“No man is an island, entire of itself,” poet John Donne proclaims grandly in one of English literature’s most oft-quoted lines. But what about women? There’s a quiet individuality specific to womankind that seems analogous to a landmass surrounded by water, suggests photographer Mel Bles. Her new series of photographs, entitled Islands, is on display now at London’s Webber Gallery, and almost serves as proof.
The photographs comprising the show are multimedia studies of the female form, bisected with hand-drawn lines. They echo with a kind of solitude, sitting largely at odds with the dynamic, vibrant body of work Bles has built over the course of a decade in fashion. “Working in fashion is super collaborative, which I absolutely love,” Bles tells AnOther. “It’s really immediate. You’re reacting to popular culture; to design; to music. You bring something new, or old, but it needs to be contemporary to the frame, and then you kind of discard it and move on.” In Islands, this wealth of experience in riffing off contemporary culture contributes to something simpler. “I wanted to come back to something quite straightforward; it’s not about nudity, or sexuality, or those kind of themes – it’s about line and shape. This was really about coming back to basics.”
These images were first taken three and a half years ago, Bles continues, and have been slow-cooking (so to speak) ever since. “Sometimes with photography you set out with a very clear plan of what you want to achieve, and other times you’re opening a kind of a doorway into something – you start making pictures and then you take it from there,” she explains. “This is one of those projects.” The resulting compositions are textural close-crops of the body, like the slow curve from a soft waist to a rugged hipbone, or the awkward, jagged zigzag of an anonymous ribcage against a desert landscape – and they are almost sketchbook-like in their simplicity. They feel improvised and peaceful, removed both geographically and metaphorically from the rest of the world. “There’s no wanting to be very overt with it, you know? Even though the images are individually strong, it’s more about them working together as a group.”
As for the title? “I think that word, Islands, sums up some of what’s magical about being a woman,” says Bles. “It expresses something mysterious and fantastical and exotic, but also isolation and individuality. Something completely opposite.” This might be something to do with the changes Bles was navigating while she was working on the series, she continues. “It was a really important time for me; my poor mum was really ill, she was dying, and my daughter was really young. What it is to be a woman at that point in your life is exciting, but also quite isolating in a way; you’re coming alive in certain aspects, especially when your mum is moving on like that – you’re trying to take all the experience that older woman has given you and pass it on to something new. It’s like you’re exploring all the different nuances in life.”
In light of this experience, the mapping process which seems to be playing out in the series – in lines, and across landscapes – makes all the more sense. How better to reassert your own place on the earth than by delineating it according to those around you, I suggest. “I know what you mean,” Bles replies. “I think that, with womankind, that’s the relationship you have between generations – it’s how you find yourself. You’re bouncing off other things, and looking at yourself differently year on year, and hopefully getting stronger with it.” Bles pauses. “That all sounds very deep,” she laughs warmly, “but it’s not really.”
Islands by Mel Bles runs until November 25, 2017, at Webber Gallery, London.