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Robinson, Jack (1928-1997)  
 
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Mississippi-born photographer Jack Robinson came to prominence in the 1960s as a result of the stunning fashion and celebrity photographs he shot for such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair. He created striking images of the era's cultural icons, particularly young actors, artists, and musicians as diverse as Peter Allen, Warren Beatty, Richard Chamberlain, Joe Dallesandro, Clint Eastwood, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Melba Moore, Jack Nicholson, Nina Simone, Sonny and Cher, Michael Tilson Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Tina and Ike Turner, Andy Warhol, and The Who, among many others.

Robinson captured the particular feel and spirit of the tumultuous 1960s, but by 1972 he was burned out, himself a victim of the era's excesses. Having reached the pinnacle of his profession, he abruptly retreated from New York to pursue a quieter life in Memphis. After 1972, he took no more photographs, though he found a creative outlet in the design of stained glass windows.

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Jack Uther Robinson, Jr. was born in Meridian, Mississippi on September 18, 1928 to Jack Robinson, Sr. and Euline Jones Robinson. He grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the literal heart of the Mississippi Delta, an area famous for racial injustice, the Blues, and social and religious conservatism. His father was a mechanic and auto parts dealer.

Robinson attended Clarksdale High School, from which he graduated in 1945. He then enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he completed five semesters before dropping out in 1948.

In 1951, he began his professional career in photography, working as a graphic artist for an advertising agency in New Orleans. He took numerous photographs of the city and his friends, many of them artists and photographers. His early work captured the charm of the French Quarter and documented New Orleans night life. It also preserved valuable glimpses into the New Orleans gay subculture of the 1950s.

Among Robinson's most fascinating images are photographs of the Mardi Gras festivities in the years between 1952 and 1955. Some of these document the celebrations in the gay area of Bourbon Street, especially around Dixie's Bar of Music, then one of the most prominent gay bars in the country.

As Robinson's images attest, Mardi Gras celebrations in the 1950s were less elaborate and commercialized than they would become later. Still, they were festive and fun, and almost innocent in their good-natured outrageousness.

It is noteworthy that the gay men who dressed in drag and exotic costumes attracted sizable and diverse crowds, comprised largely of people not in costume. They had come to observe the performances of the denizens of the demimonde.

At a time when drag was illegal except on Mardi Gras and Halloween, many drag queens took advantage of the opportunity to put on a public show. Robinson's images provide evidence of New Orleans's famous live-and-let-live attitude of tolerance even at the height of the McCarthy era, but they also suggest that homosexuals in the 1950s were regarded with amusement and (perhaps) condescension by those who enjoyed the display.

Prominent among the costumed revelers photographed by Robinson in front of Dixie's is Clay Shaw, the gay businessman who in 1969 would be tried for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The victim of an unscrupulous District Attorney, Shaw was perceived to be especially vulnerable because of his homosexuality. Although he was eventually acquitted of all charges, the experience destroyed his life.

In addition to architectural photographs, society portraits, and Mardi Gras pictures, Robinson also took a number of photographs of young gay couples, romantically posed. These photographs are striking because of their rarity, and touching because of their sincerity. At a time when there were few precedents for posing gay couples, Robinson conveyed attraction in a number of ways, including having the young men stare deeply into each other's eyes and touch tentatively. The very awkwardness of these embraces conveys a profound sense of commitment.

During the New Orleans period, Robinson fell in love with a young man named Gabriel, whom he photographed incessantly, often in the nude. The Gabriel photographs are especially distinguished by their play of light and shadow and by their sensuality.

In 1954, Robinson and Gabriel traveled to Mexico. There the artist captured Mexican scenes in large and medium format photographs. He also took pictures of his traveling companions, including Gabriel and artist and gallery owner Betty Parsons.

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Jack Robinson as a young man. Image provided by The Jack Robinson Archive.
  
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