For 10 years, on and off, Billie Mandle traveled around the United States visiting church confessionals. Shouldering her large-format camera, she walked into 100 or so of these dark, elevator-size rooms, making long-exposure pictures that reveal the scuff-marks of 10,000 shoes, the loose threads on worn-out cushions, and other physical traces of souls who’d once sought absolution.
“St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament is ‘a visible sign of invisible grace,’” says Mandle, a fine-art photographer and assistant professor of photography at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. “And I just thought that was such a poetic idea.” She has documented those visible signs in her subtle, stunning new book, Reconciliation, which itself is something of a revelation. Beyond exposing evidence of heavy use, and the rooms’ various unique architectural touches, her pictures stir quiet, voyeuristic questions as you page through the 40 images: What secret sins were spoken here? How were they received? Did the repentant leave this little room a little lighter?
Mandle shot using only available light; often, it filtered through the confessional grate that separates priest from penitent. Her long exposures—sometimes up to 40 minutes—returned theatrical qualities of light rendered in luminous browns, rich siennas, foggy blues. There’s an empty-motel-room feel to the images in Reconciliation—a glowing eeriness, fitting for those desperate moments when human longing reaches for the divine. “I liked the idea of creating a kind of quiet emptiness that would be a little unsettling,” Mandle told Blind, “as well as looking at the paltry materials we have for expressing ideas of spirituality.” Her images of these hauntingly humble rooms do just that, while reminding us of how little it actually takes to look within.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine; he writes about photography.
Reconciliation by Billie Mandle
104 pages, US$ 40.00