Not-so-sweet inspiration

In Francine Prose's new book "The Lives of the Muses," the woman who triumphs is the one who refuses to submit.

By Jonathon Keats

Published September 18, 2002 7:03PM (EDT)

What can be said other than that it was over almost before it began? Assisting in the darkroom of Man Ray's Paris photography studio one afternoon, model and muse Lee Miller felt a mouse crawl over her bare foot. In a flash, she switched on an overhead lamp, inadvertently exposing to light the nude picture of her, still in the developer. Almost as fast, though not quite, Ray tossed the photo into the hypo bath, to fix the image. When they looked at it afterward, they found around her figure a strange halo. "The background and the image couldn't heal together," she explained years later, "so there was a line left which he called a 'solarization.'"

That defining moment in the history of photography -- the discovery of a technique that would become as closely associated with Man Ray as his own shadow -- serves also as almost too perfect a metaphor for his three-year relationship with Miller in the early '30s. But if it can be read as an example of how, by keeping a muse, an artist may directly benefit -- apparently at her expense -- there is to be found a deeper layer at which it isn't so easy to calculate profit or loss, or even who's who.

Author Francine Prose calls Lee Miller "perhaps the most heroic, inventive, and determined" of the nine women she profiles in her new book "The Lives of the Muses," which comes out this month. Miller's collaboration with Ray was also, arguably, the most artistically rewarding for photographer and model alike: The fierce independence of each, their ultimate equality, benefited both immeasurably. To understand why, and how, we could compare their neatly symbiotic liaison with Prose's account of the dead-end affair of pre-Raphaelite painter-poets Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or the mutual self-destruction of Yoko Ono and John Lennon. But, of the nine case histories in Prose's competent, if uninspired, book, the one that stands in most marked contrast -- for all its striking similarities -- to the Lee Miller/Man Ray relationship, is the professional and romantic entanglement of Charis Wilson with Edward Weston.

Wilson met Weston in Carmel, Calif., in the spring of 1934, just two years after Miller broke up with Ray in France. Like Ray, Weston was already a renowned photographer, with a habit of bedding his best models while his wife was at home taking care of their four sons. In fact, it was his mistress and assistant at the time, a young photographer named Sonya Noskowiak, who he asked to set up his first session with Wilson, shortly after spotting her one evening at a concert. Noskowiak showed Wilson Weston's nudes -- perhaps even some in which she herself posed -- and Wilson felt that she'd "turned a corner," as she later wrote in her memoirs, "into a sharper, cleaner, more exciting world."

It took two afternoons for 19-year-old Wilson to discover what that world had to offer. When the 48-year-old photographer didn't lay a hand on her, she seduced him, she remembered, with "a very compelling look ... What followed was as great a revelation as Weston's photographs. I thought of myself as a sophisticated woman ... but now I learned how limited all my previous experience had been, as what had always seemed to me to be a branch of playacting became unmistakably real."

Weston claims in his diaries to have felt the same, and while his calculating way with women makes it difficult to believe that he was capable of such emotion, there are a few early photographs of Wilson that are undoubtedly erotic. Compared to his formal studies of seashells and tree bark -- images that Alfred Stieglitz rightly observed "lacked fire, life, were more or less dead things" -- Weston's pictures of Wilson in the studio, whether clothed or nude, are charged with his desire for her. Her sexual allure seems to have teased out of him pictures unlike any he'd ever made before, or would again -- images that focus on her body, rather than just showing off his virtuosity. In other words, she seems, if only for an instant, to have been present, if not as a collaborator then at least as a co-conspirator, in a grand romantic plan that would wind up, several years later, in marriage.

But even before the wedding, Weston seems to have lost interest. Witness his 1936 pictures of Wilson lying in the sand, her bare body a purely formal element in his composition, just another perfectly impersonal surface against which to study shadow and light. She virtually disappears: It's as if he's made her over as negative space.

She even lost her voice. More specifically, she assumed his as she began to write grant applications for him, and then essays under his byline. "My goal was to make the articles sound exactly like Edward," she's said. "Over the years I have enjoyed hearing often-quoted 'Weston' lines that were actually mine." She started talking like him too, enough that it began to annoy him: "I was not aware of it at the time, but I can see how easily it might have happened, particularly once I was in the habit of selecting and fine-tuning his words for the articles. It was only a small step to doing the same in conversation."

The more she became a part of Weston, though, the less aware he was of her being anything outside himself. She had the task of preparing meals, fetching cameras and cataloging negatives -- administrative duties so often invisible to their beneficiaries. One day Weston even took credit when a guest praised the garden she tended in their yard. Eleven years after they met, their marriage came to an altogether undramatic end.

