Michelle Millar Fisher is a curator and an architecture and design historian. The recipient of an MA and an M.Phil in Art History from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, she received an M.Phil from and is currently completing her doctorate in art history at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is currently the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her work focuses on the intersections of people, power, design, and craft. In this essay, she describes the professional and personal collaboration between artist Ann Ray and designer Lee Alexander McQueen, and the impact this relationship had on Ray’s significant body of work.
Ann Ray’s Lee McQueen
In his 1974 essay, “Understanding a Photograph,” the late, lyrical art critic John Berger reminds us that the most popular use of the medium is as a memento of the absent. Absence takes many forms, but perhaps none are so keenly felt as the space left by those who we hold beloved and who leave this earth before we do.
Made between 1997 and 2010, Ann Ray’s evocative photographs of Lee Alexander McQueen chronicle the late fashion designer and those in his orbit. Documenting the atelier, backstage, the runway, and beyond, they span a period of thirteen years, highlighting the moments and collaborations that brought his unique vision to life.
In this register, her images transport us to a moment when fashion coalesced around a young Londoner who redefined the field in a manner yet unmatched. They chronicle split-seconds of thought and contemplation while he worked, the glances or expressive movements of models, and, from time to time, a solitary garment silhouetted against the rush.
For most of us looking at these images now, the first thing we see is a fashion legacy. Many of her photographs resurrect the effervescent bustle of seasonal presentations whose fleeting forms are over quicker than it takes to hand-develop a roll of film negatives. Unlike most other performers who have multiple opportunities to present and refine the same work, as Ray reflects, “Lee had just one and it lasted just 15 minutes … you could not see a second or third performance of it.”
But while they record an oeuvre, her photographs bring to life more than the frenzy of creation.
For Ray, her collaboration with her friend “had nothing to do with fashion, it was more like putting silent screams, hopes, dreams, nightmares into photographs that would last. Analog photography is very tangible, and it’s a craft in itself.” Among the images included in Rendez-vous, many are silver gelatin prints, a process that was conceived of shortly after the medium’s birth in the nineteenth century. They are a fitting complement to the undeniable, magisterial craftsmanship of McQueen’s own work.
A century before Ray and McQueen were born, when silver gelatin was first used, fixing the world’s likeness with such fidelity engendered a sense of confidence. Audiences marveled at the magic of photography, but understood it as underpinned by empirical, scientific processes. It was a time when, as the Australian photo historian Geoffrey Batchen puts it, “an avalanche of images swept modernity along in its wake and gave pictorial certainty to that era’s peculiar sense of self.” For most of us, Ray’s images rouse in us a similar heady recognition, describing a phenom who shaped our cultural consciousness and whose work and life continue to reverberate, even a decade after his death.
But these photographs are palimpsests, and they operate on many registers. Made by someone who knew him deeply, they were born from a special trust. They are an evocation of a time and a place through a butterfly’s sight, alighting across the essence of a moment as particular and tangible as the Bloomsbury years or New York’s Soho in the 1960s. Looking at them now, that feeling has intensified with time and circumstance.
Above all else, Ray’s images are, per Berger, the very tenderest of mementoes. Her photographs will, for her and perhaps only a handful of people who knew Lee McQueen truthfully and closely, always function beyond their material, aesthetic, and historical valencies.
Born in Brest, France, in 1969, Ann (Deniau) Ray has made photographs since she was a child. Emerging into her professional life as a photographer in her twenties, she lived in Tokyo in the mid-nineties working in the fashion industry for clients including Cartier and Givenchy and publications including Elle and Marie Claire. It was in that city that she met Lee McQueen briefly, in April 1997, and the two quickly became trusted collaborators. She shot him in Paris, too. The designer was just twenty seven years old when he took over as director of Givenchy the year before. The same age as her subject, at first Ray photographed him in what she termed later a process of “mutual observation—what shy people do.” Soon after, both moved to London and so began a thirteen year collaboration that resulted in an analog archive of over 35,000 images.
In 2015, this arc of friendship resulted in the bittersweet commemoration of thirteen of Ray’s images of her friend and his creations—one for each year that they had known each other—being committed to the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. As a child, McQueen used to visit the museum on Sundays with his family and he came back to it often as a designer to trawl and turn over treasures in its archives.
For another seven years after her friend’s death in 2010, Ray continued to work for the McQueen house, steered under Sarah Burton. She has nurtured similarly longstanding professional relationships over many years with the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan Opera—“I love long-term things”—and her continued work at McQueen was a way to cherish, miss, and remember her friend.
