Female World War II reporters – No Job For a Woman historical documentary

“Get that woman out of here!” screamed the North African bureau chief for The AP when wire service reporter Ruth Cowan arrived in Algiers to begin her war reporting career. Cowan and nearly 140 other American women reporters were accredited to cover WWII, but journalism, military and social conventions were against them.”

One of the upsides of social media is that it allows people, who may never have had a chance to meet, to make contact. Just after I had posted on the exhibition at the IWM London Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, and wrote that I knew nothing of Toni Frissell and Dickey Chapelle and would need to do some research, I received a lovely and informative email from Michele Midori Fillion (Hurry Up Sister Productions), director of the documentary No Job For a Woman: The Women Who Fought To Report WWII.  

Midori Fillion emailed me about some of these women saying: “Before World War II, war reporting was considered to be ‘no job for a woman’. But when the United States entered the war, American women reporters did not want to miss covering the biggest story of the century so they fought for and won access. But there was a catch: women reporters would be banned from the frontline, prevented from covering Front Page stories about generals and battlefield manoeuvres, and assigned ‘woman’s angle’ stories about nurses and female military personnel. Several refused to abide by these journalistic conventions and military restrictions and, instead, brought home a new kind of war story: one that was more intimate yet more revealing. They reached beyond the battlefield, and deep into human lives to tell a new story of war.

“This 60-minute historical documentary film focuses on three American reporters—photographer Dickey Chapelle, magazine writer Martha Gellhorn, and wire service reporter Ruth Cowan. Margaret Bourke-White is a main secondary character and Lee Miller and Toni Frissell are honorable mentions in the film through the use of their photographs and an ID photo of each them. Miller and Gellhorn were good friends.

“Needless to say, this subject— women war reporters—has been my passion for many years since first discovering the incredible life of Dickey Chapelle while I was in journalism school in 1990. I met Toni Frissell’s daughter and gained her permission to use Frissell’s photos in the film. Both she and Miller, being fashion photographers first, were incredible war photographers for the light and detail they captured in their images.

“The women, therefore, had to figure out how to work within the restrictions (Ruth Cowan) or by-pass them altogether (Martha Gellhorn) or a combination of both (Dickey Chapelle). Margaret Bourke-White was in a different reporter category altogether, male or female. Being Life Magazine’s star reporter, she had a path paved for her, but even still, she was treated differently because she was a woman. For example, she was sent by boat to North Africa along with the nurses because it was thought to be safer to send the women on a nice big boat and not with the male reporters who were flown over. The boat the women were on was torpedoed. But because Margaret Bourke-White had the reporters knack of being in the right place at the right time, she got an incredible story out of being in a torpedoed boat. Her male colleagues were furious not to have such ‘luck’.

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“American women reporters had to fight every step of the way to report the war: from getting accredited to fighting the restrictions imposed on women reporters once they were accredited. The restrictions included no access to Jeeps or mess halls, no going to the front lines in the war zone, no sitting in on press conferences etc. In other words, all of the things that a reporter would need access to in a war zone to cover the war and/or report career-changing stories.

“There were so many stories that I would have loved to include in the film and so many other reporters whose work I would also have liked to highlight, but I was constrained by funding and the parameters of making a contained 60-minute story. The film combines rarely seen archival footage and stills, actors reading the written words of the three main characters—they read from the women’s reports, letters, notes from their diaries, or selections from their memoirs—as well as interviews with contemporary female war reporters. Julianna Margulies narrates the film. No Job For a Woman is distributed by Women Make Movies and has been aired on PBS channel over the last three years.”

Photo Show Stroll – Lee Miller: A Woman’s War IWM London

Miller’s most important legacy is without doubt her photography of the Second World War. Hilary Roberts, Research Curator of Photography, IWM.

As promised, here is a Photo Stroll through the exhibition Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum in London. The show runs until 24 April 2016 and is billed as “a new major exhibition of 150 photographs depicting women’s experience of the Second World war by acclaimed photographer Lee Miller.”









