S. Billie Mandle, Stellar Skytron

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Dust Collective (here). Hand-assembled accordion book, printed on asuka archival inkjet paper. Soft metallic custom cover with cut-out window displaying title (4.25” x 5.25”). 13 black-and-white images, with an introductory text by the author and a quote from Simone Weil. In an edition of 30 copies. Design by Emily Sheffer. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in 2018, Carmen Winant published a photobook called My Birth (reviewed here) that artistically pulled back the curtain on the human process of childbirth. Combining photographs of her mother giving birth to her, the later birth of her own children, and hundreds of anonymous images of women in childbirth sourced from various archives, it brought a sense of honest curiosity to a  process that has largely stayed out of public view. More importantly, it reclaimed the process of childbirth from those who would hide it, placing the mother and her experience at the center of the conversation.

In many ways, although it may not look like it at first glance, S. Billie Mandel’s intimate photobook Stellar Skytron builds on Winant’s conceptual recentering. Stellar Skytron is a birth book too, but it doesn’t show us any of the usual trappings of a hospital birth, as typically seen by someone with a camera – none of the the hospital bed, the surrounding medical equipment, the nurses and doctors at work, the exhausted mother, or even the eventual presentation of the newborn are documented here. Instead, Mandle does something radical and surprising – she offers us the looking-up vantage point of the mother (herself), and then in turn, that of the baby. The resulting photobook emphatically puts the woman’s perspective first.

What Mandle saw from her hospital bed is both wholly obvious and almost inexplicably elegant – she saw the blinding surgical lights above her, which were so strong that they effectively darkened the rest of the surroundings to black. The clinic lights were made by Skytron, the Stellar model including arrays of 5 fixtures in one round unit then paired into a doubled installation mounted on the ceiling – and thus, the eventual name of the photobook.

Mandle’s small book is a forward journey in time, with the lights telescoping outward in discrete steps. She begins with a single light, its mirrored interior and striated surface creating a shimmering up-close blast from the depths of darkness. In the successive pages, the single light bounces here and there, and then multiplies out to the five-bulb array, which seems to then spin and wander through the dark, until it finally appears to float away. In this series, the light goes from something Mandle is focused on (almost intrusively), to something that starts to disappear as she aims her attention and energy elsewhere (presumably on the child who is coming soon).

Mandle’s vision then begins to become less literal, the lights repeating and clustering into dense round orbs. With each successive page turn, these circles get more layered and psychedelic, as though her eyes were fogging, blurring, or simply being overwhelmed by the intense sparkle. By the end of the photobook, the pinpricks of light have become all over visual static, getting thicker and thicker at each step, until the patterns blanket the pages like whirled gauze. We can read this progression as Mandle becoming increasingly distressed, distracted, and overloaded by the moment, or perhaps as the emergence of the baby’s perspective, which is equally blinded and flooded with new stimuli. As the book moves from back to front, the intensity ratchets up, to the point that the light becomes a torrent that saturates the senses.

Stellar Skytron is a very small book, one that feels like a keepsake or a treasure (see its size relative to my hand in the images above). The photographs are printed on one side of an endless accordion fold, which creates both a deliberately linked flow and an unexpected black/white contrast on the front and back of the pages. As a gift from mother to child, its design details successfully give it the feeling of something vulnerable and special to be cherished.

Given its diminutive size and its small edition size, Stellar Skytron isn’t a book that many photobook enthusiasts will likely ever discover. But it’s the kind of book that reminds us that worthy photobooks (and the ideas and imagery they deliver to us) come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes a small, unassuming, hand-crafted approach is exactly the right one for a particular body of work. Mandle has made an intriguing and unexpected conceptual leap with the inversion of perspective here, while simultaneously creating a tenderly personal keepsake for the one who saw the lights with her. As a photobook object, it’s quite a bit more potent than its compact size might indicate.

Collector’s POV: S. Billie Mandle does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Small Editions (here). Hardcover (6.5 x 9.5 inches), 112 pages, with 54 color photographs. Includes essays by the artist. In an edition ... Read on.

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