S. Billie Mandle is a contemporary photographer living and teaching in western Massachusetts, using her art to “[focus] on the spaces where lives and ideologies coalesce.” Her most renowned series, Reconciliation, is the one I’d like to discuss.
|Untitled HF (Saint Josef)|
Reconciliation has been exhibited both in the United States and overseas. The series consists of photographs taken from inside confessional booths, which are small, private rooms found inside of Catholic churches where believers can confess their sins. Mandle was raised Catholic, and therefore has a personal familiarity with these rooms and their associated emotions and traditions. She “[interprets] the spaces from the perspective of the individual, focusing on the personal experience of confession and the interiority of faith.”
|Untitled C (Saint Christopher)|
|Untitled H (Holy Family)|
According to Mandle, “Confessionals are places of contradiction, light and darkness, corporeality and transcendence. I use these visual and conceptual oppositions to question the interdependence between tangible doctrine and intangible beliefs; I am interested in the way the architecture of the confessional gives form to the abstract idea of penance.”
I am struck by how her compositions embody a clear authorial intent – our gaze is very clearly directed as she wishes – while simultaneously seeming to transport viewers into the room themselves, allowing them an intimate first-person perspective. Mandle’s use of large format adds to this uncanny effect.
Despite being constructed in a specific religious lexicon, I think viewers of all religious and nonreligious backgrounds can understand Reconciliation, which explains the series’ broad acclaim. Namely, how her camera gazes beyond the wall or corner, looking past any subject (or at a nonsubject, if you will), imparts the sensation of daydreaming or reflection. Even those who have never set foot inside a church have sat in a chair, staring past a wall in hazy thought. With Reconciliation, Mandle adeptly places us in that same chair, achieving a certain universality of expression without discarding the spiritual context to be able to do so.
In fact, it is only with a spiritual context that Mandle’s dingy walls and humble interiors begin to take on a more profound meaning beyond the prosaic. Within her frank and honest survey of these spaces (she hides nothing), a mental picture begins to form of all the confessions heard and all the sinners who have sat here before us. Mandle takes us into a space where “people confess their sins and ask for grace surrounded by the trace of past confessions,” creating significance beyond the individual through a shared experience.
Quote sources: https://www.hampshire.edu/faculty/s-billie-mandle