This Holy Hill

“When God looked upon th’ work of his hands an’ called hit good, he war sure lookin’ at this here Ozark country.” —Harold Bell Wright, ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’

‘This Holy Hill’ (2017-present) explores spirituality and myth in America through a rural vacation town. Branson, Missouri is a population of 11,400 nestled in the Ozark Mountains. For more than a century it’s served as a much-loved tourist destination, drawing an estimated 7 million a year at its height. The region champions a particular subset of American values, but above all, a belief its existence is blessed by God.

I was born 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Branson. As a child, I visited several times a year. My work examines the foundation on which I was raised. This culture now sits at the forefront of American politics and the current health crisis. Through a combination of documentary and staged images, I create a nuanced portrait of a worldview often oversimplified. ‘This Holy Hill’ is a project about belief—the belief of one small, isolated community that mirrors a swelling social and political movement. It is a belief I once held. It is a belief I have since lost.

Branson became famous due in part the 1907 novel ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’ by Harold Bell Wright. The Dickensian story follows a world-weary minister who finds redemption in the homely beauty of the Ozarks. The novel was a success and Edwardians flooded the area to wonder at the hallowed hinterland. Today, emblems of that heritage are abundant, from a 218-foot cross to a working chapel in a pioneer amusement park. Seen as a whole, these elements reinforce the notion of Branson as Eden.

My ongoing project juxtaposes Vegas-style glitz and monuments with wilderness and the mundane. These disparate elements coalesce a feeling more potent than its parts. America has a long history of decreeing ordinary places holy, blending nature and the divine as proof of its intended destiny. It’s a story grandly told, partially true and deeply felt.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘River,’ 2021. The White River runs through Branson. An Ozark folk tale says the river was created when young lovers were chased through the woods by the devil. In an act of desperation, the girl cast her Bible upon the ground. Water sprung forth from its pages, transforming into a rushing river the devil could not cross. The White River was their salvation.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Baptism,’ 2019. A teenager swims in Table Rock Lake just outside of Branson. In Evangelical culture, baptism is a symbolic reenactment of Christ’s death and resurrection. Those submerged “die” to their old self and rise from the waters “a new creation.”

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

’Cross,’ 2019. A 218-foot (66-meter) cross stands along the main highway to Branson. It was built by a father and son who allege inspiration for the monument came to them in a vision from the Lord. They claim it is the tallest cross in North America.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Motel,’ 2019. Motels line Branson’s Vegas-style strip. Many of these lodgings charge by the week rather than by the day, allowing low-wage seasonal workers to stretch their funds until the next paycheck arrives.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Flock,’ 2019. An audience applauds in a local theater. Show business and religion are often blurred. There are some 45 theaters and 60 churches. Many theaters feature music performances during the week and host church services on Sundays. Some of the entertainers are also pastors and invite the crowd to attend both events.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Ghost,’ 2019. A performer at Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama. Taking place since 1960, the play is inspired by the novel that made Branson famous. Most of the cast is related, with multiple generations playing different characters as they age.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

’Meatball,’ 2019. A roadside attraction along Highway 76, Branson’s Vegas-style strip. The town advertises itself as a place for “family values,” which manifests in the form of patriotic and religious overtones. None of the theaters sell alcohol. A city ordinance (recently removed) required the few local bars to sell food as well as liquor.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Prophet,’ 2019. The final number at the oldest performance in Branson. Each night, the festivities end with a recitation of the poem “That Ragged Old Flag” and the song “God Bless the USA” with the entire cast wearing red, white and blue. It always receives a standing ovation.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Blood,’ 2019. “…when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you.” —Exodus 12:13

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Vision,’ 2021. A woman speaks of faith and destiny. She and her husband moved to Branson, Missouri from Las Vegas, Nevada at the Lord’s direction. The city “no longer felt safe” during the pandemic. At the time this photo was taken, Branson boasted one the largest, most lethal surges of COVID-19 in the United States.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Pastor Jerry's Video,’ 2021. Jerry is a local minister who offers free canned goods and gas to those in need. In exchange, he asks they watch a conversion video. Photos of everyone he baptized line the walls of his church, which number around 200 souls.

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

’Chapel,’ 2021. A wilderness diorama in a sporting goods store. The owner is a multimillionaire with locations across the country. However, the flagship store is in the Ozarks.

© Jenna Garrett - ‘Dog,’ 2019. “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” —Proverbs 26:11
i

‘Dog,’ 2019. “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” —Proverbs 26:11

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Fire’, 2021. “…let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.” —Hebrews 12:28,29

© Jenna Garrett - Image from the This Holy Hill photography project
i

‘Sinkhole,’ 2019. Underneath the Ozark hills are endless caverns. Locals claim they house spirits, ghosts and even aliens. A few years ago, a developer broke ground for a new hotel when the earth collapsed into an enormous sinkhole. Geologists determined the opening lead to potentially one of the largest cave systems in the area. The developer is now digging deeper with plans to turn it into a tourist attraction.