“What if God Was One of Us?” (On portraiture, One)
My daughter, 14, had a school assignment about finding and analyzing a song “with a message.” She is very musical, and good in school, but she sometimes seeks our advice. After discussing the notion of “with a message” and searching for possible songs (Dylan, Springsteen, Leforestier, etc.) we thought about a more recent song that she liked quite a bit, “One of Us” or “What if God Was One of Us?” I had heard it sung first by Sheryl Crow but the song, written by Eric Bazilian, was recorded originally by Joan Osborne. The “message,” contained in the title, becomes very explicit in the chorus: “What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on the bus”. This is not necessarily a religious song, I mean a proselytizing song (Brazilian is quoted saying that he wrote that song in one night “to impress a girl”), but it does talk about faith. That is surely the reason why it was adopted as the theme song for the TV family drama Joan of Arcadia (the story of a teenager who sees and speaks with God). The drawling line in the refrain, “God is great, God is good, yeah yeah yeah”, may in fact be understood not as a hymn but as sarcasm for the tired routines and narrow beliefs of bigots, while the chorus calls the listener, in an emphatic rise of voice and guitar, to find God in “one of us,” “a slob” or “a stranger on the bus”, and the next verse asks, “If God had a face, what would it look like / And would you want to see / If seeing meant that you would have to believe / In things like Heaven and in Jesus and the Saints /...” I like the song quite a lot, musically, and also because it reminds me of important American themes, such as the beauty or divinity of the ordinary (the “transfiguration of the commonplace” in Arthur Danto’s words) and the promise of new worlds to be discovered for everyone. But the reason why I bring it up here is that this is also a song about faces and portraits—or at least the official music video that accompanies it is.
You can see the video (produced by Mark Seliger and Fred Woodward) here:
The script alternates close-up shots of Joan Osborne’s celestial, almost angelic face (if it weren’t for the make-up and nose ring), singing or mouthing the lyrics very slowly while her eyes are looking up and sideways as if searching for God, with shots of skies and birds, a suburban landscape, an amusement park (apparently taken at Coney Island), and other scenes of streets, beaches, and people. The leitmotiv of the video is human figures and more particularly faces and bodies, taken in banal contexts, very diverse ethnically and mostly shot in grainy, dull, amateur-like images reminiscent of family snapshots or home movies. The focus of the amusement park scenes is on a “photo stand in” or “head in the hole” prop, which we see, first an empty silhouette on the sky, and then occupied by various faces during the clip. The video thus makes very explicit the proposed equivalence between the “great” God that perhaps the woman singer is looking up to and various impersonations of “a slob”, “a passenger on the bus,” and other figures of the ordinary and even the underprivileged. It also suggests, however, that those fellow humans “standing in” in the photo-op hole become epiphanies or avatars of God by virtue of being photographed — the paraphernalia of an outdated mode of photography appear in flashes: a wooden tripod and camera box, magnesium flares, the vaguely demonic figure of a caped photographer. The people standing in become God faces, then, by virtue of being photographed as postures or impersonations through a highly artificial, procedural, and commercial apparatus of pasteboard and gaudy colors, set in an amusement park. The video actually reinforces the song’s ambiguity, between a sense of awe, faith, and revelation, and an undercurrent of (Protestant?) satire towards the empty forms and rituals of established (Catholic?) religion.
While my daughter was studying the song, I realized that the video could serve as an illustration for some of my critical and historical reflections on photographic portraiture. There are, it turns out, a lot of pop songs “about photography”
and most of these are about the photography of people—portraits, often. But the “One of Us” video touches upon some more specific concerns of mine.
