When Jim Lee walked past ‘Aeroplane’ in the V&A, even he didn’t recognise the photograph as one of his own. After the penny had dropped, he decided to let the museum know. “They were happy to hear from me,” says Jim. “Before I got in touch, they hadn’t been able to track down the artist.” The discovery prompted an exhibition of his early work, much of which embodies the underbelly of the swinging sixties. More of his work is now housed in the V&A’s permanent collection.
Lee’s collaborations with designer Ossie Clark – ‘Aeroplane’ was shot in 1969 – were early forays into fashion, which led to in an illustrious career that would see him rub shoulders with some of couture’s most influential figures.
The son of MI5 operatives, Lee dodged service in Vietnam after his parents claimed he might endanger national security. Nice excuse if you can get it. But the smoke and mirrors of his parents’ espionage background have affected him in a profound sense. You don’t have to look far in Lee’s work before you begin to appreciate the tension between the apparent and the hidden. Things are not always what they seem. “Shadow play is an early memory,” he recalls. It’s a theme that runs deep. On the walls of his mews house are several early 19th-century silhouettes preserved from his grandmother’s flat. In Shadow 2, part of a series of two pictures, a man saves a woman from the shadowy spectre of a veering motorcycle. In the first image, though, the figure of her eventual rescuer is presented as the shadow on the wall – a would-be mugger. “The payoff,” Lee concedes, “is that it isn’t what you think.”
Lee found his passion for photography after emigrating to Australia to pursue the cowboy lifestyle – but it was life behind the lens that took hold. Returning to London in the late 1960s, he photographed era-defining bands with a capital ‘The’ (Kinks, Beatles, Who). Moving into fashion photography, Lee worked on campaigns for Yves St Laurent and Versace. After falling in with sartorial empress and Vogue editor Anna Wintour (then a fashion assistant) the pair created projects for Coca-Cola, Guinness and Amex. ‘Wishful Thinking’ [pictured] goes beyond a simple fashion aesthetic and into the advertising mantra of wish-fulfilment, charting the gap between desire and reality. But Lee can see the absurdity of his work, too. He describes the image as “both true to the anyone-from-anywhere reality of London and also daft as a brush.” In the late 1970s, film making took centre stage as he produced campaigns for Levi’s, Esso and BA and directed several films, notably Losing Track in 1992. In 2007, Lee suffered a massive cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead three times in a single day. It wasn’t enough to stop him. Today, Lee continues to create new work well into his fifth decade of photography. It seems that he isn’t ready to fade into the shadows just yet.
Jim Lee’s ‘Arrested’ (Ammonite, £75) is out now. We’re offering it at a discounted price of £65. To order, phone 01273 488 005 or go to thegmcgroup.com and enter R3692.
Prints are available from £3,300; email email@example.com
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