Ann Ray talks of her years working with Alexander McQueen and collaborating with the V&A for Savage Beauty

Q: How did you choose two images from a collection of 30,000 to use for the V&A prints?

ANN RAY: If you don’t make that kind of choice in 15 minutes, it will take you 15 years…

I was just thinking of transmission and what has to resist to oblivion, especially for a prestigious Museum like the V&A. What can resist to the passage of time… That is true of Lee McQueen’s visions, and that is true of some photographs, in all fields of photography. Therefore maybe there is no choice at all… since these 2 images seemed obvious as they embody the essence: in Lee McQueen’s visions, and in my own vision.

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Insensé is an iconic image, as Lee described it, since the very day when it appeared on the contact-sheet in 1998. This image is relative to art and expression much more than to fashion, so it says a lot about Lee McQueen. Every person with a soul who experienced that magic moment (the end of N°13 show) felt and knew, deeply, inside, it was a pure fragment of eternity. That is how I felt that day, and what I wanted to capture in that photograph. As the dress is now in the centre of the “cabinet of curiosities” in the exhibition, this choice makes so much sense.

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Unfallen Angels is iconic too in my eyes, because 2009 was already a very tormented time. This Horn of Plenty show happened in March 2009, just before the very last show that Lee McQueen ever did in October 2009: Plato’s Atlantis. Retrospectively I realised that Lee had intense conversations in 2009 with many of his long-time close friends. In March 2009, I simply found the show beautiful and scary. Awfully good. It worried me. And nevertheless, I saw in these two angels the unique majesty and exquisite fragility of Lee, like the true spirit of his life and work: a dramatic duality.

These two images are far from innocent. They have to be seen, and shared. I am delighted that they are part of the V&A photography collection, and made available to purchase as limited edition prints for the visitors of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

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Q: Do you have a favourite collection/single piece from his pantheon of creations?

AR: I love the jacket – and trousers – from the show N°13 (1998), that is in the V&A exhibition. Lee gave it to me in the early years in London; I have been wearing it so often. Since Lee disappeared, I wear his garments as much as I can, more often than ever. For transmission – showing his beautiful creations-, and because Lee enjoyed to see his garments on women he knew, and also because I feel… protected. Wearing a McQueen outfit makes you different; it is a very special feeling.

Q: What do you draw inspiration for your projects from?

AR: It is very simple indeed. I look at the real world and I feel terrible. I write a lot – unseen words-. I do what I can to help -a drop in the ocean-. But I don’t want to put into images the horror or anger or sadness that the world inspires me, nor take advantage of the misery of the world by using it in a supposed “artistic” work. So it works the opposite way: I try and offer poetry to a world cruelly lacking it. Poetry can be dark though. I guess there is as much strength as fragility in my works.

I don’t choose my images; it’s my images that choose me. Any kind of humanity and sincerity inspires me. Even in a fashion image the person in front of me is my main source of inspiration. And respect.

I need to put some humour in a few projects too! Sometimes only humour can save us… Well I guess it’s all about extremes.

As for Lee McQueen, I realised very early how talented he was: as soon as we met, as soon as I saw him creating a garment with a roll of fabric. I admired his talent, and I loved the man. I suppose and I hope I have understood his complexity. At this time, many fashion editors who now scream “Genius! Genius!” would write awful reviews, often with personal attacks. Lee was affected of course. I remember everything.

With Lee the adventure began in late 1996 and never ended. It’s as simple as that. It’s beyond inspiration; it’s a personal commitment. And yes, I miss him every day. After five years of absence, I just learned how to manage the grief. When I dive into the images, I realize I managed to show his fragility and tenderness as much as his strength and wildness. That was my intention, and when asked during interviews if Lee was satisfied with my intentions, I just said: well, it lasted 13 years. The naked truth is this: of course I think he was satisfied with the palette of nuances I captured in my images. They all wanted to put a label on Lee, but one label was not enough for a man like him. I knew that for sure.

Q: Could you see both yours and McQueen’s artistic styles developing through the 13 years you spent together? What did it move towards in your case?

