Capturing Holy Places in Very Down-to-Earth Venues

Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:33pm

Camilo José Vergara, the photographer behind the “Storefront Churches— exhibit at the National Building Museum, said he doesn’t subscribe to a religion but respects Christianity and has some “religious feelings.—

Vergara’s photos might inspire some religious feelings in viewers with their promises of better days. Most of the photos in the exhibit, the first of its kind, come from his 2005 book, “How the Other Half Worships.—

Vergara grew up in Chile and moved to the U.S. for college. He began photographing the inner city almost 40 years ago but didn’t start focusing specifically on churches until much later.

“Religion is a very important part of the life of poor communities,— he said in a phone interview last week. “I mean, people celebrate as well as find meaning and purpose for their lives in churches. And, you know, every Sunday you go to a poor community and on every block you hear the singing and the shouting.—

The name of the exhibit is incomplete, Vergara said. Storefront churches, the kind that make their homes in buildings that were originally erected as other businesses, are just one kind of structure featured in the exhibit. Many of the churches photographed aren’t strictly storefront churches, and Vergara also pointed his lens at depictions of Jesus and the signs that churches display.

The photos were taken in large cities across the U.S., including New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles. Although none features Washington, D.C., churches, a couple of the photos were taken in Baltimore. One in particular captures the storefront church theme exactly. A converted Honda dealership, with the vertical blue and white Honda sign still out front, housed the Gospel According to Jesus Christ Ministries when Vergara photographed it in 2002.

Another photo is of a stark white cement-walled building with red trim and a red cross painted on the door, which is behind black fencing. The most jarring thing about the church, though, is a McDonald’s billboard on the outside with a picture of a breakfast sandwich and the phrase “Unlimited Mmmmms Per Hour.— Other photographs show a Kentucky Friday Chicken in Newark, N.J., and banks in Camden, N.J., and Detroit that were turned into churches.

In a slight departure from the usual National Building Museum exhibits, this one highlights people as well as architecture. Vergara said he photographed parishioners as he was allowed, and some of the most evocative photographs in the exhibit capture their expressions. One in particular shows a baby asleep in a stroller, a huge Bible resting on his stomach.

The second room in the three-room showcase is devoted exclusively to the signs that churches put up and to widely varying portrayals of Jesus. In these communities, the signs show sympathy with whoever might be reading. In 2004, Vergara photographed a sign in Chicago that read in all capital letters, “IF YOU ARE GOING TO THE JAIL COURT OR HOSPITAL CALL FOR PRAYER (773) 722-6094.—

Vergara has shown at the museum at Fourth and F streets Northwest three times before, and he’ll be back in July as part of a youth outreach program called “Investigating Where We Live.— Through that program, middle school and high school students will learn photography skills in assigned D.C. neighborhoods. An exhibit of their work will be unveiled in August.

“Storefront Churches— is the second of three shows in the museum’s “Year of the Photograph— series, and it will be open until Nov. 29. The “Architecture of Authority— exhibit, displaying the photography of Richard Ross, will be open until Aug. 16, and the final exhibit, “Form and Movement: Photographs by Philip Trager,— will open July 11.