She sensitively shared the fruits of her labor with wider audiences, a process that carried with it layers of catharsis, chronicling, and care for McQueen’s legacy. In 2012 Ray published a series of photographs, Love Looks Not With the Eyes, “a shout filled with grief, with a desire to pay a tribute.” The following year, arts entrepreneur and philanthropist Susan Barrett invited her to exhibit her work from the McQueen years in an exhibition conceptualized and produced by Barrett in Saint Louis, titled A Queen Within. And at the Festival of Arles in 2018, she mounted an exhibition of 169 photographs in a presentation she titled Les inachevés—“the unfinished”—and unveiled a publication of the same title.
The acquisition of Ray’s images at the V&A, a bastion of international art and design culture, occurred just before the exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, opened at that museum. The show—for which the term blockbuster does not even begin to describe its effects—was first staged four years earlier, in 2011, at the venerated Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I used to walk past the serpentine line that snaked up and down that museum’s steps every day the exhibition ran. Fashion acolytes, the curious, and tourists waited in all weathers to pay tribute at the altar of McQueen. When this retrospective traveled to its subject’s hometown in London, it did its native son proud. There, too, it was immediately mobbed.
Through her photographs, Ray built a quieter, more intimate, and perhaps more truthful icon. One of fellowship rather than worship. In her pictures, he is more often Lee than he is McQueen.
As curator Susannah Brown recounts in her essay for the V&A’s epic Savage Beauty catalogue (edited by Claire Wilcox, and far meatier than its American counterpart), McQueen did not enjoy being photographed. If it was required, he had been known to request that whomever was behind the lens not encourage him to smile. He was rarely truly comfortable with his appearance. Brown’s essay notes that one of the earliest published portraits of McQueen, as a fresh young graduate in i-D magazine, is a shot taken from behind him. The oblique angle was at his behest. At a time when recognition could only have been beneficial, the young designer demurred. Yet he understood the power of a photograph, its illusory, chimerical potential to set the tone for an entire environment or era.
For this, he trusted very few people. Ray was one.
A particularly potent picture of hers from 1999 captures him on the cusp of his third decade. He is unremarkably dressed in a checked shirt and squints back at his friend behind the camera. A deep groove forms between his eyebrows. Lips closed, a hand-rolled cig hangs from his mouth. A crucifix hangs around his neck and a tooth-like earring juts straight out of his lobe. He is serious, perhaps quietly taunting. Make me smile. Try me. The photo is titled aptly, “No Compromise.”
Flipping through the opening pages to Wilcox’s catalogue, the same image appears as one among a sequence of many Ray developed in four photographic film strips. Indeed, they are the first images of McQueen that appear in this landmark book. Against a whitewashed brick wall, light inching in from a window behind him, a story of a moment between friends unfurls. He loosens up, and then smiles—properly cracks up, laughs, and bares a great grin—before composing himself to stare quietly back.
Ray used the blueprint-esque cyanotype process to develop another early image of him. It’s a medium made infamous by Anna Atkins in the 1840s, an artist who, like McQueen, also wove the wild beauty of the natural world quite literally into her work—in her case, by placing seaweed, shells, and other flora directly onto light-sensitive substrates. Behind a blurred cigarette propped between forefingers, in Ray’s image McQueen’s face is framed by silvery bleach-blonde hair and eyebrows. He looks like a delicate, ethereal faun, one foot in the countryside and the other in some mythical realm. While they refuse the taxonomic impulse of Atkins’ work, Ray’s photographs retain the descriptors first bestowed upon their predecessors: “fairy pictures,” “natural magic,” and “words of light.”
When McQueen is physically proximal to other people in Ray’s photographs, he is often fixing, directing, and finalizing. In one, he shores up a garment’s neckline with explanatory hands, directing words to an atelier member by his side. In others he adjudicates a last-minute snip or stitch. And then, through Ray’s eyes, we see the results of his ministrations. These are ensembles that have been celebrated, over which we have meditated, and many of which are instantly recognizable. More than a few serve as testament to McQueen’s fascination with ornithology and mythology. Each one of them reminds its viewer of quite how joyful and alive his work was. In a picture of paint-splattered model Shalom Harlow, captured shortly after car spraying robots had slicked her dress and upper body with neon yellow and black squiggles, you can almost hear her triumphant exhalation.
A (fair) feminist critique of much of fashion photography is that women are presented “not only as ritual objects, but as commodities.” In looking at and raking over Ray’s images here over some weeks in order to write this essay, I realize it is the first time I have considered a body of fashion imagery that revolves so intimately and irrevocably around a male presence. Even when Ray’s camera captures a woman, even while the garments uplift their wearer and excite us, at the heart of the picture Ray always captures him. The women in the pictures—and behind the camera—are neither ritual objects nor commodities. They are armored, unleashed, and in control. They are storytellers, too.