AR: Every collaboration has to be a process, otherwise it is useless. Giving and receiving. The most beautiful human process, without being aware of it, really. This happens instinctively, since you don’t spend time thinking or talking about it. “Pas parler, faire”. “Not talking, just doing”. I love these words by Rudolf Nureyev. When you live the moment, you don’t need to talk about it. You are putting all your faith and energy in what you are doing. Everything is in my photographs. They speak for themselves.

Q: How did you come to collaborate with the V&A for Savage Beauty?

AR: I knew Claire Wilcox for a long time, since she did the “Visionaries” & “radical fashion” books & exhibition in 2001 at the V&A. I had some photographs in the two books. Over the years I knew how Lee McQueen highly appreciated Claire and the V&A. So I was more than enthusiastic and willing to help as much as possible for “Savage Beauty”. We had long conversations with Claire, and we collaborated intensively. She has been kind enough to use around 30 of my photographs in her book, and then she introduced me to Susanna Brown, Curator of Photography, and we all agreed it was making sense that the V&A acquired some photographs for the Museum collection. I felt honoured, and happy for Lee; and grateful towards Claire & Susanna and all the teams at the V&A, so dedicated to the entire project.

Q: What was it like to work with Alexander McQueen?

AR: Black and white, as everything. It was for sure a privilege, and it was fun, and exciting, and challenging, and overwhelming, with this always-surprising beauty that Lee conveyed. And at the same time it was difficult, very hard sometimes, and never because of Lee… I just tried and stayed focus during 13 years on what I was doing, and I wanted to make Lee happy too; therefore these two elements – Lee, and doing my work at best – gave me the strength to find my way in the jungle out there. “Uncompromising” was the key word. Because I felt I had a duty, as a response to Lee’s trust. Lee & I knew why I was there. Very few people understood that. Sarah did, and a few others. But not many people did understand.

Q: There is a sense of curiosity in your work; what draws you into a subject?

AR: Curiosity means you are alive. Curiosity is desire. I may respond to somebody’s desire, or I may create desire to invite people to take part in a project, as useless as it may seem. Actually I suspect the more it is useless, the more I want it. Art fort Art, indeed. The desire to be useless.

I have an endless curiosity for the humanity: human beings, humanist artists, and human processes. If it seems easy, I’m not curious, because you just have to do it, so it’s boring. What is exciting, what stimulates curiosity, is the difficulty of the project you contemplate. You find it impossible, and then you just make it happen. And the most beautiful things happen on the way, in the making. When it’s done, it’s dead. That’s why an image or an installation or a book should have no other finality than to be given, to be transmitted. Otherwise, it’s just narcissism. I don’t feel that much curiosity about me and myself. The wild world is much more inspiring. In black, or white. Or red.

At the end of the day, what draws me into a subject is the truth and talent I feel in the people involved. I can lock myself in a studio for hours with an artist excited by the experience, and we will be in search of, together, and there is magic in that search and sometimes in the result. I am curious of every soul, and I am maybe curious to see how far I can go for just one uncompromising photograph.

What I find strange enough though is this unfortunate lack of curiosity: over 13 years many people who knew my photographic work at McQueen, and who called me sometimes “Lee’s protégée”, never felt the desire nor asked to see anything from these 30000 photographs… until Lee passed away. Until 400 images have been printed in Love looks not with the eyes. As a matter of fact, I am the only person who knows by heart the treasures in this photographic collection. The main part of it remains unseen…and therefore non-existent, so far. I said it clearly and loudly, so now I am very curious, indeed, to see when and how these images will be adequately revealed. The load is heavy, and the content is fragile. I would not like that some day people have to face either the complete non-existence of this unique collection, or face something even stranger. Like a collective mental blank.

Q: What is your first memory of photography? Being the subject or the photographer?

AR: It is all linked to childhood. I was the subject and the photographer. My older brother would photograph me, and I would photograph our little sister. Then my brother and I would meet in our photo lab, installed in the bathroom in spite of my mother’s protest. And both of us would frequently run outside to photograph together the ocean, endlessly, especially if there was a storm.

We are delighted to be able to release a third exclusive print by Ann Ray following the popularity of the first two editions.

Unfallen Angels III by Ann Ray

 

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