Wild, colorful, book of portraits shatters all stereotypes of who is a Jew
LONDON — On the cover of photographer John Offenbach’s new book, the uncompromisingly titled “Jew,” there is an exquisite picture of a bald, lightly-bearded man.
The viewer can gaze at this cover photograph and guess that he probably belongs to Israel’s Ethiopian community, but there are no more clues. He could be an actor or a dancer — maybe something in the creative world?
Offenbach, whose book forms the basis for the Jewish Museum of London’s latest exhibition, also entitled “Jew,” has many stories to tell about his subjects, not all of whom he identifies for the viewer.
“I wanted there to be no hierarchy, no celebrities,” he says. “Above all, I like to tell the truth.”
The photographer did, with a laugh, identify the subject of the cover photo for The Times of Israel — he is the owner of a patisserie stall next door to the spot where Offenbach had set himself up to capture faces in the market in Petach Tikva.
“He kept popping in to see me and bringing cakes and pastries,” says Offenbach. “Eventually, I just said, why don’t you have your picture taken?”
Offenbach’s easy manner and cheerful friendliness is a clue to his great success as an award-winning photographer, able to charm his subjects and often persuade the unpersuadable to pose for him. His book has already taken first prize at the International Photography Awards in New York, in the Books on People category.
But, Offenbach says, things started out very differently for him — in the fashion trade.
The interview takes place in his studio, housed in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of the headquarters of an iconic British fashion label, Shubette. The company, founded in 1913 by Jack and Sara Offenbach, still belongs to the Offenbach family and is now run by the fourth generation of descendants.
So, clothing and fashion — though not necessarily Shubette itself — looked to be a fair bet for the teenage Offenbach. At the age of 19 he went to live in New York, working on Seventh Avenue and learning the fashion trade from sewing machine to showroom.
But the garment industry didn’t hold his interest, and after three years Offenbach came back to London, casting around for something else to do.
“I had a friend who worked in advertising and he introduced me to photographers who were doing that. And I said, ‘Really, what, you can do that for a living?’ I had no idea,” Offenbach says.
One thing Offenbach did know, however, was that he needed to learn from someone before launching his career as a photographer.
“I decided I had to be an assistant. It’s like a proper old-school apprenticeship: I was paid next to nothing and I had to clean everything,” he says.
After a couple of years working for a food photographer, Offenbach went to the studio of the acclaimed Tel Aviv-born Nadav Kander, based in London and generally recognized as one of the world’s top photographers.
“That was really where it all happened for me, around 1992, where I was really thrown in to advertising,” Offenbach says. “It was very hard work. I’d be up at three in the morning when we used to go on location, changing lights, filters… and Nadav was pretty tough. But I learned a huge amount and then I set up on my own.”
Advertising, in the early 90s, was a great industry to work in, says Offenbach.
“It was interesting, it was well remunerated, the quality of the work was high, and it was exceptionally good fun,” he says.
Add to that the fact that there was only a small pool of photographers doing most of the work, and it’s not hard to see why Offenbach enjoyed himself so much. He had carte blanche from many clients to take the pictures he wanted — and won many awards.
But then, he says, it became more and more difficult to make a living from advertising, as the power shifted “from the creatives to the clients.” Soon, the clients were no longer interested in the refined work that Offenbach specialized in, as long as they could get similar results for less money.
So he began looking for other projects.
“In a way, the start of this [Jew] project was to do something more thoughtful, slower, and more considered,” Offenbach says.
By chance, he was on a shoot in Brooklyn where two members of the Jewish-run Shomrim security detail were accompanying him, and Offenbach idly asked them about local Jewish crime. All the two would admit to was a bit of white-collar fraud or embezzlement, but Offenbach was sure there was worse.
In 2010 he began to check out how many Jews there were on death row. What he learned made him think, “there’s a whole side to Jewry that is being swept under the carpet, that nobody talks about.” At the same time, he noticed increased anti-Semitism and racist invective on social media.
A light bulb went on when a friend asked Offenbach, “What’s normal?” And he thought, “What’s normal is a Jew who is a murderer, or a policeman, Jews who are homeless, Jews of color, Jews from everywhere.”
So the project began. Offenbach funded a first trip to Israel himself, sleeping in his friend’s bus while he took pictures in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva market. On his return to London he found a benefactor, who agreed to underwrite Offenbach’s proposed travel plans.
In all, the photographer visited 12 countries in pursuit of the indefinable Jew. There are children — and at least one centenarian; a murderer (Bruce Rich, who killed his parents in Florida); an Argentinian-Jewish cowboy; a Holocaust survivor; Jews from India and China; a woman soferet, or scribe, who was not born Jewish; a homeless man; Jews in Uman, Ukraine, dancing like whirling dervishes; a clown; a comedian; and a woman in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood concealed by veils from head to foot, so that not one iota of her is identifiable.
There are tattooed Jews, observant Jews, secular Jews, mad Jews and bad Jews. One photo is of just a woman’s arm — she is an Israeli hand model, but viewers don’t get to see the rest of her.
“Jew” took Offenbach four years to complete, though he acknowledges he did not work on the book full time.
He chose, he says, to work in black-and-white “because I wanted to unify something. I wanted to decontextualize each picture. I didn’t want it to be a documentary, or to have backgrounds, and I didn’t want the photograph to be about the setting the people are in. I wanted you to be able to see a banker next to a weaver in Ethiopia, and to unify everyone.”
Making them all black-and-white pictures, Offenbach says, “means they become like bricks in a wall. Each one is part of something bigger — and they’re a part of me, I’m made up of all of these people.”
The project takes its inspiration from someone whom Offenbach reveres, the renowned German photographer, August Sander, who died in 1964. Sander had a mantra which appears on the opening pages of Offenbach’s book: “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.”
Sander’s life work, mainly carried out in Germany during the years between the world wars, consisted of thousands of pictures in seven volumes. “One volume was called ‘Victims of Persecution’; one is an entire volume of Jews — and yet another is portraits of Nazis,” Offenbach says.
He admired Sander’s objectivity not least for the way in which the German photographer named his photos for the person’s occupation. “In a way, I felt by doing this, it brought you closer to a bigger picture,” Offenbach says.
Offenbach’s pictures have already won praise, including from actor and writer Stephen Fry, who said: “This is an intensely mesmerizing and important collection of photographs. I find myself looking and saying, not without emotion, ‘my people.’”
Offenbach’s primary aim, he says, “is to show that there is more than one kind of Jew.” And Offenbach’s project is not over. Although there are 120 photographs in the book, Offenbach has at least twice that number did not make the final cut — and a whole number of countries which he has yet to visit.
Offenbach has been to Azerbaijan to photograph mountain Jews, but did not yet make it to Russia, Paris, Alaska, or to search out the secret Jews of Malta. That may happen for the next volume of pictures, if he receives further funding.
“It’s not a Diaspora project,” says Offenbach. “It’s about people. And something happens in the portraiture process, something in the eyes leaps out of the frame. And it leads us to ask, well, who is a Jew, anyway?”
“Jew,” photographs by John Offenbach, opened at London’s Jewish Museum on November 15, 2019 and runs until April 19, 2020. The accompanying book is published by Skira of Milan.