As is customary between artists, the designer exchanged his creations for hers. Rendez-vous contains ten garments given to the photographer over the years, including a frock coat from Joan (autumn/winter 1998), a jacket and skirt ensemble from Deliverance (spring/summer 2004), and a dream leather patchwork coat trimmed in fur (Eshu, autumn/winter 1998). Per Ray, “Lee had no money, so the deal was settled in a very simple way: ‘I love your photos. Give me photos, and I will give you clothes.’” Just as she made portraits of him, so too do these garments show Ray as McQueen imagined her, through the pieces of his he chose for her to keep. The majority are outwear—talismanic protection, second skins.
Rendez-vous boasts forty eight other garments spanning his career. Some of the earliest are from the autumn/winter 1995 Highland Rape collection, including a William Morris print dress and a tartan skirt. There is also the original show invitation which features a skin wound that has been sewn up with rough black stitches. When he sent this collection down the runway, the British tabloids had a field day. London-based hacks deliberately misconstrued a collection that protested the historical injustice of the Scottish Clearances as one that instead condoned sexual violence against women.
It was the first time many had ever heard of the Highland Clearances. Beginning in the 1790s, and instigated as part of a plan to rationalize agriculture and mitigate famine conditions, southern landowners forcibly displaced northern crofters. They moved the latter towards the coast to fish, freeing fields for more profitable sheep grazing. The episodes were sometimes violently resisted—and equally violently suppressed.
Twentieth century Scottish writer Iain Crichton-Smith retold this moment in his now-classic 1968 novel Consider the Lilies, narrating through the eyes of an old woman, Mrs. Scott, turned out of her home. Almost every Scottish child, including myself, read this book at school, often more than once.
As on McQueen’s runway, in the novel tartan is used judiciously, for symbolic intent. Crichton-Smith deploys it only twice, both in moments of exile and extreme distress: when the protagonist’s husband is dressed in his plaid to go off to fight in the Duke’s army, a war from which he never returns; and as her son leaves to join the navy, when a piper in plaid plays as the young men are rowed from the shore to board the SS Hope. The women, Mrs. Scott included, sing in Gaelic, blinded by their tears.
So often, the textile is a cipher for romanticized Scottish nationalism and rugged virility, a shorthand for a country, a people, a way of life condensed to the side of a shortbread tin or the front of a postcard. Crichton-Smith deployed it instead as a subtle but poignant marker of the severance of family ties and the death of a community through emigration. Ripped and bloodied on the runway, McQueen’s plaid was also a corrective to its mainstream misappropriations.
McQueen’s protest against historical injustice was a matrilineal inheritance. It was at his mother’s knee that he learned of his family’s descent from the inhabitants of the Scottish island of Skye. And as he put it, this history needed (re)telling: “Eighteenth century Scotland was not about beautiful women drifting across the moors in swathes of unmanageable chiffon. My show was anti that sort of romanticism.”
There is a difference between recapitulating historical horrors and forcing people otherwise immune or unaware of them to confront their past. Contrary to those who painted his fascination with the macabre as misogynistic or abjectly violent—in this collection, and others like his Central Saint Martin’s graduation show which focused on Jack the Ripper—McQueen burned to expand fashion’s reach into the personal and political. In doing so, he armed women. They instigated, reciprocated, and fanned this fire within him. Including Ray.
Two decades ago, in his poetic meditation on a perpetually contested medium, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, Geoffrey Batchen posed photography as something that complicates any attempt at a genesis story, and bluntly refuses easy categorization. The origin of photography is one of tension and contradiction, he tells us. Even the story of its birth is always inextricably tied to death.
One of the first photographic works ever made, Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard’s Le Noyé (Self Portrait as a Drowned Man), was a fictitious portrait of the photographer taking his own life in despair over the lukewarm reception of his creative inventions. Bayard’s direct positive print on paper—a cheaper and more direct method than the metal daguerreotype produced by his countryman and competitor—was accompanied by a suicide note lamenting the fact that “the Government, which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself.”
Bayard, Daguerre, and their counterparts, including the Englishman Henry Fox Talbot, were often framed as necromancers by contemporary audiences. Photography was thought to be a way to communicate with the dead, and those who made the pictures were viewed as embalmers able to secure the immortality of those they pictured. As historian Joanna Madloch muses, “in this sense, photographs can be perceived as modern mummies, or, as [film theorist] Christian Metz calls them, modern fetishes that not only represent physical beings, but are in fact corporeal traces of their existence.”
In its dance between poles—neither wholly of nature in its alchemy nor an easy product of culture—a photograph acts simultaneously as both the context for and the essence of something or someone. Photography is, says Batchen, “the movement of something continually divided against itself” and “a set of relations that carries within itself the trace of perennial alterity.”
