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...

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About the Author

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.