Day tripping with 60s photographer Jim Lee

Let us cast our minds back fifty years to 1960. The following decade would be the era that, amongst countless significant events, saw the introduction of contraception for women, the war in Vietnam, the assassination of Kennedy and long standing taboos relating to race, sexuality and gender being questioned and broken down.
For a few it was a time of flamboyance and excess. For all it hailed a social and political evolution that would forever change the way that people lived.
Jim Lee is someone who was witness to this upheaval, whilst producing some of the most iconic fashion images of the time.

Having parents who were both members of the MI5 is the perfectly surreal beginning to Jim Lee's story. As the PA to four consecutive Director Generals, Jim's father was privy to all of the information that was being circulated amongst CIA operatives. He later became Head of Security in South and Central America, where he moved his family, to Trinidad.
His father, in Jim's own words, was “...tough, enduring, argumentative and overruling.”
As he grew older Jim began to balk at the pressure of his expectation that he would follow the family route of Eton to Cambridge and then on to MI5.
Jim decided to ditch school and turn his back on the UK, emigrating to Australia at seventeen years old. He embarked on a series of riotous adventures that saw him running with aborigines out in the bush and having several close brushes with the law.
After a chance encounter, he began photographing, initially fooling around with his friends in Australia and then taking it up more seriously on his return to the UK.
There, he developed his dramatic, narrative based pre Raphaelite style, shooting numerous fashion campaigns and working with Anna Wintour when she was at harpers Bazaar.
He went on to filming and directing throughout the advertising boom of the 80s, making over six hundred television commercials.
A book, entitled 'Arrested' tracing the complete history of Jim's life and work as a photographer is to be released on 9th May, followed by an exhibition of his photographs at Somerset House, beginning on the 15th May.
I dropped by for a cup of tea and to quiz Jim about his colourful past, at his home in South Kensington.

So, your parents were both in the MI5?! When did you find out, when were you told about that?

Oh, I didn't know until I was 20. we weren't allowed to know of course, in those days. In those days it was much more concerning anyway, with the Russian communism and the whole cold war period.
We were just lacking information, we didn't know quite why things were different, but they were. You just lived a different life.
For example all my friends parents and my godfather and godmother were involved in the same thing, so it was a family collection of people. To us it was normal. But to anyone else outside of that it might have been regarded as rather an eclectic club of its own.
We were slightly, I wouldn't say restricted, but we were obviously children of that kind of dangerous life, politically.

I'm curious to pin down this Australia period of yours, I couldn't find anything on it! What kind of trouble were you getting in to out there?

I was going out with this girl, I was 17, she was probably about 16 or 17 as well. She was working at the loony bin, getting the pills, the uppers and downers. So I said, look let's take a ride out in to the bush, and she agreed...yes that's a great idea. So one day I was going out, towards this mental hospital to pick her up and I saw this guy with this old car and it said for sale in the window. So I shouted, “I'll give u a fiver for it!” and he shouted back, “No a tenner!”, anyway in the end we worked out about 7.50, so I gave him that...
Now, I didn't realise because I was so naïve, that he'd nicked this car. I didn't even know how to drive it. And he showed me, you know, do this do that. I was only 17 so I hadn't got a proper license. I took this car off eventually and drove it to pick up Paula from the mental hospital. We got some pills and jumped in the car and drove off in to the bush. Actually we took Bob with us, one of the mental patients from in there as well. Bob worked for Esso but went slightly bonkers, he was being trapped by his father, this general in the American army.

I put petrol in this car and it was Paula me and bob in the back and we picked up this German hitchhiker who had one of those squeeze boxes, a bit like Rolf Harris. Anyway at some point we were thinking, 'god it's got a bit flipping hot in here', so we pulled over to a petrol station and got a hacksaw and cut the roof off. Anyway the hitchhiker went on, bob went back to Sydney, he couldn't take it, and Paula and I were out there.
We parked this lovely about 1940s car, an Al Capone car, without a roof on it. I mean it must have looked ridiculous, but of course at that age you don't care.

The police arrested us for buying a stolen car, destroying it, being out with a girl who's underage, being on drugs and camping within 3 feet of a commercial property.
We were thrown in to jail, different prisons both of us, we were there overnight. Anyway the next day they discharged me and put me at the edge of town, saying 'go back to Sydney'. But I couldn't get Paula out. I was wondering, how did I get out so easily, what have I done? It was my father. I didn't go back in to town anyway, I went the opposite way and deeper in to the bush. I didn't care at this stage, I was in a say whatever you want, I'm going to do whatever I want to do. And these people are going to keep on pulling me out of my problems because they have before and will again... And of course that's what happened, I'd get in to trouble, they'd pull me out again...

