Review by Wayne Swanson •
It’s just a room, and a very small one at that, but there aren’t many spaces with a presence as large as the Roman Catholic confessional. S. Billie Mandle captures its seen and unseen power in Reconciliation.
Mandle, a photographer based in Los Angeles and Western Massachusetts, spent ten years photographing confessionals throughout the United States. She visited churches in small towns and large cities, poor communities and rich. Shooting from the viewpoint of the penitent, she has recreated the experience of going to confession.
We see the colors, surfaces, and textures of the rooms, often worn from use. Light and shadows hide and reveal select details of each space. And we see the portal — a grill, a window, a screen — through which penitents confess their sins and seek forgiveness.
The space may be formal or makeshift, ornate or simple, yet the power of the act at hand is palpable. In subtle ways, the images evoke the complex mix of emotions at play, from shame and penance to forgiveness and even grace. They also capture the sacred and profane contradictions of the spaces, where the power of the church meets everyday reality — confession from a folding chair, or a room paneled in water-stained peg board.
Mandle shot with a large-format camera and available light. The resulting long-exposure images are rich in depth and detail, revealing traces of the countless souls who have sought absolution in these spaces. The understated design of the book underlines the quiet, contemplative nature of the experience. Faded red pages, suggesting sacred vestments or the worn velvet cushions seen in some of the images, introduce the book and serve as dividers throughout. Essays describing the penitent experience by Kirstin Valdez Quade and Dorothy Day are also presented on these red pages, in print so faint it’s as if spoken in a whisper.
The book’s title holds special meaning for Mandle. As a queer woman raised Catholic, she has had a long and complex relationship with the church, and the book represents an effort toward reconciliation. Whether you are Catholic or not, religious or not, Reconciliation captures the emotional weight and contradictions that these small spaces hold.
Reconciliation, S. Billie Mandle
Photographer: S. Billie Mandle, born California, resides Los Angeles and Western Massachusetts
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag (Berlin, Germany), copyright 2020
Essays: Dorothy Day, Kirstin Valdez Quade
Cloth-covered hardcover book with debossed title, sewn binding, 104 color photographs, 9 x 11 inches, 104 pages, printed in Germany
Photobook designer: Everything Studio (Jessica Green and Tom Griffiths)
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).
So glad you singled out this one, Douglas. I was worried I might have been the only person who noticed it. The glows of those tight chambers are quite astonishing—like layers of souls.
And, how many sins are not being heard of late in these spaces?