Amesbury photographer Christopher ChurchillÂ embarked on a journeyÂ across America to captureÂ on film its denizens’Â ideas of personal faith.Â The resulting portraits-published in a newÂ coffee table book-tellÂ a deeply captivating tale. ByÂ James Sullivan
When he was nine, Christopher Churchill lived with his parents and sister for a year in the middle of the ocean on a 33-foot sailboat. Now 34, he’s still amazed at his father’s audacity. Though the children, who grew up in Maine and Pennsylvania, were not raised according to a particular religious faith, that extraordinary experience at sea clearly gave the future photographer a world of mysteries to contemplate.
As a young imagemaker, Churchill was inspired by documentarians such as August Sander, who took classic portraits of ordinary Germans in the early 20th century, and Joel Sternfeld, whose 1987 book American Prospects is a modern landmark. Almost 10 years ago, Churchill set out across America with his vintage large-format field camera and a vague notion that he wanted to find some insight into the various forms of American faith.
In towns stretching from New York to New Mexico, Churchill photographed people and places. Some-such as the empty sprawl of a modern Baptist megachurch in Plano, Texas, or the timeless resolve of two men holding Nation of Islam newspapers in Dorchester, Massachusetts-expressed a distinct bandwidth on the broad spectrum of American faith.
Other subjects, however, were far more ambiguous, like the young soldier who told Churchill about his misgivings about the military, or the father and son who posed solemnly for the camera, sitting in a go-kart in their Oklahoma driveway. As his travels unfolded, Churchill came to realize that his project was actually about those ambiguities. American Faith, he decided, would capture the myriad ways we try to connect with something greater than ourselves, whether inside or out of organized religion. “I’d propose that’s the single most common human need-to be a part of something larger than ourselves,” says Churchill.
American Faith has just been published as a magnificent, limited-edition coffee table book by Nazraeli Press. The print quality of these photos is astonishing, thanks to the large-format camera Churchill used. There’s a “hyperspecificity” to the pictures, he says, noting that you can see the texture on one man’s leather jacket with more clarity than he could in person. For all the photographer’s self-proclaimed “naÃ¯vete” in undertaking this ambitious project, American Faith offers unmistakable clarity in an uncertain world.