John Offenbach’s stark, neutral photographs at the Jewish Museum seek to challenge our preconceptions, writes Jane Clinton
28 November, 2019 — By Jane Clinton
John Offenbach’s ‘Homeless’ and ‘Patisserie Chef’
WHEN photographer John Offenbach suggested his next exhibition would be called “Jew” he was met with a less than favourable response.
“I ran the name past friends and family and they were pretty reticent, as if the word was an insult,” he says.
“People talk about a Christian, a Muslim but not a Jew. It is always ‘Jewish people’. A large part of the project was to re-own that word – it shouldn’t be seen as an insult.”
Just like the title of this exhibition, so too are the descriptions of the portraits of the Jewish subject a stripped down.
Each of the 34 large-scale black and white unretouched portraits has just the briefest of titles. Some are the person’s occupation. Matt Lucas is just “comedian”. Or their circumstances inform the title. This makes some captions stark and shocking. Each has the location included.
Alongside the portraits of the “comedian” and the “spy” is the stark title “murder convict”.
A genial-looking man with the thick-rimmed glasses stares out from the photograph. His glare is uncompromising. He looks bookish, thoughtful. “I thought he was a physician,” says one woman at the exhibition. She then recoils when she reads the photograph’s caption. “A convicted murderer?!” His cotton v-neck top does look like medical scrubs.
John nods at the reaction. “I was expecting a monster,” he says. “What I encountered was a friendly, chatty man – he could have been your uncle.”
In fact the man was in jail for parricide: the murder of his parents.
It is a salutary lesson in how our judgement and perception can be so very flawed and is intrinsic to this exhibition.
Rich and poor, the homeless, the religious, those on the margins of society are all captured.
In one of the most striking images is that it a man dirty and with matted hair looking out with anguish etched on his face – a haunting and disturbing image of a homeless man living on the streets of Israel.
“My project is about the faces,” says John. “There is truth, honesty and diversity in these unretouched photographs. Each sitter is a normal person with a normal face, and I wanted to celebrate normalcy. The ordinary is extraordinary and deserves our attention.”
John was inspired in part by the early 20th century photographer August Sander, who photographed German people without reference to the era’s social divisions.
Unlike Sander, however, John wanted the background to remain neutral, so he carried his own backdrop to each sitting.
He says: “I wanted to remove any sense of wealth or geography and the backdrop enables this.”
It travelled far and wide with John to 12 countries: from China to Argentina; from Ethiopia to the United States.
As well as his nod to Sander, this exhibition serves to counter the Nazi’s 1938 exhibition: The Eternal Jew. That exhibition opened in Munich in November of that year and promoted the Nazi stereotypes of Jews through photographs.
Now in November 2019, and with a rise in anti-semitism, John’s portraits are needed more than ever.
“This project has been something of an odyssey for me and I learned a lot about myself,” says the London-based photographer. “The way I feel as a Jew is that I am made up of all these people [photographed for this exhibition] good and bad,” says John.
It is a sentiment echoed by Stephen Fry who is quoted on the back of the book of 120 portraits that accompanies the exhibition.
He writes: “This is an intensely mesmerising and important collection of photographs. I find myself looking and saying, not without emotion, ‘my people’.”
• Jew, photographs by John Offenbach is at the Jewish Museum, Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, NW1 7NB until April 19, 2020. For details visit www.jewishmuseum.org.uk