I use photography to explore habits of attention. My images focus on the empty space between things — the background rather than the foreground. I am interested in the way people move between interior realities and external ones and the structures that shape an awareness of both.
For ten years I photographed confessionals throughout the United States. I visited churches in small towns and large cities, creating images that depict the visible – and invisible – traces of people and communities, histories and dogmas. The images suggest the beliefs that define these dark rooms and shape this intimate yet institutional ritual. Photographing from the perspective of the penitent, I used a large format camera and available light, creating images that are more metaphorical than typological. As a queer woman raised Catholic, I have long had a complex relationship to the Church. In making these images, I grappled with questions of faith and forgiveness; the photographs are part confession, part reconciliation.
These images were made in a hospital that is over 100 years old. It was once a children’s hospital but now it is a home for the elderly. It is the only facility in Massachusetts to care for seniors who are both low-income and severely mentally ill. These walls are the backdrops for activity that is intense, loud, unnerving and often poignant. Yet the walls always look quiet. I wanted the pictures to be slightly disorienting — to suggest the instability but also tenacity of someone frail and unsteady, navigating a space. The rails are how people are guided along. Shuffling, lurching, wobbling, gliding.
This work is from a commission to document the studio of Paul Manship and was part of an exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art. Text by Allison Kemmerer:
Lingering on the traces left behind in empty, hushed spaces, S. Billie Mandle’s photographs encourage a slowing down, a close-looking that leads to meditation on the seen and the unseen. Her photographs of cast shadows, vacant pedestals, and scuffed walls in the Manship home and studio suggest both absence and presence, capturing the stillness of a space once ﬁlled––now haunted––by past generations.
Struck by the contrast between the masculine power that she saw as characterizing Paul Manship’s work and the feminine/queer vulnerability that informs her own, Mandle felt a kinship with the lesser-known work of the sculptor’s son, John. Her favorite spaces at Starﬁeld were the dim closets and remote attic, where John’s scratched, ﬂaking, and dusty paintings of the Cape Ann property—the house, the quarry, the nearby church and ocean were stored. Though so much effort had gone into their making, they now sat in the dark,unseen and overshadowed by the bright public nature of his father’s sculptures. In these underexposed photographs that bear the titles of their subjects, John’s stowed canvases are brought faintly to light. Revealing themselves only upon close observation, Mandle’s images of images provoke questions about what remains, what fades away, and what happens in the space between what is visible and what is imagined.
Went out upon Circumference—
Beyond the Dip of Bell—
from poem 378
Over the course of a year I repeatedly photographed Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts. Visiting the room at different seasons and times of day, I focused on the corner her desk faced into – where she wrote all of her poetry. For much of Dickinson’s life she chose to remain secluded in her room, rarely leaving or seeing visitors. By photographing this potent corner, I am not trying to replicate what Dickinson might have seen, but rather trying to convey a space that invited a deep concentration. This small corner led to expansive poetry. The room has since been renovated and this wall paper removed, but the light in the corner remains the same.
The project is called “Circumference,” a concept Dickinson relied on frequently in her writings; she used the word to evoke the boundary between the visible and the invisible, known and unknown.
In northern New England and upstate New York there has been a spike in asylum seekers and undocumented people fleeing the United States into Canada. In 2017, I visited a shelter for refugees, not far from my home, that helps with these crossings. There I met families with babies, elderly couples, and young people on their own -- everyone waiting in limbo for what comes next. I photographed the spaces where they wait, the backgrounds to their temporary lives, the traces of boredom and anxiety. After weeks or months of waiting, many will receive asylum into Canada; others will try to walk across the border illegally. The title of this work comes from a passage by Hannah Arendt in which she writes of the way refugees exist in an unsteady state, only partially seen by the world.
For this series I looked at parking garages in my hometown, San Mateo, California, digitally removing the parking lines and signs. My father is a civil engineer who designs parking garages. Garages are organized, purposeful environments; they assume that people obey rules and follow directions. By removing the parking lines, I create places without purpose or direction.
I made these images looking at the fence and foliage surrounding a cloistered convent. As I walked around the convent perimeter with my large format camera I focused on what blocked my vision. I am interested in studying the obstruction more than what is on the other side. This work hopefully evokes the difficulty of seeing -- the experience of grappling with a subject not easily revealed.
Throughout the project I was in conversation with the nuns and sent them images. The title of this work comes from a passage by Simone Weil: “This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through. Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.”