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Friday, June 21, 2024

Photographer Lee Miller Gets a Surprise Shoutout in ‘Civil War’

The protagonist of the new Alex Garland film Civil War is Lee Smith, a traumatized war photographer who heads to Washington, D.C. to shoot a conflict that threatens to undo the United States. Yet she owes her name to another war photographer named Lee—Lee Miller, that is.

That much is pointed out to Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) early on in Civil War by Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a spunky, younger photographer seeking to make a name for herself by tagging along for the journey. Miller, Jessie notes, got close to the action herself, just as Smith does in this film, where she is presented as the youngest photographer ever to join the famed Magnum collective, having made a name for herself photographing a fictional event known as the Antifa massacre. (In reality, the youngest photographer to have joined Magnum is Newsha Tavakolian, who was given entry to the collective after picturing the 1999 student uprising in Iran when she was just 18.)

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Miller was a Vogue correspondent who shot memorable images of World War II–era battles in France. Before that, her camera passed the first use of napalm and the liberation of Paris, as well as the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps in Germany, where evidence of crimes against humanity had been committed out of view of many.

But her most famous pictures from that period are ones that do not present themselves as traditional documentary photography, such as one from 1945 showing a downed SS guard floating in a canal. That same year, she also photographed herself having a soak in Hitler’s bathtub the day he shot himself.

Her penchant for bizarre, provocative imagery owed something to her Surrealist period, during which Man Ray, Eileen Agar, and others were drawn to her work.

The Lee of Civil War, of course, produces nothing quite so experimental, training her lens instead on a face-off between several secessionist factions with directness. Then again, Miller believed she was working similarly. “I’m busy making documents, not art,” she once said of her photojournalism.

It’s not the last time Miller’s name will be said in movie theaters across the US. Kate Winslet is starring in Lee, a biopic about Miller that was released abroad last year but has yet to arrive stateside.

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