The photos may not be in chronological order, all have been taken with my iPhone and are an attempt to capture the journey and the atmosphere of the show. Walking through the show with my mum, my impression was of a city street taking me on a journey back to past eras—pre-Second World War, Wartime Britain and Europe and Post-Second World War. Set against muted red, grey, blue and green walls the various photos, paintings, objects, audio, film, text panels, pull quotes and glass-fronted vitrines, not dissimilar from shop-front window displays, encourage the viewer to look inside and out, to left and right, above and around corners, and to reflect on the women whose lives were affected.

Observations from my mum: “Incredibly interesting shots and angles; the intimacy of daily life such as a photograph of women’s pants and stockings hanging on a washing line which a male photographer would not have taken; the use of light; the naturalness and the breadth of the work both in image and text”.

The United States War Department accredited 127 woman as official war correspondents during the war, of these only four were photographers: Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, Dickey Chapelle and Toni Frissell. I didn’t know of the last two women so now it’s time to do some more research.





















From the press  release: “2015 marks 70 2015 marks 70 years since the end of the Second World War. When war broke out in 1939, women embarked on a continuous process of change and adaptation. For some, including Miller herself, the war brought a form of emancipation and personal fulfillment, but its many privations caused widespread suffering. Miller’s photography of women in Britain and Europe during this period reflects her unique insight as a woman and as a photographer capable of merging the worlds of art, fashion and photojournalism in a single image.

“Lee Miller: A Woman’s War will trace Miller’s remarkable career as a photographer for Vogue Magazine and for the first time will address her vision of gender. Miller was one of only four female professional photographers to be accredited as US official war correspondents during the Second World War.
Recognised today as one of the most important female war photographers of the twentieth century, through her work Miller offers an intriguing insight into the impact of conflict on women’s lives, detailing their diverse experiences and her own world view.

“Comprising four parts, this exhibition will document Miller’s evolving vision of women and their lives as she travelled between countries before, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Women before the Second World War considers the origins of Miller’s wartime vision of women and her evolution as a photographer in the years preceding the Second World War; drawing on early life experiences, such as childhood trauma, her brief career as a fashion model, her involvement in the Surrealist art movement, the influence of early mentors such as Man Ray, and her two marriages.

Women in Wartime Britain explains how Miller, in her new role as photographer for British Vogue,documented the gradual but inexorable transformation of women’s lives in wartime Britain between 1939 and 1944. Illustrating how wartime privation and suffering was offset, in some cases, by enhanced opportunities outside the home.

Women in Wartime Europe examines Miller’s coverage of the impact of war on women in Europe as a US official war correspondent for Vogue magazine, 1944 – 1945, highlighting the diverse and distinctive nature of women’s experience of liberation, defeat and military occupation. Here the exhibition considers the emotional and physical toll of war on women, including Miller herself, reflecting too on the capacity of war in the front line to temporarily dissolve established divisions between the sexes.

Women after the Second World War focuses on Lee Miller’s coverage of women in Denmark, Austria, Hungary and Romania in the immediate aftermath of war, contemplating the lasting legacy of war, the difficult process of recovery from wartime experiences and the adjustment to post-war changes.

The show is sponsored by Barclays and produced in collaboration with the Lee Miller Archives. See my previous post for photos and the Audio Interview I did with Hilary Roberts, Curator of Photography at IWM, and Lee Miller’s son Antony Penrose at the press preview.

Photo Stroll – Julian Germain The Future is Ours: Classroom Portraits 2004-2015 Towner Eastbourne

… the power of the images is in their direct connection to the viewer. We remember our own schooldays and wonder what happened to our own classmates. By presenting different pupils, different schools, different year groups, Germain asks questions about contemporary educational practices and social divisions. Already we can imagine the life trajectories of some of these young people. Here are faces full of hope and promise. Here also, is the silent threat of failure. Aspiration competes with apathy …” Tom Shakespeare. Archive Magazine, October 2005


Julian Germain Towner Classroom Portraits iPhoto Miranda Gavin

Julian Germain at the Towner PV for The Future is Ours: Classroom Portraits 2004-2015. © iPhoto Miranda Gavin


Towner executive director Emma Morris introduces Julian Germain’s show. © iPhoto Miranda Gavin


The audience at the opening for Julian Germain’s classroom portraits. © iPhoto Miranda Gavin

Today I am posting some photos taken on my iPhone from the opening night of British photographer and artist Julian Germain‘s The Future is Ours: Classroom Portraits 2004-2015, a major exhibition at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne, East Sussex running until 10 January 2016. This body of work began in schools in North East England in 2004 and was extended to schools throughout the UK the following year. Since 2005 the archive has grown to include schools throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South East Asia, North and South America, and a special commission for this exhibition, four Eastbourne schools that Germain visited and photographed in July.

