Finding Religion Across America

This is a photo from Sam Fentress's photography book "Bible Road," for which he traveled the United States in search of religious signs. Sam Fentress, from "Bible Road"

Photographer Sam Fentress always keeps his eyes on the road — actually the side of the road, looking for a particular slice of Americana: Those ubiquitous roadside tributes and testimonials to Jesus.

"It's more prevalent in the South and Midwest, I think," Fentress told CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen on Sunday Morning. "It's more prevalent in inner cities than in suburbs. When you find the upscale malls, this stuff is usually not around. I haven't found [any] in Beverly Hills here."

We brought Fentress back to Los Angeles to South Central where years ago the "Shout" sign at a now-abandoned storefront church grabbed his attention. North of Cincinnati, it was a quarter horse atop a silo, and in the Washington D.C. suburbs, a beauty shop.

Fentress has been traveling across the United States in search of religious signs for a quarter of a century. He's taken thousands of photographs from along the highways, inner cities and American farmland.

His project has culminated in "Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape," a book of his photography.

Photos: "Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape"
Some are simple messages on cinder block. Others fuse folk art and faith. For example, he took one photo of Jesus knocking on a door in the shape of a heart.

"It was in a small town called Fertile, Mo. I went up and talked to the lady who had put it up and she said that she did it so that if somebody was coming around the curb on that country road on a Saturday night and they were drunk, they might look at that sign and think, 'What, what's what? I, I maybe oughta change my life.'"

He received his bachelor's degree from Princeton and his M.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1979, he was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A Detroit native, he was a lapsed Methodist who found religion. As he traveled America photographing architecture (his real job), he developed a passion for these roadside/street side testimonials. While he rarely met the people behind the messages, he thinks of them as rebels with a cause.

"I think a lot of the pictures are perhaps making up in the public landscape for what they might not be hearing from the pulpit, perhaps," Fentress said. "I think that there's a certain, 'I'm gonna take this into my own hands' aspect for some of the people who put these messages out there."

And the message is in the eye of the beholder — a slice of America at 60 miles an hour, or perhaps something far deeper.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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