Paris between the wars. Dadaists in garrets and galleries. Surrealists in darkrooms and opium dens. Vogue models in Schiaparelli originals. Readers who can’t get enough of this milieu will be more than gratified by Whitney Scharer’s first novel, “The Age of Light.” They’ll also get a slightly fictionalized, readily digestible account of the life of Lee Miller, an American photographer whose career was encouraged and then eclipsed by her mentor, the avant-garde artist Man Ray.
Miller was already a successful fashion model for Vogue magazine in New York when she moved to Paris in 1929, at age 22, to become a painter. A shining bright blonde in an era when “her beauty is the right beauty,” she’s nonetheless tired of being reduced to “pieces of a girl: a neck to hold pearls, a slim waist to show off a belt.” Immediately she learns that painting offers no material gratifications and won’t begin to cover the rent for her Montparnasse apartment.
A chance meeting with Man Ray, whose photography she has seen in Vogue, impels her to ask him for a job. Before long she’s keeping his books and setting up his studio equipment in exchange for a small salary and the use of his darkroom. With a Christmas bonus, she buys a Rolleiflex camera, and she apprentices herself to Man Ray, 17 years her senior, who begins to show her how to develop her own prints. She agrees to pose naked for him, and they become lovers.
The onset of their affair fuels both Miller and Man Ray with manic inspiration. He photographs her constantly and insists that she remain nearby while he paints and sculpts. In the afternoons she wanders through the city to take pictures, and “each time she prints one of her photos and Man Ray likes it, she grows more confident, feels more like who she has always wanted to be.” He takes her to parties where she meets an array of artists, among them Salvador Dalí, Tristan Tzara and Jean Cocteau, who casts Miller in a film. One day in the darkroom she accidentally exposes some film, which leads her to discover a new effect. She and Man Ray refine it together and call it “solarization,” signing their names beneath a print of her face in profile.
“Everyone thinks photography is like a magic trick, but there’s no magic involved,” Man Ray instructs Miller. “There are only two colors to mix together: black and white. Add more of one, take some of the other away. You want both in your picture.” Just as there is light in this romance, darkness also lurks. Each partner confesses vulnerabilities: Miller’s childhood was marked by a trauma that she shares for the first time, while Man Ray admits a near-crippling dependence on Miller. She grows jealous of his former great love, the cabaret performer Kiki de Montparnasse. He becomes maddeningly possessive, balking at Miller’s quests for autonomy. Betrayals creep in. She seeks the attention of other men. He steals credit for her work, including her solarization discovery.
Though she hoped to be made whole by this union of love and art, after three years Miller finds herself once again reduced to parts. As her relationship with Man Ray stumbles, he works obsessively on one of his best-known surrealist works. Titled “The Lovers,” it’s a giant painting of Miller’s disembodied red lips hovering over the city. There is calm in the image, but also a threat of violence. An intrusion of darkness in the age of light.
Scharer interleaves her tale with all-too-brief snippets of Miller’s later life, which was every bit as momentous as her time with Man Ray. Her good friend Pablo Picasso made six portraits of her. She was in London during the Blitz and became a war correspondent, recording images at Normandy, Saint-Malo, the death camp at Dachau. Famously, in 1945, she posed in Hitler’s bathtub in his abandoned Munich apartment. Miller returned to England and married the artist Roland Penrose, lived with him on a farm in Sussex, and became a food writer. She suffered from PTSD, which she medicated with alcohol. She stashed boxes of her photographs in her attic, dusty and forgotten.
Readers wanting more than these snapshots might turn to Carolyn Burke’s 2005 biography, “Lee Miller: A Life.” Others will salute Scharer for emphasizing the romantic aspects of her historical romance, wading into the sexual politics of the era and thus exposing our own. She joins such novelists as Paula McLain (“The Paris Wife”) and Rupert Thomson (“Never Anyone but You”) in a most worthy enterprise: repopulating male-dominated accounts of the past with the many noteworthy women who deserve the same limelight.
Donna Rifkind is the author of “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood,” forthcoming from Other Press in January 2020.
By Whitney Scharer
384 pp. $28.