The Future is Ours: Classroom Portraits 2004-2015 is a long-term project exploring universal themes of school and childhood from 19 countries worldwide and is thus a global archive documenting 461 school classrooms. Using his own photography technique, he captured the students in the natural environment of their classrooms and also canvassed some of the pupils about their lives. His work resulted in the publication Classroom Portraits 2004-2012 (now out of print) and an exhibition at Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam.

This carefully curated show is the UK premiere has been put together so that wherever the viewer stands when walking through, there are a number of points of visual interest. It was no surprise to learn, during director Emma Morris’ speech, that Germain was heavily involved in the curation of the show and went to the gallery every day, spending a week on making decisions as to how to hang the photographs and place related objects. The exhibition displays 200 objects including framed photographs, films, prints, Polaroids, and customised books. The show also includes books, graphs indicating the students likes and dislikes and daily habits, and projected imagery.
All iPhone photos below ©Miranda Gavin


Lucy Grace Griffiths beside her favourite classroom portrait taken in a classroom in Bangladesh from Julian Germain’s exhibition. © iPhoto Miranda Gavin.


Photofusion contributor Say Hello to Me on the website

This is a quick post to point any readers here to my contributions over at Photofusion Photography Centre’s website. I will be writing monthly photobook reviews, bimonthly theme/opinion pieces, and bimonthly Members’ Project reviews. My first theme/opinion piece will go live online on Monday 2 November.

Here is the link to my Introduction:


Here are the links to my monthly photobook reviews:




I decided to choose three books for October from The Photographers’ Gallery bookshop where I will, as regularly as I can, source books. For next month, I will be reviewing a book of my choice as well as a Photofusion Members’ self-published book. So look out for those from November 10 next month.

Interview Antony Penrose and Hilary Roberts Lee Miller: A Woman’s War on show at IWM London

Irmgard Seefried, Opera singer, singing an aria from 'Madame Butterly', Vienna Opera House, Vienna, Austria 1945 by Lee Miller Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved

Irmgard Seefried, Opera singer, singing an aria from ‘Madame Butterly’, Vienna Opera House, Vienna, Austria 1945 by Lee Miller
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved

web Fire Masks, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller (3840-9)

Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller. © Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved.

Last week, I attended the morning press view for the opening of Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. The show runs until 24 April 2016 and is accompanied by a book of the same name. I cannot recommend the show highly enough; it is a comprehensive, carefully considered exhibition that puts women firmly at the centre of the story of the Second World War. I have long been a fan of Lee Miller’s work, since I visited a show at The Photographers’ Gallery in the mid 1980s when I was searching out work by women photographers and artists. I also saw and reviewed the last major show of Miller’s work, The Art of Lee Miller, curated by Mark Haworth-Booth with the help of her son Antony Penrose, at the V&A in 2007 for Hotshoe magazine.

I was fortunate enough to grab 15 minutes last week to talk to Antony, who looks after the Lee Miller Archives at Farley Farm in Sussex, and also Hilary Roberts, Curator of Photography at IWM, to talk about the exhibition. The interview is transcribed below. I will post a Photo Stroll through the exhibition in a subsequent post for those who cannot see the show.

Miranda Gavin (MG): How long has it taken to get to this point, since you first decided to put this exhibition together?

Antony Penrose (AP): Four years. We were riding a bus through Jordan admiring camels and sand…
Hilary Roberts (HR): … on the way to a conference.
AP: Yes and we started talking and the thing that intrigued us both, instantly, was the idea of looking at women at war and that’s something that Hilary knows a lot about and this is one of a series of photographic exhibitions that she has done on that theme. Immediately we began talking and realised the potential, and she took it on and this is what we have today, four years later.

MG: We can see the end result here, but what has the process involved?

HR: For me, it’s involved spending a lot of time at Farley Farm where I was made most welcome, and literally going through everything.

MG: And we are talking about how many negatives?

HR: About 60,000 I believe.

