top of page

Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous

Many of the best days begin in a similar setting...a summer day in Paris. It was Haute Couture Fashion week of 2019 when I last slipped into a Sacai gown and found myself in a taxi on the way to an Iris Van Herpen show. As I jumped from one cab to another, by the end of the day I sat at Ann Ray's studio diving through 13 years worth of Alexander McQueen gelatin-print archives. The acclaimed designer that I thought I knew was much more than an artist and to Ann, he was just 'Lee'.

It started in 1997 when twenty-something Lee McQueen approached Ann, "I like your images but I'm broke. Give me your photos, I'll give you clothes." She was the only photographer he ever allowed backstage. I sat and spoke with Ann for hours as she reflected on memories and unpacked garments that Lee had gifted her, but she had not been able to look at since his passing in 2010. It was emotional; it was therapeutic. Together, they delivered 17 Givenchy shows, 26 McQueen shows, 43 shows in total.

To him, she was more than a photographer. To her, he was more than a designer. A decade after McQueen's passing, Ann reveals this never-before-seen perspective with the exhibition "Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous" on debut in St. Louis, Missouri at Barrett Barrera Projects' new location, projects+exhibitions. The exhibition pairs Ann's photography alongside McQueen couture from Barrett Barrera Projects' private collection, as well as personal garments that Lee gifted Ann.

"Art and Craft". 40 x 30 cm. Silver Gelatin Print.

Image courtesy of Ann Ray and Barrett Barrera Projects.

IRK: What is one of your most treasured memories of Lee that you look back fondly on?

ANN: The finale of the “N°13” show, in September 1998, when Shalom Harlow in a white dress was "attacked” and painted by two robots, on Mozart’s music (concerto N°23). It was a moment of absolute beauty, powerful and overwhelming, the kind of moment that you feel is becoming eternal immediately. Many people cried, including myself and Lee.

A very personal moment in 1999, at a Givenchy Couture show. We were late, 45 minutes late, the audience was waiting and the tension was at its climax. Lee was adjusting a garment on a woman, under pressure, I was photographing, and he kindly asked “How is Tristan ?”, naming my dear son. I handled the situation for hours, when many other friends asked the same question, but when Lee asked it, with much kindness, I felt tears coming in my eyes. As a matter of fact, Tristan was not well, my poor baby – 13 months old – was in the hospital for exams (he would be diagnosed with a rare form of osteomyelitis in the spine a few days later, after his Nanny let him fall and didn’t say anything). Well, back to this moment, Lee saw my wet eyes, dropped everything, gave me a hug and questioned me. People around us were staring like “What the hell are you doing? We have to start the show!" But nobody dared to interfere. I said to Lee that Tristan was in hospital, and I was very worried. I apologized for my tears at that very moment, said I just needed 2 minutes to gather myself. Lee took his time, kept hugging me and comforting me and said: “Don’t be stupid! This is fashion, this is crap, it does not matter. We are talking about your son, this is real life, this is beyond important. Your son matters, not this.” Needless to say, I never forgot this moment and these words. I already liked very much Lee, who I met in 1997. I acknowledged his immense talent and big heart since the very first days. But that moment sealed something between us.

Insense II, 1998. 40 x 30 cm. Silver Gelatin Print.

Image courtesy of Ann Ray and Barrett Barrera Projects.

In 2007, I organized the encounter between two dearest friends, Lee McQueen and Sylvie Guillem. Both were talking of each other for a while, evoking a possible collaboration. Lee would say, with his inimitable accent : “I love Sylvie Guillem! I would love to create something with her!” whereas Sylvie would express her admiration as well, and desire: “I would love to to something with your friend… He is a true artist, questioning and fascinating.” So I invited Lee to come to Sadlers Wells in London in 2007, to see a remarkable performance called “Push” starring Sylvie and Russell Maliphant. As always with Sylvie, the performance was a dream, a gift, moment suspended in time. At the end of the performance, I literally took Lee by the hand to go backstage and meet Sylvie. He was as shy as he could be sometimes – that’s how you recognize the great people and the great artistance: there is no arrogance, especially when meeting people they admire. Sylvie was the same kind of “animal”, deep and sensitive and strong and fragile, so you have to imagine the scene: Sylvie sitting on the stage after the performance, Lee walking towards her, carrying Sylvie’s heavy book “Invitation” that he bought in Sadlers Wells bookshop, these two staring at each other and smiling. Lee sat on the floor too, they talked, Sylvie signed the book. They were both happy, therefore I was equally happy. I’m talking about friendship here. Afterwards, in 2009, Lee & Sylvie collaborated together, Lee created all the costumes for the theatrical piece “Eonagata” by Robert Lepage, with Sylvie and Russell performing. I am very proud of this: to have a little helped to make this happen: the first and only time when Lee created costumes; and it was for Sylvie Guillem. As any other great designer, Saint Laurent, Kawakubo, Lee entered the theatre world. Through a large door.

