LONDON — Next February will mark 10 years since the death of Lee Alexander McQueen, but for his old friend and collaborator Ann Ray, he’s often right there alongside her, poring over contact sheets, sweeping her baby son into his arms, or just having a laugh in the studio.
Ray, then known as Anne Deniau, photographed McQueen, his studio colleagues and models for 13 years. He wanted her to document his design process and the backstage at his runway shows, starting from his first haute couture collection at Givenchy.
Her specialty isn’t fashion, but rather the performing arts, and she currently works as a photographer for the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, makes films and writes poetry and fiction. So distant was Ray from the fashion world, she admits she didn’t realize how famous McQueen was until he died.
Her intimate relationship with McQueen is the inspiration for “Ann Ray & Lee McQueen: Rendez-Vous,” a show of photography and Alexander McQueen clothing that opens Saturday at a new gallery space called Projects Plus Exhibitions in St. Louis, Mo. The show runs until Feb. 15.
More than 65 photos shot between 1997 and 2010 — a mix of reportage, portraiture, art and fashion photography — will go on display, along with the clothing. The show has been put together by Barrett Barrera Projects, which owns the largest private collection of McQueen’s work.
Ray says by phone from Paris that she wanted to show the many sides of McQueen — not just the dark one. She pointed to an image called “Popcorn and Roses,” which has been printed in large-scale format for the first time.
“It’s an exquisite, feminine dress where you can see the petals of roses and the silk, and this hat in silk made by Philip Treacy. Lee was very well-known for the dark side, the torment and the demons, which were a part of him — but only a part. This is the joyful part. There was romance in his world, too, and delicacy and softness, and to me this was overshadowed by the so-called dark side. He used to tell me he loved the fact that I captured all of his sides,” she says.
Ray has also included many of McQueen’s favorite images in the new show.
One captures two models whispering and sharing a joke. “We displayed that in the big format, too, because it says a lot about joy and the atmosphere of friendship, and about the fact that Lee could love images even if they were not about the clothes. He believed the spirit of the work was as important as the clothes and the garments themselves.”
Another photograph, “Art and Craft,” shows the designer in full flow, working on a fantastical hybrid dress that would appear in his spring 2001 “Voss” show. He worked fabric from a 19th-century Japanese screen together with shells he’d picked up on the beach.
“He is so focused, you have this feeling of a guy being oblivious to everything around him. It says a lot about Lee: his personality, focus, hard work and character and mixing tradition with new ideas,” Ray says.
She is particularly wistful about the early years, describing the atmosphere in McQueen’s studio as “really like a group of friends doing things together. It was the fashion business, but honestly that was not what it was about. It was about creating something together, and everybody would do his or her best to make it happen. It was really a close circle. When my son was a baby, I would bring him to the studio and he would go straight into Lee’s arms — it was that kind of thing.”
Those years must have been delicious for the photographer: pre-Instagram, pre-street style hysteria and before hyper-controlling p.r.’s started calling the shots about brand “narratives” and imagery.
Ray says forging a relationship with McQueen took time, and the bond grew as a result of their regular “rendez-vous” for work. “I guess we were both very reserved people, kind of shy in a way. We observed each other very much at the beginning, but in a good and caring way. Lee was quick to read people’s intentions, he was quick about many things.”She says she put her soul into this show, which represents a moment of closure. “I hope there is a lightness in St. Louis. I need hope. With everything I do, I hope I can bring a bit of hope to people.”
The St. Louis show is just one of Ray’s multiple projects: One of her plans going forward is to spend more time doing print photography. She says she pines for contact sheets — and for taking time over the creation of a photo.
“I can remember the excitement, coming out of the lab and walking fast down the street, looking at my contact sheets — and I couldn’t wait to show Lee,” she says. “Looking at those sheets with him, it was very joyful.”
While digital photography has its place, it has made the process of photographing “too fast and furious, and I dislike that,” she says. “You always need to take a step back, take a little time, a long breath and quietly look at your images.”
Today, when she looks at the drawer full of hard drives, Ray says it makes her sick. “It’s not what I loved about photography. Digital photography means that instead of taking 100 pictures you take 1,000 and you edit quickly, which leads to more frustration.”
Other, longer-term projects include a creative documentary, a feature film and a novel. A first collection of poems, collages and images is due to be released next year.
People, she says, will always be the deal-breaker in any project she takes on. “I could turn down a beautiful project if there is something wrong with the people or the atmosphere, and I could put a lot of my time and energy in a smaller project because I decide it’s worth it. I need joy, we all do. Working with Lee McQueen was a privilege, and what a joy it was.”