in the American Landscape
Sam Fentress. Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape. Cincinnati: David & Charles, 2007.
Sam Fentress’s mesmerizing new book, Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape, comes as a wonderful relief. Ours is a moment saturated with analyses of religion, much of it sadly simplistic, as both our domestic politics in this presidential season and our foreign policy seem to pivot on making distinctions between good religion and bad. Such tendencies accentuate trends already evident in far too many journalistic and scholarly treatments of religion, which often reduce faith to economic, psychological, or political phenomena, and people of faith to saints or fanatics. Sam Fentress, an award-winning photographer trained at Princeton and the Art Institute of Chicago, will have none of this. His book of photographs, taken over twenty-five years, depicts America religious life without moralizing, distinction-making, or sociological scrutiny. He does this with only images of signs—handmade road signs, billboards, graffiti, murals, storefront advertisements, and other inscriptions of Christian faith seen along the way. The book contains a brief, meditative foreword by Paul Elie and an even briefer Afterword by Fentress explaining the genesis of the project, but otherwise the only text in the book—other than the words captured in each image—is a simple caption indicating the place and date of each of the one hundred and fifty photographs. Birmingham, Alabama 1995. Waxhaw, North Carolina 1985. Oakland, California 1998.
The French sociologist and semiotician Roland Barthes observed in his 1981 book Camera Lucida, “In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else . . . it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency,”(4) and Fentress’s images certainly bear this out. These pictures show us the varieties of American Christianity in all their beauty and lived particularity. Though the book contains almost no images of human beings, every page resonates with humanity. The words are the subject of these images in the way a human face is the subject of a portrait, an instantaneous impression of a lifetime of worry and joy. The signs in each photograph stand along roadways, tacked to trees or scrawled on overpasses, asking to be read and understood by passersby, presented as proclamations of faith, as calls to revival, as markers of identity, as inspiration, cries for forgiveness, warnings, hope. Fentress’s photographs, on the other hand, only ask to be witnessed. “Jesus. Hope” says a telephone pole; “Trust Jesus,” a mailbox; “Prayer Really Works,” a tree.
Many of the images portray the seamless interweaving of sacred and profane in modern America, and Fentress clearly delights in capturing the interplay of signs representing, especially, the commercial and the pious. “Repent Final Warning” declares a homemade sign beneath the power lines in Georgia. Inches below, on the same pole, using the same stenciling, we see the much more comforting call for “Mack’s Bar-B-Que,”on I-95 at Highway 144. Alfie’s barbeque in Los Angeles tells us “Jesus Is Real” while MY-T Burger in Pasadena, Texas, proclaims on the marquee, “Praise the Lord. Burger & Fries,99 [cents].”Fentress gives us these images not as juxtapositions, nor to decry some defamation of the pure and sacred by the crassly capitalistic, but rather to show us faith as it actually happens in the reality of lived lives. If we did not praise the Lord when buying or selling burgers and fries, and repent when driving to the barbeque stand, when would we?
Fentress’s humor sparkles throughout. He gives us a yard sign advertising lawn mowers for sale across the street from one announcing, “Salvation Is Free.” In the cover image, of a gas station front lot, a hand-painted board proclaims “Christ is the Answer,” next to another board, also homemade, with similar black letters against a white field; “Full Service Reg. 1.12,” it reads, prompting one to wonder just who indeed provides full service. For all the humor in these images, Fentress manages to let us smile without demanding that we leer or mock. Indeed, we are not even asked to evaluate or analyze. These are images of beauty, humanity, and life, rather than testaments to consumerism, poverty, apocalypticism, revivalism, devotion to the Virgin, or any other phenomenon scholars or journalists might fruitfully, or fruitlessly, dissect. Fentress’s pictures simply want to be experienced. “Look,” he says. “Look.”
Those images that do ask us to think do so not as sociology but much more intimately, as neighbors peering over a fence, observing the full particularity and contingency that Barthes reminds us to watch for. A large, sturdy sign along a rural highway in North Carolina, at a bend in the road near a stand of trees, reads “Jesus Wept.” This verse is famous among generations of Sunday school trivia buffs as the shortest in the Bible—but why put it on a sign? What is the desired response? Did Jesus weep because of my sins? Must I repent? (You know, there was that time…) Is it a prophetic social rebuke, a denouncement of injustice? Does Jesus weep for the trees no longer here? For the unborn children who never took a breath? For those growing up in poverty in this land of plenty? Or is it a confession? On this, as on every page, we are left to wonder who, why, when. We imagine a face in a workshop, carefully peering down at sketched-out letters; or a group gathered in a church basement debating color, spacing, size. These are lives as full of anger, love, guilt, and hate as our own. “Become a Catholic,” a voiceless voice tells us, in graffiti amid the gang tags on an abandoned building in Harlem. “Hail Mary—Full Of Grace” begins the first two of fifteen signs perched on a barbed-wire fence in Missouri. “Pray For Us Sinners—Now And At The Hour—Of Our Death Amen—KC Council 5898” the series concludes. Which one of us used a boarded up storefront in St. Louis to cry out, “God Forgive Me. I have Sined. Give Me The BLOOD of JESUS. I AM Sorry. Please Send THe HOLY GHOST. Amen”?
The collection of photographs in this book represents a wide array of Christian sentiment from locations across the country, as Fentress traversed forty-nine states in his decades of work on this project. Yet in spite of this wonderful catalog of faith, the impression that lingers is one of beauty. The brilliant blue sky and deep green grass that frame the yellow corrugated factory of the United States Plastics Corp. The streak of taillights and the fading crimson sunset behind a neon sign declaring “Jesus The Light Of The World.” The play of shadows in a used hubcap lot. Bible Road is a book to be enjoyed, a book of sadness and hope, wonder, and delight.