Profile: Leslie Kee

Published on 19 January 2015

Leslie Kee has shot more celebrities than he probably remembers, from One Direction and Lady Gaga to Faye Wong and Kate Moss.

BY DANIEL GOH

Born in Singapore of humble origins, Leslie Kee relocated to Tokyo at 20, drawn by his obsession with J-pop. There, in the city of his childhood dreams, he picked up photography and became famous for his brand of celebrity and fashion photography distinctly marked by the J-pop aesthetic. Sparkly-eyed, vividly-coloured and quirkily-costumed — replete with Hello Kitty cuteness — this aesthetic became the Leslie Kee hallmark.

For the last 15 years, his photography work for commercial clients (like Yohji Yamamoto and Uniqlo), editorial titles (Taiwan Vogue, Men’s Uno) and celebrities (Jennifer Lopez, Faye Wong) has brought him around the world, working in close collaboration with the icons of our time. Everyone from Kate Moss to Lady Gaga has sat for Kee.

He now counts J-pop queens (Ayumi Hamasaki is a constant collaborator) as friends and has finally gone truly Japanese — last year, he bought a three-room apartment in the trendy Aoyama neigbourhood in Tokyo.

Kee, 43, recalls his first real break as a struggling photographer: “I will always be grateful to all the Asian editors who gave me a chance when I was starting out. My biggest break came in 1998 when I shot the young Takeshi Kaneshiro for the cover of Hong Kong’s City Magazine.” Last February, Kee made headlines when he was jailed for displaying some 50 nude portraits in a Tokyo art gallery. The works, which represented Kee’s foray into the art market, have been exhibited in prestigious international galleries, but were judged ‘obscene’ under Japanese law. “My nudes were about purity and identity. They are about charm and the way that person speaks and looks at life — that’s what I try to capture. There are very few Asian photographers doing it and I wanted to break taboos,” he explains.

He adds that there’s a lucrative market for his body of work exploring the male human form. “It earned me more money in one year than all the 15 years of my career!” A Leslie Kee print sells between US$5,000 (S$6,500) and US$12,000. Those who can’t access these prints buy up his massive catalogue of self-published books and magazines under his imprint The Teddy & Danny Press (named for his dogs). His latest, Super Love, celebrates his 15th anniversary as a photographer.

Kee’s notoriety hasn’t hurt his career. His schedule is packed with more international commissions, offers from art galleries around the world to exhibit, and talks to give on photography, censorship and art.

Not too shabby for a Tiong Bahru boy whose first job in Japan was waiting tables.

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