Not To Be Subdued

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Leslie Kee (centre) in a Vanquish editorial for honeyee.com. Photo: Leslie Kee/Honeyee

By Raiment Young

One of Singapore’s photographers-made-good-overseas who continues to output commercial works is Leslie Kee. Based in Tokyo, Mr Kee has recently shot an editorial spread called Invincible, featuring Japanese label Vanquish, for one of Tokyo’s (and much of the world’s, really) most popular e-mags Honeyee.com. With ten models, the opening photo is typical of Leslie Kee’s advertising images: the models look personable and the overall composition pleasant to look at.

From the comeliness of the Vanquish photos, you would not have guessed that Mr Kee was charged in 2013 for waisetsu, or obscenity, for an exhibition to promote his book Forever Young: Uncensored Edition. Held at the Hiromi Yoshii Gallery in Roppongi, the displays caused enough discomfort among unknown individuals that a complaint was lodged with the police that led to his arrest. He spent two days in a cell, and was later fined 1 million yen. Following the incarceration, model Ai Tominaga, one among the many Japanese supporters who were outraged, tweeted: “I am shocked. I am shocked for Japan.”

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Denim by Vanquish & Fragment autumn/winter 2015 look book. Photos: Vanquish

The reaction is not surprising as Mr Kee, who sometimes looks like a younger version of singer/musician Takahashi Yukihiro, is a popular photographer and has shot some of the biggest stars of both the entertainment and fashion industries of Japan. Forever Young: Uncensored Edition is banned in Singapore: hardly surprising as the title alone would have caused, as it did in Tokyo, authorities to be fraught with anxiety. Although I have seen other publications by Mr Kee, I have never seen the book that ran him into the arms of Japanese law. I was told the pictures inside showed men in various states of arousal and acts of onanism, so explicit that they contravened Japan’s legal stand on waisetsu, which, according to The Japan Times, “refers to something that maliciously stimulates sexual desire in an inappropriate and immoral manner.”

I first saw Leslie Kee’s exhibition in Tokyo’s Omotaesando Hills in 2010 for the launch of his book Super Tokyo, comprising photographs after photographs—shot every weekend over 16 months—of a thousand Japanese stars and celebrities sans clothes. Mounted on what were giant foldable screens, these could have been pictures of a Uniqlo campaign if the retailer didn’t need to sell anything. Outside the complex, I looked at the mistral flags announcing the exhibition inside; I felt duped.

Super Tokyo exhibitionLeslie Kee’s Super Tokyo exhibition in Omotaesando Hills in 2010

While Mr Kee has scored with stars as big as Lady Gaga and Beyonce, his commercial and artistic works are similar: the lines are blurred. Artistic photos from his Super series have neither the insouciant sexiness of Bruce Weber’s images nor the graphic strength of Robert Mapplethorpe’s, both his favourite photographers. The black-and-whites of Super Tokyo were pleasant, made sweeter and cuter with Hello Kitty and co’s appearance, but they didn’t strike as exhibition or book material. It was Tokyo as one, big, happy family. Mr Kee told NHK World, “I have been in Tokyo long enough to tell, to share my thoughts with more people.” This, perhaps, wasn’t about art.

The Vanquish photographs looked like his artistic works, except that the models were not denied clothes. Vanquish is largely known for its collaborative jeans wear line Denim by Vanquish & Fragment, as well as the latter’s pairing with Edison Chen’s CLOT. Their main line, like so many of their compatriots’, is closely linked to American work wear. Under the creative direction of Ryo Ishikawa, it has become increasingly desired for its wearable designs as well as the signature print of distressed denim applied to shirts, jackets, and even bags. Leslie Kee’s gimmick-free photographs show clearly what Vanquish is good at.

Vanquish and Denim by Vanquish & Fragment are available at Surrender, Raffles Hotel Arcade 

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