MG: How does one go through 60,000 negatives?

AP: One at a time.
HR: Yes, you do. The IWM has a huge collection of photographs, 12 million, and so you develop techniques to view and assess them, so it’s not as formidable a task as it might seem. Obviously, what one was looking for was not only to get a sense of how Lee Miller photographed the subject, but also the sense of the subject itself. How could one put a story together? What should one do to make sure that it would work as an exhibition, and also as a book. In my case, after going through the photographs, there was a period of wrapping a towel round my head, sitting in a darkroom, pacing the floor and thinking through: how does one distil the essence of what I had seen and then present it on the wall?

web 5848 28, Lee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy, Unknown Photographer, 1944

Lee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy, France 1944 by unknown photographer. Photographer Unknown. © The Penrose Collection, England 2015. All rights reserved.

MG: And were you in conversation with Antony about that in terms of the thread that runs through the exhibition?

HR: Yes, we’ve been talking for four years now and Antony’s expertise and knowledge has been absolutely invaluable and we couldn’t have done it without his input and the team at Farley Farm because they know Lee like nobody else could possible do so. The melding of that knowledge with the broader subject area is one of the outcomes of the collaboration.

MG: I think I am right in saying that this is one of the most comprehensive exhibitions since the V&A exhibition in 2007?

AP: I would say definitely.

MG: Does it complement that exhibition for anyone who has seen the show?

AP: Absolutely. The V&A exhibition was looking at Lee as an artist and it was called The Art of Lee Miller and I think that it succeeded in doing that absolutely admirably. What we are looking at here is her reportage and photojournalism, which is done with art naturally, but it’s also the way that she portrayed the events around her and told the story of what was going on, that was one of the essential things—she was a story teller par excellence, and she used images and words with great skill. We had her as an artist and now we have her as a photojournalist and a storyteller and part of her own story is in there too; it is one more huge piece of information in the totality of what is understood about Lee.

Woman accused of collaborating, Rennes, France 1944GÇÖ by Lee Miller (5925-335)

Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944 by Lee Miller. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

MG: Thinking about the show, there is a narrative thread running through the exhibition and a chronology to the events, yet it is also has a thematic thread relating to the body and women’s place in war, and also, for me, the subtext of what happened in Lee’s life and the theme of an internal battleground and war zone and the way she tried to deal with that. On an external level, there is the surface of her body, her beauty, and how she was portrayed by others in paintings and photographs, as well as in the rather disturbing stereoscopic nude photograph taken by her father, Theodore. Then one starts to unravel internal aspects and the way these may be manifested, for example, her later alcoholism and the horrific fact that she was raped (probably by a family friend) and contracted gonorrhoea when she was seven. How does this tie in with the show?

HR: I will let Tony talk about the symbolism of the artworks, but we all know that there has been a long-standing tradition of judging women by their appearance, so if you happen to be a beautiful, photogenic person, you have an instant celebrity, an instant appeal and there is a temptation to define you by that. One of the things that I think Lee fought against was being defined entirely by her appearance. It was definitely a means to an end and it was important to her, but she didn’t want to just be defined as one of the most beautiful women of her age.
AP: I think you’ve put that with customary elegance and accuracy. There was always a – you used the word battleground – and I think that is absolutely right – there was this dichotomy in her life. Being beautiful gave her access, gave her her first career (as a model), but she also got fed up of being objectified as being a sex object and this very much came forward when she was with Man Ray. One of the most salient photographs that she ever took was the severed breasts on a plate and it was almost as if she was saying, ‘You like breasts so much, well, have one, eat it.’ You tend to forget that behind that breast is a woman with a heart and a soul and a mind of her own.

MG: Yes, and weirdly when she got into gourmet cooking wasn’t there food that looked like a breast?

AP: Yes, the pink cauliflower—it reprises all the way back to that and I’m jolly glad that I hadn’t seen the severed breast image when I was trying to eat the pink cauliflower.

MG: In some of my reading about Lee, I read that she was looking for a ‘raison d’etre’, a ‘reason to be’, do you think that towards the end of the Second World War she came into a space where she felt that her body receded, someone (quoted in this exhibition) commented that she looked like an ‘unmade bed’.