Whispers I, 1998. 40 x 30 cm. Silver Gelatin Print.

Image courtesy of Ann Ray and Barrett Barrera Projects.

IRK: How does Lee’s work continues to inspire your art today? What about Lee’s friendship inspires your personal life or relationships today?

ANN: The answer is very short and very simple. Lee encouraged me to be myself, to go as far as possible to try and find who I am really. This means standing proudly by your work, nothing is impossible, and, beyond everything: no compromise. I would certainly not be the same person if I hadn’t met Lee. I know what I owe him. As I know what I gave him.

In Art, compromising is not an option. The moment you stop to search, work, suffer (not my favorite word but that is part of the creative process, of course), try, fail, try again, enjoy, during very long hours, if you decide to “take it easy”, it simply does not work. As of now, I am trying to find a balance between my no-compromise approach in my Art and joy. Pure joy. Because if you don’t enjoy what you do, what is the point? I cannot scrutinize my fears, my nightmares, my crack-ups all the time. I love life too much to disdain happiness. But as far as my consistency is concerned, there is no half-way. I can stand proudly in front of the mirror, and I have no regrets.

I try to be strong in life, and fragile in what I create. Something like that. For a wide part, that is how I remember Lee.

And of course, with my family and closest friends, I give them strength – and I can be fragile too. Friendship is the ultimate gift of life. Love, family, these are different matters. Friendship is chosen. And fed. What you get is what you give, or more simply: you don’t count.

Of course many of my friends are artists too. Certain moments of my life, spent with special artists, are my pillars. The foundations of my inner cathedral, where I can wander and reconnect with who I am or who I wanted to become. I am talking about the process of life here. You decide to become who you are, and that’s why you decide whom you want to meet. Some encounters are marked with the seal of serendipity, of course, and that is what makes life wonderful. But then, afterwards, you decide to keep walking side by side, or not. You choose your influences. As you choose where to put your devotion.

Installation View. Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous at projects+exhibitions.

Courtesy of Barrett Barrera Projects. Photo by Virginia Harold.

IRK: What is the best thing Lee taught you as a creative and as a friend? What do you feel that you taught him in your friendship?

ANN: Lee gave me his trust. This is magic, this is beyond. Trust is a very fragile thing. You give it to somebody, you open yourself, you implicitly accept the vulnerability that comes with it; and then if you were wrong to do so, if someday the trust is broken, you cannot fix it. It’s gone. You don’t decide rationally to trust somebody: you feel it, you give your trust, that’s it. You don’t control the process. That’s why people should think twice before breaking trust. Full trust can be given just once.

I can say that Lee & I we fully trust each other. That was beautiful. Referring to this almost famous quote now, “You have my life in pictures”, that Lee pronounced in 2009 : it says it all. So maybe Lee taught me what is real trust. Amongst many other things he taught me. Being close to him was a gift in itself, a fantastic open window. Where you may jump, and fly.

What I taught him...who am I to answer this? … Maybe… Maybe I materialized his romantic side, his tender side, in my photographs, as well as his strong, savage, fierce side. Maybe he felt understood. It’s certainly a great feeling to be understood. Maybe he saw in some of my pictures what he was trying to express, at his own risks. Certainly, he knew that I loved him and he could ask me anything.

I wish I could say that I taught him to love himself. At least physically. It broke my heart when he spoke like that: “Can you imagine living with my face in that land of beauty?”. I said clearly and loudly that I found him beautiful, however this not-so-funny joke came back often over the years, like this: “Make me beautiful! Tough job! AHAH”, in 2000, before our intimate portrait session.

Lee was very beautiful in my heart and in my eyes, and in many of my photographs too. I want to believe that I taught him that : to reconcile with himself, and with his beautiful face.

Day One, 1997. 40 x 30 cm. Silvery Gelatin Print.

