To say that photographer and filmmaker Jim Lee has lived a full life would be an understatement. He shot seminal pop-rock bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who during the sixties. He created daring and often controversial campaigns for clients like Ossie Clark, Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace — not to mention working with a young Anna Wintour, then an assistant at Harpers & Queen. Throughout it all, he lead the kind of insane, rock 'n' roll lifestyle one fantasizes a fashion and music photographer should have — whilst raising five kids. How did he do it?
“There’s always time for everything you want," Lee tells me over mint tea in his South Kensington home. We’re sitting in an eclectic study cluttered by books, images, and other mementoes he’s amassed over the years. For example: there’s a Polaroid of one of The Beatles mid-performance at The Round House Theatre in Sydney circa 1964 just lying on his desk. “If you want something enough, you do it," he concludes.
Jim Lee is a living, breathing testament to this idea. He’s spent the last hour regaling me with stories from his youth — hitchhiking through the outback with an Aboriginal truck driver at seventeen, discovering his parents were MI5, partying with foreign models, being locked in a caravan with The Rolling Stones - etcetera. So when he tells me that he’s named his retrospective monograph Arrested because “when you take a photo, you arrest a moment," I’m sure there’s more to the story.
“Plus I was actually arrested." Of course you were! “This was in Australia. I was off to see my girlfriend, who worked at a mental hospital, but on the way, this guy came around the corner in a big old American car with a sign in the window advertising it for sale. So I shouted at him, ‘I’ll give you a fiver for it!’ Obviously that wasn’t much, but he replied, ‘Give me a tenner!’"
Warning bells were ringing, right Jim? “No! I was too stupid. In the end I paid him seven pounds ten, and said, ‘Can you show me how to drive it?’ I didn’t know how to drive back then. I think I’d driven my mother’s car once, maybe. So obviously he’d nicked it, but I didn’t realize. I picked up my girlfriend and she had a big bag of pills — we’d pop ‘purple hearts’ back then — and an escaped loony called ‘Bob’."
At this point, neither of us can help laughing. In fact, the absurdity of Lee’s life is such that neither of us can keep a straight face throughout most of the interview.
He continues: “So none of us had any money, and on the way out we picked up a German hitchhiker, whose money we began to siphon for petrol so that we could go on. He was playing the accordion in the back seat beside Bob, while Paula and I sat in the front seat. We pulled up to the gas station, and it was so hot that we decided to borrow a hacksaw and turn the car into a convertible. We drove off with no roof, in 140 degrees in the desert — now suffering from sunstroke — and of course when we saw a river we decided to stop and bathe. So there we were: running around naked, high as kites, with this stolen car without its roof, and we were arrested. The police could see us from miles off! So they threw us in prison."
The resulting picture — a young Jim Lee stuffed into the back of a police car — is wallpapered on the inside cover of Arrested. Flicking through the copy that Lee presented me with, it’s clear that there’s simply not time to discuss everything that’s happened in his life. There’s just too much to cover. But Lee gives it his best shot.
One highlight is the aforementioned story of his trip across the Nullarbor at the age of seventeen. “I had to drive at night when he [the Aboriginal truck driver] was asleep. He said, ‘Boy, keep awake’, and gave me some pills to keep me up. There was a block of wood across the steering wheel so that it wouldn’t move, and he put a breezeblock on the pedal and told me to watch the compass. He told me: ‘As long as we’re going west, we’re ok.’ It was a twenty-mile wide road, you know. We were in the desert. I even ran a camel over once. I was so young he’d have to pick me up to put me in the cabin, and I was driving a road train!"
Lee survived those reckless adventures in the outback, only to be conscripted by the Australian Army during the Vietnam War. Luckily, his father — an MI5 operative rumoured to be the never-exposed fifth double agent working alongside Sir Roger Hollis during the Cold War — bailed him out on the grounds of National Security.
In Sydney, Lee began shooting the cavalcade of incredible musical acts that now fill his CV: The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Beatles, and more. (Years later, those images would be lost forever when the basement he used for storage flooded). Having stocked his portfolio with stars, Lee transitioned seamlessly into fashion photography. “I began working with the Fashion Editor at Harper’s, Jennifer Hocking," he tells me. “She was amazing. Her assistant was Anna Wintour, who was about 21 at the time. She kept saying, ‘Can we do a shoot together one day Jim?’ She already had a really good eye. I loved her style. About seventeen of the images we created feature in Arrested."
Lee’s photographs often elicited controversy (they commented on such topics as interracial romance and the Vietnam War), while the shoots themselves were inherently dangerous for all involved. One shot, titled Jump (1970) and now featured in the Victoria and Albert museum in London, saw his wife at the time, the model Sally Hill-Brooks, literally leap from a moving train over a midget. Another, Plane Crash (1969), involved an exploding airplane — the man working the detonator blew himself up.
“All of these stories from my life are the reason I wanted to make such exciting work when I was young," Lee recalls. “When life is that exciting, you don’t want to create things that don’t live up to reality."
With such a cinematic vision, it’s not surprising that Lee decided to move into directing. I wonder though, why the iconoclastic young photographer wound up making television commercials — he’s made more than 400 to date for companies like Elizabeth Arden, Levi’s, Esso and British Airways.
“If I’d been more selfish and not so committed to my children — providing them with an education and all that — I could have gone further and gotten more into my film work," he explains. “But it’s useless to regret. It’s more fun to accept what you’ve got and see what you’ve done. I’ve had three careers: photography, television commercials, and film. Now I’m exhibiting and selling my art, and I’m working on a film inspired by my early life. What more does one want?"