When did you choose photography as your own personal way of expressing yourself?
When I was 6 or 7, I guess. As a professional 17 years ago.
What do you love most about your job?
The human factor. The desire. Looking at contact-sheets for the very first time.
What was your first meeting with McQueen like? What was your first impression of him?
Very polite on both sides. I saw him first working in the ateliers at Givenchy. I was impressed by his talent, on day one. On a human side, I felt we were similar in some ways. Not shy, not really. Discreet. Interior. And extremes, in lights and shadows.
On the other hand, what do you think McQueen’s first impression was of you?
I can’t speak in his name. I suppose he was reading me very quickly. He knew I was strong and fragile. As far as photography is concerned, I remember him saying in 1997 : “I observed you. You don’t do anything by chance. You go for your images, each and every image.” That is true. The more it is difficult, the best you work. You search. You try. You move. & you choose. You never rest. I like this, and I liked the fact that he liked this.
You followed his work for 13 years. How did McQueen influence your concept of beauty?
I already knew that beauty could take several forms, almost any form. There are no limits. Beauty is not charming, well, it can be… Beauty is overwhelming. Beauty speaks to your mind and body and soul. You make the experience of beauty, and you are different. Before, and after, you’re not the same. Something happened. Well, he comforted me in these ideas. What he surely did influence during all these years is my concept of life and work. Be true to yourself. No compromise. “Do what you believe is right, regardless of what the others are doing”.
What did the friendship with McQueen mean to you?
The title of the book says it all.
Portraying the world of a gifted artist is a huge responsibility. Do you think you were able to communicate fully the essence of McQueen through your photos?
It is not really my role to answer this. I just know that what Lee’s family and friends would think of the book was of primary importance to me. They had wonderful reactions, and words. Then I was relieved, and nowadays the book is living its own life. I hope the readers will feel who was Lee, how immense was his talent, how he was a genuine artist.
This being said, I know how I made these photographs, and how I made this book. With my soul. It was a very hard work, people can hardly imagine. For many reasons. Maybe I like to make it simple and think that, given who was Lee, if my photographic response to his work was not right, or special, it wouldn’t have lasted 13 years. And Lee & Sarah wouldn’t have used my images to communicate. Chosen images for chosen moments… Invitations, exhibitions, brand image…
Yes, maybe it’s as simple as that : I don’t have to speak about my images, they speak for themselves.
How did you feel when you observed his world? What were the feelings you were trying to express through the use of the lens?
All these images were done in a fairly subconscious state. First because of the Beauty I evoked, and the shock it implies, and also because of the inherent difficulty in that kind of work. Doing these images backstage was a real journey, each and every time. It took some time to come back. It was a universe in which I could feel any kind of human feeling. Portraits or images in the creation studio were more peaceful moments. The mental process was different.
I wanted the images to capture Lee’s spirit ; what I expressed was my reading of his work, and my understanding of the man. I have been lucky enough to live these extraordinary experiences, and then experiences went through my prism. My feelings, or what I wanted to express does not matter much, I am more interested in the feelings of the person watching the images. When an anonymous lady writes to me and says that “every cell in my body reacted to your images”, I am satisfied. When I read several times the word “haunting” in reviews, I am satisfied too. And when I read the word “tenderness” about some photographs, I am not surprised. At the end of the day, it’s all about experience and transmission. At large.
Your book is a very intimate story of his private world. What did it mean for you to have his trust?
A true honor. For sure. At the same time, it seemed natural. When there is a connection, there is trust. It was a human story. And maybe it’s about time for me to say something pretty obvious, I guess : I did my best, and beyond, for Lee. He knew it. I was like imagining how far I could go for him, and going twice further. Ignoring the exhaustion. Reinventing new eyes every time, the concept of the white page. Putting myself at risk, tempting things, when every moment is unique. Feeling the fear, playing with it, using it. Pushing technical constraints beyond their limits, experimenting. Etc…
Apart from backstage photographers – which I am not -, some photographers would have loved to do my job, but just one or two times. Maybe it’s about takers and givers. There was a volunteer part of devotion in my work. It was clear in my mind, it was my will to be so devoted, it was part of my artistic process, and devotion is a pure thing that takes part in a true exchange. How many artistic photographers would have done this, on film, for 13 years, time after time, with the intensity I put in everything I do ? So I am fully aware of the amazing luck it has been to share all these moments with Lee, but I am aware also of what I gave him back. Nothing could have happened without trust. Intimacy is what makes a special kind of Beauty and Truth possibles. Otherwise you stay at the surface, which can be interesting sometimes, but not in that case.
Could you tell us about the most wonderful moment you had with him? Is there a photograph that is able to sum it up?
Many wonderful moments are private, of course. And there are no photographs of us together. Well, actually there is one, the day I told him I was pregnant. I haven’t found it since 3 years. Maybe I am not ready to find it. Apart from this, the most wonderful moments were to see him happy : his satisfaction with his work. Or his laugh. Or his jokes. Or when he was challenging me, roughly and tenderly at the same time. I love the picture when he is laughing with Kate. This is not art. This is a picture taken by a friend. A picture of Lee and a friend. It says a lot.
How did Lee Alexander McQueen feel in front of your lens?
Confident, I suppose; relaxed. Almost ignorant sometimes, backstage. I could do what I want, I might also put the camera down when needed. When doing portraits, it was liveful, intense, sometimes funny, and quick; Lee and his image… That is a long story.
The man, the designer, the artist. Which photos in your book identify him in each of these roles?
The man: Hm. All the images of the book, hopefully… Maybe the white suit picture. Full of light, and trust, and joy. Or the “pensive” image, the thinking profile. Portrait of a mind, almost. Also the red rose…Surely, the single tree in the landscape of Scotland, at the beginning of the book. And also this picture of Lee holding gently his friend Shaun Leane.
The designer: working on the floor, alone, focused on his work. Working with Sarah, adjusting a dress on a model. Adjusting a garment, with his friend Philip Treacy on his side, who did the feathered head pieces on the image, and all the hats in the book…
The artist: Walking between two girls on the stage – you see, I say “stage” because I think “performance”- during a rehearsal.
“My head on a plate”, we did this image that Lee wanted for The Face. Inspired by a Joel Peter Witkin(s photograph he showed me. He called me on a Monday, the image should be at “The Face” on the Tuesday, and I was using intricate photographic progress in my darkroom. So we did the shooting on Monday afternoon – there is zero photoshop on this image -, I worked all night in the darkroom, produced 4 or 5 different aquatints, had a coffee in the morning and brought the picture to Lee. He wanted to use a razor blade, which he did, and he wrote on the picture too. And finally it was sent to “The face” magazine.
Which collection did you most love to photograph?
Sincerely, all of them except the last one. It was a feast, pure joy. N°13 has certainly been the most extreme experience. Sarabande was special too, in a hypnotic way – “Syndrôme de Stendhal”, or something like that. And “The horn of plenty”, it was so… powerful. I could feel how far Lee was going. It was not comfortable, far from it, but fascinating ; it was unlimited, in many ways.
One thing you were never able to say to him? One thing that you said over and over again to him?
What is your relationship with Sarah Burton like? How would you judge her work at the fashion house?
Sarah is a rare person and friend. I wouldn’t dare to judge her work. My personal feeling is that she is doing an extraordinary job, being faithful to Lee’s spirit and faithful to herself. The book is dedicated in that sense to Lee & Sarah. On the last page. I read somewhere that when reading a book you don’t have much choices. Either you go to the next page, or you close the book.
How would you like McQueen to be remembered after this book?
As he was. A lovely man, and a unique artist. Elegant and one of a kind.