Image courtesy of Ann Ray and Barrett Barrera Projects.

IRK: What was your first professional experience with fashion photography? Your first fashion show?

ANN: There were 2 kinds of experiences.

First, as a beginner, I was building my “fashion” portfolio, created stories and worked hard on these. Putting the bar high. Then I was going to meetings to show my prints; most of them would have strange comments on my photographs: “This is TOO beautiful… This is TOO artistic... This is strange… Your photographs look like portraits more than fashion…”. So I started to work for various magazines, not so many. I managed to worked for French, German, Italian, Canadian, Japanese magazines. I found my way. I remember Suzannah Frankel, for instance, when I was coming to her office in London, to present the result of my attempts for a fashion story. I was sitting in front of her with a Kodak yellow box filled with prints. She would smile and ask, “So, what crazy thing have you been doing this time?” and we laughed. Suzanna published in The Independent magazine some fashion stories made with cyanotypes, hand-painted pictures, all sorts of things. She trust me, as Lee did. I was and still am very grateful. I found a few people like Suzanna on my way.

As a child, my Mum would often say to me, in a gentle way, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do things like everyone does? Why are you always trying so hard to be different?”. Now that I am not a little girl anymore, it’s interesting for me to come back on this.

As a child of course I didn’t know precisely what I wanted to do with my life. However, I clearly remember what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to be ordinary. That was crystal clear, and a very strong feeling and will. I guess it’s still true. If it’s ordinary, or easy, I’m not interested. Because the process is everything, the result is always a little dead. What turns me on is the process: the people you meet on the way, the search, the attempts, the work. That is what I love in any creative process.

Installation View. Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous at projects+exhibitions.

Courtesy of Barrett Barra Projects. Photo by Virginia Harold

To cut a long story short, after I met Lee it proved impossible to compromise and do “standard” fashion stories. It was just impossible. So I stopped quickly these (highly needed) jobs, that was tough, but the only possible way. I would just keep what was consistent with my vision – like with Suzanna.

Also, I had other things to do. Meeting all kinds of artists. Starting working with the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan in New York. Doing my personal things: writing, drawing, photographing…

As for what is labelled as “backstage” photography, my first experience was for John Galliano. I was living in Tokyo, and I made something very special for Givenchy Tokyo. Like a unique book/object, a black box filled with boards and photographs, like a book, really. They loved it and send it straight away to John, who wrote me back (!), and then just like that I was in Paris in July 1996 for his Couture show at Givenchy, that’s what he asked. The set was a forest, the garments were magnificent, the models were beyond beautiful, I was observing Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Eva Herzigova… Stephane Marais was doing the make-up, Odile Gilbert the hair, and the result of all these talents was a dream. I enjoyed it so much.

Then, in October 1996, they announced me that John was leaving to Dior, and a new “highly talented” designer named Lee Alexander McQueen was coming for Givenchy. And then they asked me to spend 2 weeks with Lee in the ateliers in January 1997 to photograph his creation of his first Couture show for Givenchy. The rest is history.

Flesh and Blood, 2008. 40 x 30 cm. Color photograph.

Image courtesy of Ann Ray and Barrett Barrera Projects.

IRK: Would you want to work for another designer or design house today?

ANN: Yes, I would love to work with some designers and houses again, that could be interesting – depending on who, and in which context. The fashion industry has changed so much in 20 years, there is less and less creativity I’m afraid; it’s a huge business rather than a laboratory for creation, however there are still some uber-talented designers who deeply interest me.

In 2017 I worked for Schiaparelli, because I love this house (the history of the house is so related to arts & artists) and because the Artistic Director was a friend and very kindly asked me to work for him. So I did some analog photographs in the Schiaparelli salons for the Couture show, and loved it. It was divine. Unfortunately, in 2018, when asked again, I was too busy with my exhibition “Les Inachevés” in Arles to do it again. Choices, you know…

For the future, I could contemplate doing it, being driven, as always, in my choices by the human and the artistic factors.

What would excite me would be to collaborate with fashion houses on their global vision – to tell stories in my own way, through the art of photography or through Art Direction, in accordance to the house’s fundamentals. Understanding the codes of a house is something I like to do. Analyzing the past, observing the present, imagining the future. All in a global visual harmony that makes sense, and can be developed over the years with consistency: same and different. That’s how you create an “image”.