Ann Ray shares intimate behind-the-scenes photographs of Alexander McQueen

Photo essay: French photographer Ann Ray provides a personal insight into the life and career of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, in this essay written exclusively for Dezeen to accompany a selection of photographs acquired by the V&A.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
This image: No Game. Main image: Unfallen Angels II

The 13 images were acquired by the London museum ahead of its Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition, which opens this week.

Ray's photographs of McQueen – who died five years ago – offer rare glimpses into the backstage world of fashion's enfant-terrible.

A close friend of McQueen's, Ray was given privileged access to his shows and photoshoots, documenting his creative process and gaining a unique insight into his character.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Inside II

"As a photographer, you sometimes see further than you wished to see," said Ray in the essay. "In the frantic experience that can be the act of photography in a challenging environment and fugitive moment, you work in a kind of surreal presence/absence. You just focus, observe and capture. It's only later that you take time to discover, and realise, and think."

The 13 photographs are now part of the permanent collection at the V&A. The museum's expanded version of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective, which was first staged in New York in 2011, opens to the public tomorrow.

Life is a joke. Or, as Lee McQueen said it once, "it's only a game". There is no nihilist approach here; it's just that there is something strange about time. Yesterday I was seventeen and a half, and nowadays people call me "Madame". Yesterday I met Lee Alexander McQueen, and we connected, and we became close, and with a few decisions and a reasonable amount of serendipity, I was moving to London and taking photographs, and it was fun, and exciting, and inspiring, and challenging.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Wing Tunnel II

And suddenly, just like that, it disappeared – it still hurts. Lee took his own life. Another decision, his decision. I had to accept it, and face the facts. The journey had lasted 13 years.

I remembered a conversation in 2009 when Lee said apparently casually "you have my life in pictures, and I wanted it that way, because I trust you." Here I was, with an endless grief that I have since learned to manage, and something like 35,000 analogue images – on film, yes Sir – and suddenly the words "duty" and "legacy" became more than significant.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray

No Game is the name of the photograph where you can feel, more than see, the extraordinary energy of Lee McQueen. His sharp mind would notice everything, including the sound of the shutter of my camera. He would check – nobody else was allowed to photograph him backstage – and see me, and keep working. A silent agreement. We never needed any contract.

We did look at contact-sheets together, Lee and I, and he would say in a loud joyful voice "Iconic! This is an iconic picture!" And we laughed. Now I don't laugh, but I do smile about some of these iconic images finding a place in a prestigious institution like the V&A, a place that Lee McQueen treasured. 13 seemed like the right figure.

It's about time that I reveal the beautiful and damned. The photographs that Lee loved especially, and why. The photographs that I find essential, too. It's about truth, and beauty.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Deep Dive

One of the images is named Insensé, which was also the title of the exhibition I did in the then small Alexander McQueen shop on Conduit Street in 2000, as I was reluctantly leaving London for Paris. When I showed the postcard with that image and the title – in French – to Lee, he asked: "What does it mean?" "Insane," I replied. "Get out of my head!" he laughed.

Today there is a form of insanity in celebrating a living artist as a fashion designer, and celebrating a dead fashion designer as an artist in a museum. It was far too soon or too late in 2011. It's the right time in 2015, especially in London.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray

"Reverse" is a good word though, so close to "rewind". I wish I could. When I saw Shalom Harlow in her virginal white dress being attacked by two painting robots at the end of the N°13 show in September 1998, I knew. Rarely, but sometimes, as a photographer and a human being you have the awareness of the eternity of an instant.

I could feel it, under my skin, in my soul. I knew this instant would not, could not, be forgotten. And what I am searching for when photographing at that precise moment was that kind of virgin innocence on Shalom's face, in her body language, a form of pride beyond acceptance. Untouched. Strong and fragile, like Lee.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
XIII Pale Blue Eyes

The madness of my passion and work with Lee is that I have so much material. I just published 400 images in a book called Love looks not with the eyes (titled after the tattoo that Lee had on his arm, this quote from Shakespeare: love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind).

