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arts

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Robinson, Jack (1928-1997)  
 
page: 1  2  

In 1955 Robinson and Gabriel moved to New York where he quickly became noted for his fashion photography. He was sought out by many of the top designers and others in the fashion industry. By 1959, one of his photographs graced the cover of Life magazine, signalling his arrival as a top commercial photographer.

Carrie Donovan, then a fashion reporter for the New York Times, commissioned Robinson to shoot several fashion layouts in the early 1960s and continued to work with him when she became editor of Vogue in 1965. Robinson's work appeared in Vogue over 500 times between 1965 and 1972.

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Vogue's legendary editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland recognized Robinson's particular gift for portraiture. In addition to commissioning fashion photography from him, she also commissioned portraits of celebrities, especially the rising stars of music, film, television, and literature. Vreeland also chose Robinson to do her own portrait, telling him that his strong point as a photographer was his ability to capture character.

By 1970, Robinson had established himself as one of the leading commercial photographers in the world. He traveled to Europe to record the fashion innovations of the great design houses. His work was regularly featured in the most prestigious fashion and celebrity magazines of the day.

Some of his images, such as that of Melba Moore, nude and in silhouette but shy and vulnerable, or Helmut Berger, brooding and shadowed with a hint of dissipation, or Joe Dallesandro gazing raptly into a mirror, are striking for their psychological insight. Others transcend the individuality of their subjects to comment on the nature of celebrity itself. Taken together, his photographs capture the feel and look of an era through portraits of iconic figures.

Robinson's art documents the social changes that occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s as reflected by the new stars of the worlds of fashion, art, literature, film, the stage, and, especially, music. He photographed virtually every musician that we think of when we think Woodstock and the Summer of Love.

Robinson documented the Nixon White House, the unbridled decadence of New York's club scene, and the unequalled elegance of Jacquelyn Kennedy in full formal regalia. In addition, he captured both the era's haute couture, as epitomized in the fashion of designers such as Emilio Pucci, Pierre Cardin, Yves St. Laurent, and Bill Blass, and also the casual look that is perhaps even more representative of the time.

He also made particularly sensitive family portraits, as evidenced by the numerous photographs he shot of Gloria Vanderbilt, her husband Wyatt Cooper (a fellow Mississipian), and their sons Carter and Anderson Cooper. His photographs of the wedding of Peter Allen and Liza Minnelli, with mother-of-the-bride Judy Garland, also reveal a particular gift for family portraiture.

But even as Robinson succeeded professionally, his personal life became increasingly problematic. His relationship with Gabriel failed. He suffered from the stigma associated with homosexuality. He increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol for solace. Frequently in the company of Andy Warhol and his entourage, he became part of New York's frenetic club scene.

Such fast living soon affected Robinson's work. His daybooks and list of commissions reflect the deterioration of his life. As jobs dwindled, he was forced to move from his fashionable studio at 11 East 10th Street and sell his beloved Steinway. Finally, in December of 1972, he retreated to Memphis, where his parents and older brother lived.

Broken and addicted to alcohol, Robinson sought help from a long-time friend, Audrey Taylor Gonzales, who sponsored his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous and helped him recover his emotional health.

In Memphis, Robinson abandoned his career as a commercial photographer. He began painting and soon took a job as assistant to noted artist Dorothy Sturm, who designed stained glass windows for churches at Laukauff Studio, one of the largest stained glass studios in the country. Although he was undoubtedly lonely, and in the words of a friend "full of anger and angst," he seemed to enjoy his anonymity and seldom revealed that he had once been a leading photographer in New York City.

In 1976, Robinson left Laukauff Studio to work at another glass studio, Rainbow Studio, where he was to remain for the rest of his career.

Robinson's work in stained glass reveals some of the same qualities that distinguish his photographic art, especially the importance of composition and contrast.

He spent the last two years of his life doing water color and pen and pencil designs for the stained glass windows of the chapel at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital where Danny Thomas is buried. Unfortunately, the artist did not live to see the windows installed.

Robinson fell ill in November 1997 and was soon diagnosed with cancer. He died on December 15, 1997.

Robinson left his estate to his employer, Dan Oppenheimer, owner of Rainbow Studio. Oppenheimer was surprised to discover in Robinson's small and spartan apartment over 140,000 negatives. In 2002, Oppenheimer opened the Jack Robinson Gallery and Archive in Memphis. It is dedicated to preserving and promoting Robinson's legacy.

Although Robinson soon slipped into obscurity, his work has recently been rediscovered, thanks to the efforts of the Robinson Gallery and Archive and to several recent exhibitions in Memphis, London, and New Orleans.

While most of the renewed interest in Robinson's work may be due to the celebrity photographs of the 1960s, his early work is also receiving new attention. More than 80 of Robinson's 1950s photographs were exhibited at the Sophie Newcomb Art Gallery in New Orleans in February of 2006. The curator of the exhibit, Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, has remarked that the "visual impact of the [early] photographs and their revelations about the community of southern artists and bohemians in New Orleans [are] astounding."

Dan Oppenheimer
Claude J. Summers

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    Bibliography
   

Donahue, Michael. "In the Blink of an Eye." The Commercial Appeal (Memphis) (November 4, 2001).

Oppenheimer, Dan. The Jack Robinson Archive. www.robinsonarchive.com

Sadler, Marilyn. "Lasting Impressions." Memphis Magazine 27.9 (December 2001 / January 2002): 34-48.

Thornburg, Brandon. "Jack Robinson." Gamut: The Arts and Culture of Memphis (October 2002): 34-41.

Wilkerson-Freeman, Sarah. "Fat Tuesday at Dixie's: Jack Robinson's New Orleans Mardi Gras Photographs, 1952-1955." Southern Cultures 12.1 (Spring 2006): 42-63.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Oppenheimer, Dan ; Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Robinson, Jack  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated October 3, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/robinson_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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