In Fayetteville, Arkansas, there is an abandoned barn that saves lives. Years ago the man who owned the barn covered it with now-faded Bible verses in big block letters, including Mark 1:15 in the King James: the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of god is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. The barn owner hoped passing motorists would see the Word of God as they traveled along a new highway. He left the rest to the Holy Spirit.
In 1981, a student at the University of Arkansas took a picture of the barn as part of a class assignment. His professor, Sam Fentress, was teaching photography for the first time. The photo was put up during a critique session. "It bowled me over. I was stunned," says Fentress. "I was just ripe to be impressed by it."
Seeing that photo set in motion a 25-year-long photographic odyssey across 49 states, during which Fentress produced an archive of several thousand similar images. Last year, Fentress published a collection of these images, Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape. Speaking with CT, he told the story of how these images provided a way for him to share his love of photography, and of the sign's messages, with others.
For this project, Fentress decided to use the documentary style of Walker Evans, the Great Depression-era photographer. "I wanted to work in that tradition to let an atheist come to the work and not feel like there was nothing for him or her, or [for] a Muslim or Jew or Protestant or Catholic. The work would have something for everybody."
After gathering thousands of photographs, Fentress attempted to publish a collection of his images. The editor and founder of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, among others, caught the same vision and helped Fentress get a grant to further his work. After many rejection letters, Fentress finally secured a publisher. But the British marketing department didn't get it. "They were going to put it in the humor section of the bookstore. I don't mind if people laugh, but it's not a book that goes in the humor department, I hope."
In the end, Fentress says he followed America's Bible Road all the way to personal faith. "I respect the freedom of the atheist who remains an atheist. But I am laying out the evidence. It's testimony."
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