under the great dada-surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Under his supervision, Miller learned how to manipulate the photograph to make a self-contained, semi-abstract or dreamlike image.”

She also became his wife and established her own studio. So far so interesting, but things were just hotting up.

The word ‘photography’ was coined by scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839 (though it had been coined seperately by Hercules Florence in 1834!) and is actually is derived from two Greek words: ‘photos’ meaning light and ‘graphein’ meaning draw. The pace of technology development in cameras and photography accelerated during the early twentieth centry, but our subject’s contribution to the science of photography was a marriage of chance and artistry. Miller brought the alchemy.

Much debate surrounds the issue as to which of the couple stumbled across a technique in photography that – like a reverse negative of the ‘photography’ coinage – had been discovered a few times previously but not clearly defined and adopted: namely solarisation.

Solarized portrait of an unknown woman by Lee Miller, Paris 1930

The effect was usually caused by inadvertent severe over-exposure or occasionally by accidentally exposing an exposed plate or film to light before processing. Artist Man Ray perfected the technique which was accidentally discovered in his darkroom by his assistant Lee Miller.” [Wikpedia]

Whatever the facts, Man Ray was soon flying the flag for perfecting this technique whilst his collaborator Miller was merely, again, known as his model (although she marshalled the technique to equally compelling effect – see her above ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ from 1930). Man Ray was of the controlling variety, and Miller being a woman of substance soon broke free of his grip. She continued to be deeply involved in the Surrealist movement, amassing a body of work in her late twenties and early thirties that puts her on a par with the leading figures in photographic art and photo journalism, though this has only been recognised in the last two decades after her death, thanks to the meticulous recovery, ordering and promotion of her archives by her son.

A friend of Picasso – and combining commercial fashion photography and artistic work while entwined in a bohemian milieu – what beguiles me is the mastery she achieved in the realm of photography by bringing with her all her selves as she worked though each chapter of her career and each dimension of her work. There was truth and artifice – with neither undermining the other – in her iconic photo ‘Women with fire masks’ (1941), taken on the street of her own residence in Hampstead.

Women with firemasks by Lee Miller, 1941

Conversely, when Vogue sent her off with a Rolliflex to Europe to cover the end of the war and the liberation, her photos combined a self-sufficient, often mysterious power with a visceral sense of unfolding drama. As she travelled through a bombed-out, shattered Europe, her camera captured many of the most powerful images of the closing months of that dark chapter in the last century. From the Italian front and the first ever use of Napalm at the siege of St Malo, to the death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, and the liberation of Paris, you can view a wide selection of her potent war images online in the Lee Miller Archive.

Mistress of the lens, at the height of her career she lived for several years in this house on Downshire Hill in Hampstead, also spending time in Egypt and travelling widely, before moving to Farley Farm House in east Sussex. She had two further marriages, the second to British surrealist artist Roland Penrose whom she stayed with.

Lee Miller’s house, Downshire Hill, London, March 2010

After the war, whilst still doing the occasional fashion shoot, Miller’s overall profile declined and she suffered bouts of clinical depression alleged (in retrospect) to have been symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the horrors she had seen while on war assignment. In turn, her ironic sensibility was reinforced with disillusionment at the limited type of commercial work she was being offered. Women en masse had successfully taken on all sorts of previously “male” roles during the conflict, and as a surrealist photojournalist embedded with the US army Miller was among them. But after the war, governments scrambled to promote traditional values in their efforts to glue broken societies back together, and opportunities for women in the working world shrank.

In her lifetime, she was all to aware of the cultural – and personal – impact of womens’ abilities and output being marginalised. A photograph she composed of Max Ernst and his partner, artist Dorothea Tanning, encapsulates her subversive take on this.

The recognition she has posthumously achieved was acknowledged on a grand scale some 30 years after her death in a major retrospective at the V&A in 2007, which I attended, plus coverage and exhibitions globally in the last decade. Now the scales have been duly re-balanced, we can celebrate Miller as a true icon and pioneer in the art and technology of photography. For innovation and inspiration personified, look to Lee Miller on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace Day is an annual worldwide day of blogging to celebrate the achievement of women in science and technology. More information on Ada Lovelace Day 2010 can be found on the Finding Ada website.  This post hasn’t been much about technology per se – it’s what we do with it that matters…

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Some hero magic on Ada Lovelace Day

It’s all about the “now” and the “next” in media and technology; but in the headlong, often mind-numbing rush for mindshare, followers, whuffie or whatever is this week’s shiny nu nu thing, what has gone before is equally important.

That’s why, to mark Ada Lovelace Day I wanted to write about someone who inspired and mentored me directly.

I’d already edited a web site for the Edinburgh Festival and covered technology and multimedia culture for the likes of The Scotsman newspaper and .net magazine before I touched down in Londoninium in July 1998.

I was starting as Web Editor for the international website of Ernst & Young but – I was informed on Day One – there was a month of handover between me and the freelancer who’d previously been editing the site part-time.

