Signs of Our Times

The Photographs of Sam Fentress

Some of the photographs discussed in this essay can be viewed at the Web site for the book Bible Road .

Fifty years after Flannery O’Connor took a few words from a road sign encouraging the use of seatbelts and made them the title of a story she had written (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”), the side of the road is still a place that calls forth admonitions about last things. Anybody who has driven the byways of the United States has seen them: signs etched with verses of Scripture, messages brought to you by the disciples. WHY DO THE HEATHEN RAGE? WHAT DOTH IT PROFIT A MAN TO GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD BUT TO LOSE HIS SOUL?

Have those signs ever caught a searching person’s attention-have they saved any souls, to use their own idiom? There is no sure way to know. But there is no question that they have caught the attention of photographers. Photographs of biblical signs and suchlike have served as material for documentarists since the Great Depression, and I’d guess that most of us have seen those signs in photographs more often than we’ve seen them through car windows on actual roadsides.

Sam Fentress’s photographs stand apart from the ones we know well. His is more than a documentary effect; he doesn’t record those messages so much as transpose or transfigure them into the permanent light of photography. It is this-a kinship of heightened means, a shared sense of what is at stake at the side of the road-that gives them their radiant originality and expressive power.

There is in my mind’s eye a composite of those other, earlier photographs: black-and-white, focused tight on the subject, grainy in texture and high in contrast, effects which together suggest a contrast between the grainy old world of backwoods prophecy and the presumably clearer, subtler new world of the person who is looking at them. Through camera work the two worlds are set in opposition, each rendering judgment on the other.

Fentress has taken a different approach. His photographs collapse the distance between the past and the present, between the believer and the beholder, and even between this world and that other world which (if the Scriptures these roadside signs make visible are taken at their word) awaits us just around the corner.

The signs apparently take two forms. Either the passerby is urged to believe in Jesus or else suffer the consequences; or the consequences of disbelief are dramatized so as to prompt the passerby to get busy believing in the first place.

The message is invariably delivered by hand, given emphasis through block letters, idiosyncratic script, or oddly arranged type (as in the yard sign warning GI E SAT N A INCH A HE’LL B E THE RULER, whose skips and gaps make it seem that the devil is wriggling in between the lines). The believers who claim the side of the road as their pulpit know how to use their tools and brushes, and they evidently see their handiwork as evidence of God’s handiwork.

So in his way does Fentress. Like the freestyle evangelists whose work he has made his own, he has put considerable craft into the service of an obsession. For twenty years he has crisscrossed the United States on the lookout for roadside religious imagery. Here and there a detail in a photograph-a now obsolete license plate, a sign offering gasoline for $1.12 a gallon-makes clear just how long and how doggedly he has been on the trail. And yet the photographs, while full of tracings of the American religious past, are images of our religious present.

There are a hundred and sixty photographs in Fentress’s Bible Road, which makes it as broad a document of American do-it-yourself Christianity as there is. Seen individually, the photographs register retinally at first as holdovers or remnants from the folk religion of an earlier time. Together, though, they are clearly contemporary. And while the religious handiwork in other people’s photographs seems to have been banished to the margins by modernity, Fentress’s work suggests that something like the opposite has happened in recent years. Note the place names beneath the photographs: Chicago and Detroit, Oakland and Los Angeles, the District of Columbia and Portland, Oregon, as well as Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, and Missouri. These are messages from the American mainstream. For every weatherbeaten country church there is a graffitoed mailbox in the Loop. For every old rugged cross saying JESUS SAVES there is an injection-molded CHRIST IS THE ANSWER bolted to the side of a plastics factory [see page 16].

The theologian David Schindler has proposed that religion in America is neither on the rise nor in decline-that, rather, aggressive religiosity and aggressive secularism or atheism have taken root side by side, each always trying to uproot the other. The photographs bear this out.

Consider Fentress’s photograph of the yellow government-issue sign at the side of a road in Portland [see cover]. Ordinarily, the sign is as secular an image as any I know. The figure is humanity at our most generic, a biped putting one foot before the other; the sign isn’t an instruction or a warning, just an indication that a person might be on foot up ahead. Add two strips of electrical tape, though, and behold: there is the Son of Man up ahead, carrying his cross. He is alone, frail, bent double, but suddenly fully alive; now he is going somewhere, and in his stride a story is being told. Now the secular man is an image of God. Now the sign is a message. Watch him. Look out for him. Slow down. Stop the car. Climb out. Lend him a hand. Give him a lift. Go with him to where he is going. The life you save may be your own.

Fentress’s fencepost proverbs and exhortations are at the side of the road, but they are at the center of our religious life today, not at the margins. They are not the work of primitives or regionalists. They don’t carry the evidence of a prior way of life; they don’t pronounce judgment on our society. Rather, they express the fierce Christian belief, the mood of end-times fear and dread, that is in uneasy coexistence with our bustle and optimism.

This-the press of firm belief upon the present-is the great difference in Fentress’s work, and it is made manifest by the richness of his technique: the gorgeous colors, the complex use of light and shade, the looming skies and horizon lines. The conventional wisdom says that signs at the roadside are there as messages for the journey. But Fentress’s work suggests that they have been put there because the side of the road is the only open space left, the place where life in America today seems the largest and the least worked out.

There are no people in these photographs. No evangelist, Fentress is no sociologist, either. He is something else. O’Connor defined the prophet as a realist of distances, and suggested that the definition suited the religious artist, too. It suits Sam Fentress. The makers of the roadside works in his photographs are in some sense artists and in some sense prophets, and he has managed to carry these two impulses into his own work without letting them cancel each other out. The images he depicts point, on the one hand, to the Lord about whom they testify, and, on the other, to the passersby they are meant for-that is, to us.

Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: 

Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.

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