This Photographer Took 35,000 Pictures of Alexander McQueen Over 13 Years

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Lee Alexander McQueen Ann Ray Rendez-Vous
Art and CraftImage courtesy of Ann Ray and Barrett Barrera Projects

Ann Ray spent over a decade documenting Lee Alexander McQueen as he created his era-defining collections. As a selection of her images go on show, the photographer remembers her friendship with the late designer

The year was 1996, and a young upstart named Lee Alexander McQueen took the helm of Givenchy as head designer at just 27 years old. French photographer Ann Ray stepped inside his fantastical world, spending two weeks with him while he was creating his first couture collection that same year.

“I had to move to London, so Lee asked me to photograph his collections and basically, I never stopped,” Ray tells AnOther while visiting New York. The result was a lifelong friendship and creative collaboration that would continue until his tragic death at the age of 40 in 2010. Given unprecedented access to document his design process and behind-the-scenes moments during his legendary runway shows, Ray spent 12-hour days in the atelier over a period of 13 years, making more than 35,000 photographs that capture the complexity of McQueen: the man, the artist, and the iconoclast.

Now, in the new exhibition Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous, Ray reveals a portrait of the artist as a young man ascending to the heights of fashion by breaking all the rules to create an avant-garde spectacular replete with theater, performance art, and gothic fairytales. Here, Ray shares her memories of life in the inner circle, sharing a side of McQueen that only those closest to him ever knew.

“Lee never thought he was a genius. He never got a big head; he was a reserved person, very grounded, kind, respectful, and deeply involved in his work. I admire that, when people are fully present in what they are doing. I was very touched by him since day one.

“Lee said, ‘I love your images but I don’t have any money so we will have to make a trade. You give us photographs and we will give you clothes.’ We never had any contracts; we had trust. There was something very natural in this rendez-vous. I never thought that I would be doing this in five years... it just happened. It is the magic of life and encounters, and things that last. You don’t really step back. It is a rhythm.

“As an artist myself, I was trying to give a response to his work. He was very precise, as were all the people working with him. Being backstage was interesting for me because it was a moment of truth. He wanted every element to make his vision perfect. [The fashion show] is quite insane because every artist, dancer, musician, or actor in the theatre has multiple performances and Lee had just one and it lasted just 15 minutes. I put pressure on myself because you could not see a second or third performance of it.

“When we were looking at the contact sheets, he would love some of the images that were just a portrait, without the garments, and I was surprised. I asked why and the answer was, ‘Because I want to capture a sense of the work and the atmosphere of the show.’ Some of the photographs are totally out of time; you do not know where you are. Being out of context, the audience can imagine it differently. A photograph is just a proposal and as rich as the origin is, I like it to be open and evocative, to be like fashion itself and invent things. If you stare at the photographs they say a lot. 

“Sometimes I feel like a keeper. I always want to say how bright he was and how joyful he could be. We had a lot of fun. He was not the dark genius that people imagine sometimes. He was a complete artist and a man with complexities, contradictions, and multiple facets. I love the portraits of his kind soul. It relates to his deep personality.” 

Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous is on view at projects+exhibitions in St. Louis, Missouri, until February 15, 2020.