On the morning the freelancer was due to come in my nerves were ratcheted up another notch from their already high levels. There was me *way* out of my comfort zone working in corporatesville when in walks this stunning woman: pixieish hair, jeans and a biker jacket. And when she removed said jacket, ooh, the tattoo on her arm was just gorgeous. She smiled and extended a hand: “Hey! I’m Lizzie”. And that was Liz Bailey. I’ll never forget it.

It was less of a handover, more of a crash course in ramping-up my html skills, and getting the ultimate outsiders insider’s guide to my employer, interspersed with some scrumptious Chinatown and Soho lunches and lots of hilarity. The full-spectrum introduction 🙂 But more than that it was finding – in this most alien of environments – a kindred spirit, because Lizzie was my entry point into London’s embryonic web scene.

A freelancer who also wrote and did web editing, design and production for Wired UK, The Guardian, BBC Online, the FT, Demos, Wallpaper*, McKinsey, The Telegraph and more, Lizzie knew everyone who was doing anything interesting web-wise in London.

Missing my own familiarity with Scotland’s web scene, I was happy to take a cue from my new mentor. If it wasn’t for Lizzie, well I would’ve been fine, but she allowed me to bridge both worlds: the corporate but innovative focus of my everyday work, and the creativity, excitement and bone fide madness of the first dotcom boom.

I’d seen a black and white A4 newsletter once in Glasgow (when someone in London posted it to me) called New Media Age – it carried four pages of news on the nascent sector and no ads! But it was Lizzie who tipped me off re a packed mid-week party in Great Titchfield St dubbed ‘Boob Night’ where I met the editor of the then fully-fledged magazine, a young fella by the name of Mike Butcher who I managed to out-argue . He says he doesn’t remember it, but back then nights of mayhem where the champers flowed gratis were ten a penny for the current TechCrunchUK editor  😉

At Lizzie’s 30th Birthday party I also met Phil Gyford (then at BBC Online I think), and a guy she was working with on ‘New Media Creative’ magazine called Paul Murphy. Later she introduced me to hotshot new media reporter Polly Sprenger who was fresh over from Wired News in San Francisco (Mike Butcher once described Polly to me as “the Red Rum of technology reporters” after they worked together on the shortlived Industry Standard Europe magazine).

It reaffirmed I wasn’t just working in a “job”, for a “company”, but part of of something game-changing and amazing.

But this melange of web culture, innovation and merriment paled next to Lizzie’s own formidable focus and grit. A web grrrl to the core, Lizzie would magic up websites to die for whilst relentlessly promoting the causes of usability, innovation and the visibility of women in the web design and technology sector.

That movement for change – and celebration of talent – has latter day embodiments in UK-founded networks (some of which have gone global) like She Says, Girl Geek Dinners, Women In Mobile Data, and the briefly existent Digital Womens’ Club – all great initiatives I’ve actively supported.

Three years flew by, and when I was two jobs on from Ernst & Yong working as editor in chief of a VC-funded music website, the entire sector imploded. After a barren several months I decamped to the TV industry back in Belfast in 2002. But Lizzie hung in there. Multi-talented and entrepreneurial to a tee, she was surely the woman who knew most about new media in London. She was praxis.

And just when I came back to London in 2004, as the first timid signs of hope were visible in the sector (I’d been waiting, watching and biding my time you see), Lizzie switched careers and started studying to be a barrister.

Now she’s qualified and doing well, but her influence in web culture and technology still resonates for me. I’ve often been at conferences like SXSW Interactive, FOWA, Changing Media – and the NMK and Chinwag Live events I’ve organised myself – and thought “damn, Lizzie should be speaking at this!”. But looked at in a broader way, she has been…

I don’t know if I’d have dared come back to digital if I hadn’t known Lizzie. There were too many talented people flushed out of the sector back then. As it turns out while digital certainly has been affected by the current recession, compared to the rest of media – and jobs more generally – it’s still *relatively* resilient. In short, it’s nowhere near a dotcom bust Groundhog Day scenario.

Tons and tons of people inspire me of course, but in reality it’s hard to say what it all will mean and which parts will be valuable 10 years hence.

So raise a toast to the inaugural Ada Lovelace Day and sample some vintage Liz Bailey (NB. it’s an internet hazard that most of Lizzie’s work from then – like most of mine – has not been archived):

Boo gets booed – The Guardian 11th November 1999

Britgrrls No Bark and No Byte? – 1999, trAce

Demos publications by Liz Bailey

Who was Ada Lovelace?
Born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella, Augusta Ada Byron (now known simply as Ada Lovelace) wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented  »read more

Credits
Thanks to Suw Charman for co-ordinating Ada Lovelace Day on Tuesday 24th March 2009. The first of it’s kind, it’s “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.” »Ada Lovelace website

Join In!
You (male or female) can still register your pledge to write a blog post celebrating your technology heroine on this day – Tuesday 24th March – at the official »2009 PledgeBank page