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October 30, 2020

Lee Miller and David Scherman: The Photographers Who Took a Bath in Hitler’s Apartment

On April 30, 1945, photojournalists David E. Scherman and Lee Miller produced one of the most controversial photographic series of the twentieth century; while documenting Hitler’s apartment on the day of his suicide, they photographed each other bathing in the Führer’s tub.

Contact sheet, “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, Munich, Germany 1945” © Lee Miller Archives

The contact print reveals that Miller had Scherman take seven shots in all. The sequence of shots suggests that Miller had something very specific in mind, as her head and her gaze are only slightly adjusted for each pose. Each image appears carefully calibrated, and the ostensible pleasure of bathing is nowhere in evidence. The photos reveal nothing of what Scherman retrospectively described as her “leisurely, overdue bath.”

But in the best known she is looking up and away, toward a distant point, pensive and beautiful, scrubbing her shoulder with a wash cloth while Hitler looks on. She has turned her gaze away from him. As Miller would put it years later, “I washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub.”

The washcloth appears to serve more as a prop than a functional accessory for the task at hand. Scherman’s photographs are much more animated. He mugs for the camera as he vigorously washes his hair, completely altering the tone of the scene. While Hitler’s image remains present, it has been moved so that it is partially behind a soap dish—a minor detail, to be sure, but it does seem to compromise the presence that is so striking in Miller’s photographs. Scherman’s boots, in contrast to Miller’s, are pointed away from the tub, clearly a better position for exiting the tub rather than entering.

The simplest interpretations argue that Miller enters the bath and washes away the dirt, still visible on her boots, from Dachau. Lee signaled the end of the Reich in a more subtle way, both symbolic and playful, by being photographed by Scherman washing off the war—in Hitler’s own bath. The boots on the bath mat had walked through the horror of the Dachau death camp earlier in the same day.

The residual dirt from Dachau was of course invisible to readers, who were not privy to the fact that the photograph followed Miller’s presence at the newly liberated camp earlier that day. Even so, it is doubtful that Miller imagined she could wash off even part of the war in the wake of what she had witnessed, leaving aside the question of whether she wanted to do so. After all, forgetting would betray her whole purpose.

Lee Miller was an American photographer and fashion model known for her portraits of Pablo Picasso. Despite being known as the lover of Man Ray, Miller’s documentation of war-ravaged Europe after World War II made her reputation as a photographer in her own right. “It seems to me that women have a bigger chance at success in photography than men,” she once said. “Women are quicker and more adaptable than men.”

Born Elizabeth Miller on April 23, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, NY, she attended Vassar College and later studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League in New York. Her beauty led her to become a model for Vogue during the late 1920s. Miller later moved to Paris, where she sought out Man Ray to study with him. In the next three years, she learned photographer and became his lover, while falling into a milieu that included Picasso, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró.

Returning to New York in 1932, she set up a photography studio and began producing portraits and advertising work. Miller would go on to marry the British Surrealist Roland Penrose, and in 1940, she began working for British Vogue. As a war correspondent, Miller captured some of the first photographic evidence of the Holocaust at the Dachau concentration camp.

She died on July 21, 1977 in Chiddingly, United Kingdom. Today, her photographs are held in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.


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