I guess that by doing a drastic editing of the 35,000 pictures you may end with something like 5,000 outstanding images. For instance, I recently printed three images from the show that produced Insensé that had remained unrevealed, existing just on the contact-sheets. Meaning nobody had ever seen these.

One of Shalom just before the "painting", holding with grace the white dress on her chest, in a beautiful light. She seems ethereal. Another one very close but different from Insensé; a slightly different expression on her face and in her body, and a different intention on my side. And lastly a third image of Shalom coming back from the stage, with Lee McQueen by her side, giving a bow with his dogs. So many images unrevealed. So many treasures in boxes.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Les Oiseaux

The V&A acquired Insensé as a cyanotype, a 19th century printing process that I liked to use in a wild way, applied to the savage beauty that Lee created. It makes so much sense: Lee highly appreciated these specific prints, enough to order a large size cyanotype of his portrait called Pale Blue Eyes. I did 13 different versions for him – since every cyanotype is unique.

Recently I laid them out on the floor at home, as we did years ago with Lee for him to choose the one he preferred. I am delighted to see that print in the V&A collection now. The large print remained in Lee McQueen's studio for years, from 1997 to six or seven years later.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Red Featherweight

Les Oiseaux, Red Featherweight and Birdy II speak about Lee's love for birds. You can see every symbol you wish here, but at least I know that wild birds are free to go. Les Oiseaux reflects the VOSS show, when insanity was combined with a violent irony – I remember the audience watching itself in the mirror walls of the cube that was the actual stage.

Red Featherweight is one of the rare still-lifes I did, because the beauty, volume, and colour of the garment made it alive to my eyes, even on a hanger. I do love photographing in colour when there is a strong intention, as is obviously the case here. Apart from the dress, everything is just shades of grey. I can almost feel the vibration of the red feathers.

And finally Birdy II, one of the numerous portraits I did for The Widows of Culloden Autumn Winter 2006 collection. Philip Treacy – one of Lee's favourite "partners in crime" – created such beautiful head pieces for this show. The young women became Lee's creatures that I wanted to immortalise. Out of time women.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Birdy II

Erin as Angel and The Naked Truth – as a gum bichromate print – feature two women that Lee highly appreciated, with extraordinary garments or art pieces. Erin O'Connor – who over-inspired me each and every time with her unique elegance in body, face and soul – wearing these delicate wooden wings in the N°13 show, and Carmen Kass wearing the most beautiful black dress in the Supercalifragilistic show, at the Conciergerie in 2002.

I didn't produce these photographs by myself. Erin and Carmen have always been generous. They understood my vision, as they understood Lee's visions. They were giving me something special, so it is fair to say that we made these images together. We met often, as they were back and back again in numerous shows. Lee was faithful in many ways.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
Erin as Angel

Unfallen Angels II I particularly cherish. Not swans, not women. Something else. I was just carried away by these two creatures that Lee made real, like a dream come true. I photographed them a lot, which was rare in my work, since everything was happening in 15 minute shows. Everything, that meant so much: Lee McQueen's visions, one performance, 15 minutes.

I had many thoughts about Lee over the years. Many. Hardly when I was photographing, much more afterwards, when I was wandering alone through the contact-sheets, as every photographer does. We all love these lonely hours when you feel joy and despair in front of the images – the ones you found, the one you missed, the ones you dreamt, with just a weapon in your hand to make the crucial choices: a red pen.

Alexander McQueen photographs by Ann Ray
The Naked Truth

As a photographer, you sometimes see further than you wished to see. In the frantic experience that can be the act of photography in a challenging environment and fugitive moment, you work in a kind of surreal presence/absence. You just focus, observe and capture.

It's only later that you take time to discover, and realise, and think. So I had these many thoughts about Lee McQueen. Sometimes I would tell him, sometimes not. Silent is nice too. So I never told him about my fantasy: I wish I could have witnessed an encounter between Lee McQueen and Andy Warhol. It would have been quite a witty joke.

Images are copyright Ann Ray/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.