AP: Yes, she looked like a total wreck.
HR: When she started working for British Vogue in 1940, she got her colleagues talking because she consistently wore trousers. You can see that in the Picture Post shot. It’s important, from her point of view, to manipulate all these lights, scramble up and down and sort out the staging and wearing trousers make the most sense. If you look at the film clip in the exhibition, you can see women looking as if they are going out as if to a cocktail party, wearing hats; it started from the point that she became a professional working women, and from that point her mind seemed, to me, to be focused on the job. When she was required to put on a polished presence for the cameras, she absolutely could do it. The photograph of her with the other women correspondents in the case. Look at that line up.
AP: Can you pick her out?
HR: Spot the model! When she wishes to use her appearance to make a point, she was perfectly capable of doing so, but at that point in time for her, her appearance and standards of dress would have been a problem rather than an asset, and would have got in the way of her being accepted by the soldiers that she photographed. Again, in the film clip, David Sherman makes that point that she very much became one of them and that helped her enormously in doing the job she did during that period.

MG: The show opens with a couple of paintings one by Roland Penrose and one by Picasso. It feels to me that this leads from the V&A show into this one. Why these two paintings?

AP: It is Hilary’s show, she chose them, but to me I think they are there to show Lee’s position among the surrealists as a revered icon of surrealist women. She was different from the other surrealist women in the fact that she refused to be subordinated and, mostly, the great beauties like Nusch Eluard and Ady Fidelin they were talented and beautiful women but they allowed themselves to be second placed by the men at the time. Lee wasn’t going to have that and I think that the surrealists were a bit surprised by that aspect of her character. I know that she nearly drove Man Ray nuts.

MG: How would this manifest itself? Was it in the way she behaved, as some would call women like this ‘difficult’?

HR: It infused her entire lifestyle. One of the reasons why her relationship with Penrose worked so well in those years was that he completely accepted that aspect of her, that she was a free spirit. The paintings reflect that evolving perspective of her. The two painted in 1937 by Roland and Picasso were created weeks apart, or months at the latest. They both see Lee Miller at this point in the life and there are some similarities and some contrasts. So Picasso (L’Arlesienne) sees her spirit as dark and unknowable, Roland (Night and Day) sees her— it’s clouds and sky.
AP: If you look in Picasso’s painting, yes, she’s got the sun face, but if you look in her chest there’s Man Ray’s metronome ticking away. It just rolls. Look at the pink background. If that’s not erotic, I don’t know what is.
HR: Roland’s later painting (Good Shooting/Bien Vise, 1939) shows her pinned down and chained to a wall; there’s all sorts of readings of that painting that are possible, but one is that it’s her gender and war that has actually pinned her down and she’s chained to the wall by what seems to be a chastity belt. The golden head is missing and is replaced by a peaceful scene from the Norfolk broads, so there is an evolution there that is set against a background of war.
AP: That’s a very interesting point as at that time there was the Spanish Civil War not the main war and Roland was very closely emotionally connected to that, he went there as a reporter. The wonderful think about that painting is the absence of her head, and in a way, I feel that Roland is saying that she is giving him her body but he will never have her mind.

MG: It looks like the book complements the exhibition further, is that so?

AP: Yes, I think it takes it further and it will be on the bookshelf for many years to come, and will be such a good reference.
HR: It obviously captures the visual but also allows people to drill down further into some of these aspects that we have been talking about.

MG: Last question, I have to ask you, Antony, is it true that Kate Winslett is going to be playing Lee Miller in an upcoming film about her life?

AP: If this news is true, it is very good news indeed because she is exactly the person I really hoped for and I think she will be absolutely brilliant. We have a whole new team now on the production; we have a new writer and a new producer, and they are mostly Australian and I love them because they are so direct and so funny. It’s Hopscotch productions and they are just the most wonderful bunch of people I could wish to work with.

MG: Yes, and I think it will help in making Lee Miller become a household name and not just known as a photographers’ photographer.

A book Lee Miller: A Woman’s War by Hilary Roberts with an introduction by Antony Penrose has been published to coincide with the major exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London. It tells the story beyond the battlefields of the Second World War by way of Miller’s powerful photographs of the women whose lives were affected. It is published by Thames & Hudson and is available for £29.95 hardback with 156 illustrations.