In 2013 I curated, along with Margaret Calvarin, an exhibition at Bry-sur-Marne, the home of Daguerre at the end of his life, of a selection of 19th-century “daguerreian portraits” from the collection of Wm. B. Becker (“The Daguerreian Portrait in America”; see catalogue, “Daguerre’s American Legacy” on Bill Becker’s website where you can also see marvelous examples of these portraits, for instance in the “At Ease” style). The criterion for selection was commercial portraiture, and this carried over to the companion exhibition at Lagny-sur-Marne, which displayed mostly tintypes, cartes-de-visites and cabinet cards. Some of the later pictures are laden with fantasy or comedy and in that sense reminiscent of the “head in the hole” trick. But the guiding concept was exploring the commercial portrait as an art of “elevating” the subject by endowing the sitter, through a carefully negotiated collaboration with the operator, with a public image that ideally combines truth, novelty and beauty or desirability—photogénie, if not divinity (although in the 19th c. US divinity was never very far). It was and still is understood, in the world of commercial portraiture, that human faces are not created equal, and the portrait gallery that was presented in our show reflected inequalities of race, gender, and class, among others, inherent in 19th-c. American society. But in the world of commercial photography it was and still is also expected that the portrait function as revelation, transfiguration, and elevation as much as truthful depiction, and that all portraits be, ideally, equally admirable. Hence the obvious connection with the Osborne song and video: a dispositif that promises an equal exposure of beauty or divinity in every face, while at the same time foregrounding its own highly constructed, artificial nature.
My questions are perhaps firstly of a critical order: why is it that commercial portraiture, which in the 19th century and into the 20th made up an overwhelming majority of all photographs taken, has received comparatively so little attention in the more established histories of photography? Is this just a reverberation of the traditionally low rank of the portrait among the genres of painting? Or has the explicitly market-driven, contrived, perhaps “anti-authorial” structure of commercial portraiture raised an even taller obstacle to esthetic recognition? But then, how does that fit with the fact that many of the greatest and most acclaimed photographers have been primarily or at least prominently portrait makers? Or is that a cultural specificity of the English-speaking world? And indeed, how does an international history of images cope with apparent cultural differences in the popular and institutional appraisal of portraits? (There are National Portrait Galleries in the US, England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, but not in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy… And in those National Portrait Galleries the art of portraiture is not a relic of the past, or a mere official heritage, but a lively contemporary practice, as evidenced at the Smithsonian by the annual “portrait competition” and exhibition thereof, and to a lesser extent in London by the BP-sponsored “portrait award”). Now does this continuing “Anglo-Saxon” cult of the portrait hark back to a religious (Protestant) heritage, where the faithful are encouraged to decipher/encounter the divine in worldly faces while at the same time reminded, as in Osborne’s song, of the old taboo about looking at God in the face?
But I am equally if not more interested even in Joan Osborne’s song and video as a medium for questions of the history or historicizing of photography, in the spirit of my first post. The scenery of the video, with shots of a 1970s train, a Ferris Wheel, a merry-go-round, a “head in the hole” prop, all in grainy images with yellowish-brownish hues, would seem to embody a nostalgic gaze on a bygone world in stark contrast to the sparkling, vivid, almost icy images of Osborne’s face as filmed around 1995. Is this to suggest that transfiguration of the commonplace is a trick of the past, that “God is one of us” or its photo-theatrical production by “standing in” is no longer available in 1995, at the dawn of the digital age, when the song was released? Or, on the contrary, is this the staging of a positive nostalgia for the “good old days” of popular photography? And what about the standing-in faces? What era(s), what history(ies) do they belong to? What “us” do they refer to, when once again we reflect on the brutal contrast between Osborne’s fair, Joan of Arc or Snow White-like complexion and the darker, often masculine and often “ethnic” faces that play the part of “slobs” and “strangers” (from the mischievous-looking, moustached Latino-looking young man who comes up first to African and Asian faces later)? Is the video another rehearsal of an old kind of “white (wo)man’s burden” complex? And yet—can it not serve, in 2014 as well as in 1995, to frame or illustrate long-standing, insufficiently explored questions about the culture of portraiture, its functions and its appeal, even today, in the “new age” of selfies? What if the popular and commercial art of portraiture, far from being proof of the “evil”, industrial and untrue as well as inartistic dark side of photography, had been its true center and main energy, as an art of self-invention or, rather, shared invention of new selves?