Much of my work focuses on the space between things – empty rooms, blank walls, the background rather than the foreground. I look closely and slowly at places that are hidden or unnoticed, attentive to moments of vulnerability and doubt within structures of power and certainty.
For over eight years I photographed confessionals throughout the United States. I photographed in ornate city basilicas and airy rural chapels, modern churches with angled pews and cathedrals with leaking roofs and drafty stained glass windows. Despite the diversity of architecture there was a similarity to the confessionals. They were often worn down and less cared for than the churches themselves and many were constructed with plywood, plastic or acoustic tile. I was raised Catholic and photographed from the familiar perspective of the penitent using a large format camera and available light.
Went out upon Circumference—
Beyond the Dip of Bell—
from poem 378
I repeatedly photographed for one year the corner of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom 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 lead to expansive poetry.
“Circumference,” is a concept important to Dickinson; she used this word in her poetry and letters to describe, in part, the boundary between the visible and the invisible, the physical and the transcendent.
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.
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 that helps with these crossing. There I met families with babies, elderly couples, and young people on their own -- everyone waiting in a type of 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.”
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 severely mentally ill and on Medicaid. 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.