Weston seems to have understood in the first months after their meeting the effect Wilson had on his work. In his diary, he wrote that "[t]he first nudes of C. were easily amongst the finest I had done, perhaps the finest." Yet, the moment that the balance of power fell in his favor -- that his technical virtuosity overcame her sexual energy -- her positive effect on his art started to fail. As Francine Prose puts it in her book, Wilson was demoted from muse to art wife. But when Prose writes that "tenure is not an option in the careers of muses," she misses the point. As the lives of the muses show, it isn't longevity that's the enemy, but rather -- cruel paradox -- a muse's submissiveness.

Which brings us back again to Lee Miller and Man Ray. Even before their accidental discovery of solarization together, their relationship had a complexity that Wilson and Weston always lacked. While only a few years older than Wilson, Miller was far more fully formed when she arrived in Paris from New York in pursuit of the one photographer she believed could advance her career. As a model for fashion spreads in Vogue, she'd already taken advantage of her proximity to masters such as Arnold Genthe and Edward Steichen to learn photography, a give-and-take that had begun while she was a child posing nude for her father.

So when she came to Paris seeking to improve her technique, she wasn't exactly bridled by the inhibition typical of young American women. In fact, learning as she arrived that Ray was about to leave town, she cornered him in a cafe and, by way of introduction, informed him that he was taking her with him. That was the first day of their three years together -- artistically and sexually and emotionally -- singularly appropriate because it held all the wonderful perversity that enlivened their extraordinary relationship.

Who was in charge? Men had taken an interest in Miller for as long as she could remember, yet none came on so strong as Ray. Sure, there was her father, whose series of stereoscopic nudes of his daughter he started while she was a child and continued on through her 20s. There'd been her relationships with Steichen and Genthe, apparently completely professional, and a manufacturer who modeled a champagne glass on the shape of her breast. But if she'd traded on her blond and leggy American body, and had slept around whenever it suited her, she'd never encountered the passion of jealousy.

Ray wanted her wholly for himself. He accepted her unusual closeness to her father, and even enjoyed occasionally conversing with him about gear, but he made every effort to keep Miller from modeling for, or, as likely, sleeping with, his fellow surrealists. Ray was hardly pleased by the financial independence she maintained through her ongoing work for Vogue (photographed now by the legendary George Hoynigen-Huene and Horst P. Horst), and her portrayal of a muse in Jean Cocteau's film "Blood of a Poet" positively enraged him.

What was truly astonishing, though, was Miller's response: She moved out of his apartment, and offered to take over his photography studio so that he could concentrate on painting. "I had already been there a year and was doing his work," she later explained. "He had taught me to do fashion pictures, he'd taught me to do portraits, he taught me the whole technique of what he did." Her apparent detachment served as the perfect counterpoint to his determination to possess her. Edward Weston may have vanished Wilson, but Ray needed to keep his whole focus on Miller for fear that she'd disappear -- perhaps taking his business away with her.

The pictures Ray took of Miller are undoubtedly among his most astounding. Partly it's physical: her iconic beauty, even the tone of her skin. But what animates the photos is the emotional tension, the sense of a girl on the run and the man who wants to halt her, to hold her in time, to shut her up in his studio. We see that he loves her. There's that obsession, such keen observation with but one great blind spot: Just to look at her, we understand that he can't restrain her for more than a moment, a 1/1000 second exposure. She's too sleek, too quick. A woman like that can't be contained in his small world, his camera. It's so obvious that, as Miller put it so eloquently in her account of their first solarization, background and image can't "heal together."

And more appropriate for the fact that Miller was the one to turn on the light, while Ray tried to save his picture of her, pulling it from developer to fixer. She left him, went to other men, started her own photography studio in Manhattan. Ray wrote her letters. "I have loved you terrifically, jealously," reads one. "[I]t has reduced every other passion in me, and to compensate, I have tried to justify this love by giving you every chance in my power to bring out everything interesting in you." And he made art, most famously his extraordinary "Object to be Destroyed," a photograph of Miller's eye on the swinging arm of a metronome he'd previously used to regulate the strokes of his brush as a painter.

Another letter Ray wrote Miller after it was over reads simply, "Accounts never balance one never pays enough etc. etc. love Man." It's difficult to imagine a more eloquent expression of the relationship between artist and muse than this brief note. That one cannot imagine Edward Weston writing such a thing to Wilson is telling. Accounting for that marriage is as simple as watching a liquidation sale: Artistically, it quickly went bankrupt. With Ray and Miller, on the other hand, the transactions are too intricate to audit. At first glance, Ray got a model and Miller a teacher. Yet the fact that, for several years, their photography was so similar that the attribution of some images will never be determined, suggests between them a closeness akin to two sides of the same mind.

Accounts never balance. One never pays enough. But ever after there were the dividends. Miller went off to war, heroically shooting for Vogue the terrors faced by Allied soldiers and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. She also took pictures such as "Remington Silent," an image of a mangled typewriter that startlingly captures the surreal even in battle.

And Ray? There is a photograph he took shortly after Miller left him, in which he holds a pistol to his head, a noose around his neck. Ironically, it is one of the least persuasive of his photos: The vision he gained through Miller, applied effectively over the next four decades, had simply given him too much reason to live.

Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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