It is an apt description of McQueen, too. And of what it is to carry his memory, as Ray and her photographs do.
When someone beloved dies, there often follows a regular conversation between those who miss them and their unseen but perennially felt spirit.
You are missed.
You are remembered.
Can you hear me?
Losing someone to suicide adds in another voice, an endless loop of the last conversations one had with that person. In a stand-out New York Times column from last year, writer Jennifer Senior writes on this very particular and hugely predominant cause of death through the lens of research into happiness. She gestures to psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jamison’s exquisite 1999 book on the topic, Night Falls Fast, which outlines the irresolvable feelings of those left in the wake when someone ends their own life. As Senior puts it, while those who have gone “finally escape the tyranny of the awful present, they pass along that tyranny to the survivors they leave behind.” In my own experience of surviving this, I often turned to the writings of Martin Prechtel who tells us that grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses. Although Ray’s photographs were not conceived of in loss, from their inception they always had to contend with the medium’s dance with absence. And now, they honor their subject’s loss fiercely. These images give praise.
In the twenty-first century, the silver halides that Ray used to develop photographs of her friend Lee are being put to new use. Scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel are experimenting with their potential in medical settings. Using silver halide optical fibers, they are testing the transmission of laser light in order to weld human tissue. It is hoped the process might offer an alternative to traditional stitched sutures.
As I read about this surgical advance, I think of its chemical and genealogical ties to Ray’s photographs of her friend and his work. Hers, too, seal wounds.
 John Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” from The Look of Things, in Alan Trachtenberg and Amy R. W. Meyers. Classic Essays on Photography. 1980. TK
 Miss Rosen, “This Photographer Took 35,000 Pictures of Alexander McQueen Over 13 Years,” AnOther magazine, October 11, 2019. https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/12016/ann-ray-lee-alexander-mcqueen-exhibition-photography-2019
 Ian Monroe, “Photographer Ann Ray on her friendship with Alexander McQueen,” V magazine, November 20, 2019. https://vmagazine.com/article/photographer-ann-ray-on-her-friendship-with-alexander-mcqueen/
 Geoffrey Batchen, “Who Are You Looking At?” in Art on Paper, March/April 2008, Vol. 12, No. 4. 70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24556754
 “In April ’97, Givenchy sent him to Tokyo, for some reason, for three or four weeks. We became very close very quickly. I took photos of him in Tokyo just walking in the streets — this is not in the exhibition — looking at kimonos. That was really fun. He was still very young… Baby Lee … In the summer of ’97, I moved to London because my husband got a job there. Lee asked me to work on his universe, and we saw each other every week, maybe every two weeks. Then I moved to Paris. That’s when he left Givenchy and started showing in Paris.” Ann Ray quoted in Sarah Moroz, “Ann Ray Shares Her Massive Archive of Alexander McQueen Photos,” i-D magazine, June 29, 2019. https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/9k8xny/ann-ray-shares-her-massive-archive-of-alexander-mcqueen-photos
 Monroe, V magazine
 Claire Wilcox (ed.). Alexander McQueen. London: V&A Publishing, 2015. 29
 Moroz, i-D magazine
 Moroz, i-D magazine
 Anthony Burnett-Brown, Russell Roberts, and Mark Haworthbooth, “Specimens and Marvels: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography,” Aperture, No. 161, Winter 2000. 9 http://www.jstor.org/stable/24472714
 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Winning the Game When the Rules Have Been Changed: Art Photography and Postmodernism,” in Liz Wells, The Photography Reader, New York: Routledge, 2003. 162
 Miss Rosen, “This Photographer Took 35,000 Pictures of Alexander McQueen Over 13 Years.”
 Beginning in the 1790s and gathering pace through the early nineteenth century, in northern Scotland there were waves of forcible displacement of crofters from their farmlands by landowners, most famously the English Marquess of Stafford (later known as the Duke of Sutherland) and his factor Patrick Sellar.
 Andrew Wilson, Alexander Mcqueen: Blood Beneath the Skin. London: Simon & Schuster, 2016. TK
 Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge, Mass: MTP Press, 2006. TK
 Joanna Madloch, “Remarks on the Literary Portrait of the Photographer and Death,” in Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2016). 381. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/intelitestud.18.3.0372
 Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire, 177
 Jennifer Senior, “Happiness Won’t Save You,” New York Times, Opinion Section, November 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/24/opinion/happiness-depression-suicide-psychology.html?referringSource=articleShare
 Tel Aviv University. “New Laser Technique Seals And Heals Wounds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081110153722.htm