So, you knew by then that he was watching you? Did you ever speak about it?

It came out eventually, when I had planned a trip to Russia with my Grandmother. And lo ad behold my father says “Oh I hear you're going to Russia, well you can't do that.”
I said “How do you know? I haven't told you yet – you're jumping the gun a bit! There's something going on here...I mean, what is that you do, you've got all this information. that you know what I'm doing before I even do! It can only be one of two things, either you own a brothel, or you're a spy!” And he said, “Well, it's the latter.”
You can't go to Russia, if you go to Russia and get nabbed, they'll hold you to ransom for me.”
So eventually I took respect on what he did and didn't do it.
Anyway then he took me to a movie, A Spy Comes in from the Cold by Richard Burton and he said, “This film is the nearest I can show you to what I do.”

How did you first get in to your photography?

Well when I first moved to Australia, I needed somewhere to live and I found a guy who said he would let me stay in his apartment if I printed his pictures. He was a photographer and had a little darkroom there. I mean, I was interested in making films, not in taking photographs initially. I really did it for the lodging, I said 'sure' and he gave me a room for free.
Then I met this girl Bromin, who worked for Vogue and I photographed her, it took off from there.

My girlfriend is the one on the cross, and that's me, Sydney 1964. That's Bromin Stephen Jones and her friend.
We were just been sacrilegious and doing something for the sake of it. I hate square pictures, I just don't like them, but it's the camera that I had at the time...

                               Jim's girlfriend, Sydney, 1964

What was the inspiration behind your image making?

The reason why I was inspired to take photographs was always because I as trying to say something about the political or social situation or a story I felt I needed to tell. The content was always the most important thing to me. I don't mind using a vehicle to apply to, but it's the art of what's coming out of the picture that matters.

Things like ambiguity...i like to consider pictures which make you look beyond the frame. The way I always edited the pictures hints that there's more going outside of it. Or that something's happened before, catching a moment in time.
In other words a picture needs to be loaded with lots of stuff to be interesting for me.

How did you explore what was going on at the time?

Well my Vietnam pictures are an example of me playing off what was going on at the time, you know 1969 – the boys thought they were going to have a laugh, you know smoking joints...they thought it was going to be a fun trip to the far east, eat the food, meet lovely girls. And of course, it didn't turn out to be like that at all. So the pictures that I made I was trying to suggest this idea that they had in their minds about how it was going to be.

Which artists and photographers have influenced your work?

I really admire Gregory Crewdson, I think he's very interesting. Helmet Newton and Guy Bourdin both had a massive influence on me. I also love the work of Peter Beard, David La Chapelle and Jean Paul Goude.

Your work changes quite dramatically in the late 60s...

I went through a more commercial period because I had a child to raise, a young boy who was later killed in a car accident. His mother, my ex wife left us to get on together, so I brought him up on my own for eight years in my twenties, which was very hard work. Then she came back one day and had a road accident in which he was killed. It was a terrible time, but then four years on I had four more children. In that period when I was fathering him and my ex wife and his mother wasn't there, I had to work very hard and that's when my work became soft focus and dreamy and commercial in that way.

So, was it a big creative leap moving from making your photographic work to creating commercials?

Well, I was in filming commercials at a time when you were allowed to be much more exciting. Commercials on TV now are much less exciting than they were in my day. Budgets were high, for the British Airways one that I filmed, the Albert Hall lifting off as a spaceship and Big Ben's hands went round and the glass shattered, the whole of the Sydney opera house took off.
So for that we were dealing with quite advanced special effects for that time. Of course, if you look at it now it looks terrible! But whilst I was doing that I was enjoying it immensely and making a big pile of money and educating four children. My only regret is how I didn't develop my film life as much as I could have done. I was always caught up with other things, you know...pretty women, getting married and having children and taking that quite seriously, making money and taking photographs. In a way I was having a good time and if I had been more ruthless with myself I might have gone on further to make art films.
I would still love to make one and perhaps after this book and all of that's out of the way I will concentrate on getting Ten Quid Cowboy off the ground. Of course it's never simple to get money out for a film, it's always complicated and political.
Another screenplay about my life was written by the playwright Simon Grey, who died around 10 years ago. He wrote more about my earlier life and my family situation when I was around 12 or 13. So, two screenplays have been written about my life oddly enough, though neither have been filmed yet!

The book 'Arrested'is released by Ammonite Press on 5th May and the exhibition runs from 16 May – 5 June 2012, For more information visit

Jim Lee at home, sitting underneath a painting 'Ten Quid Cowboy', inspired by his time in Australia. 

Inside Reid Peppard's studio

PunchDrunk performance

Work in progress