Jack Robinson, Jr. was born in Meridian Mississippi on September 18, 1928. He grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Jack graduated from Clarksdale High School in 1945 and attended Tulane University in New Orleans from 1946 to 1948, but left after his junior year without graduating. He was back in New Orleans by 1950, working as a graphic artist for Charles Dolce’s ad agency and taking photographs for pleasure. His early street portraits documented the rich culture of New Orleans and captured the charm and bustle of the French Quarter and the Central Business District.
Robinson soon became a chronicler of New Orleans’ extensive networks of creative and innovative people. By 1953, as young artists began to establish their own spaces for studying and showing their work, Jack began photographing these artists in their studios. Designer Lee Bailey, a future star in his own right, was one of many New Orleans artists who gave Jack access to their studios and their creative processes. It was here in this environment that Jack sharpened his skills as a photographer at ease with creative people. It was also in this time that Jack began photographing the younger generation of New Orleans’ more prominent social sets. Jack’s love of fashion was clearly shaped by this experience as well as his fascination with the wealthy class, so different from his own working class background. Parts of New Orleans at this time were perhaps the most gay-tolerant neighborhoods in America and Jack’s images of his friends as they gathered to celebrate Mardi Gras show a society well ahead of its time. In 1954, Jack traveled with New York art dealer Betty Parsons and New Orleans expressionist painter Dusti Bonge on a tour through Mexico. His street portraits from Mexico show a developing eye and a real gift for composition.
Soon after his return from Mexico, Jack decided that photography was his best chance for a successful and fulfilling career. Friends Lee Bailey and New Orleans artist Jean Seidenberg, understanding that Jack’s talents as a photographer would never fully be realized in New Orleans, encouraged the twenty-seven year old Jack to go to New York. Jack’s friend Betty Parsons had an enormously successful gallery there and his good friend Lee Bailey had moved there the year before; together they served a great role in helping Jack make initial connections there.
Soon Jack was sharing studio space in a building with photographer Alfred Wertheimer and was working as a freelance photographer for Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser at the legendary Pushpin Studio. In short order, Jack impressed Carrie Donovan, then a fashion editor at the New York Times, who began giving Jack regular assignments for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and the Sunday Times Fashion Supplements. Carrie Donovan would become for Jack the single most influential person in his photography career. Jack began regular assignments for New York advertising agencies, including work for Estee Lauder, Revlon, and Helena Rubenstein, and photographing models Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh, Isabella Albonico, and Anne St. Marie among many others. After being in New York for only four years, in 1959 Jack reached something of a pinnacle for photographers: the cover of Life magazine.
In 1963, Diana Vreeland was named editor of Vogue Magazine and in 1965, in an effort to invigorate the magazine, Vreeland brought Carrie Donovan over to Vogue from the New York Times. Soon after, at Carrie’s request, Jack Robinson followed. There he was offered an annual freelance contract guaranteeing him enough assignments to sustain his lifestyle. Before, Jack had earned a nice income, certainly enough to live on, and the freelance assignments from the Times and from agencies provided him the opportunity to travel to Europe on a regular basis and pay for his home studio on East 10th Street in Greenwich Village. What the Vogue contracts provided however was security, both financial and artistic. Diana Vreeland was a true innovator and her vision for Vogue pushed the boundaries offashion and art. Vogue was again home to the greatest photographers in the world, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Lord Snowden, and David Bailey, continuing in the great tradition of Vogue photographers Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, and Cecil Beaton. And now Jack Robinson too found a home there.
Jack’s initial assignments were many and varied. Vogue photography experts have called Jack a ‘real workhorse’, handling assignment after assignment, whether it be a named celebrity portrait or a series of hats, shoes, or handbags. Thousands of Jack’s images appeared in the pages of Vogue, more than 500 of which were credited. Early in 1966, Carrie Donovan and Jack came up with the idea of photographing celebrities as they shopped for clothes in New York. This idea turned into the hugely popular regular feature ‘Vogue’s Own Boutique’. At this time, outside of Hollywood fan magazines, there was no real focus in the magazine world on celebrity. Time Inc. would not start People until 1974 and Conde Nast, the parent of Vogue, would not re-start Vanity Fair until 1983. Diana Vreeland wanted Vogue to be not just focused on cutting edge fashion, but on cutting edge everything – fashion, movies, music, ideas.
Soon, Jack had leveraged his success from ‘Vogue’s Own Boutique’ into doing more fashion work, traveling with Vreeland and Donovan to fashion weeks in London, Milan, and Paris. He also began getting more portrait work assignments, and it was in this area where Jack truly shined. His gift for composition and lighting in a controlled environment, as well as his gift for making his subjects feel relaxed and easy, brought him more attention and better assignments. Diana Vreeland was particularly impressed by his portrait work, even having Jack take her own portrait for a newspaper feature. While the major fashion and portrait assignments still went to big name photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Vreeland found the perfect high volume assignment for Jack. In most every issue of Vogue, there was a feature called ‘People Are Talking About’ in which Vreeland and the editors would identify up and coming people in the worlds of fashion, music, movies, books, and culture – people who the editors felt that curious people of culture and sophistication ‘should’ know. Jack’s prolific output and his skill at portraiture made him a perfect fit for ‘People Are Talking About’. Over a four year period from 1967 through Vreeland’s exit from Vogue in 1971, Jack completed hundreds of portrait assignments, some subjects more well-known than others, but mostly subjects that were just becoming known on the scene. Leonard Cohen in 1967, Joni Mitchell in 1968, Crosby Stills Nash and Young just after Woodstock, Elton John in 1970, Clint Eastwood in 1969, Jack Nicholson in 1970, The Who and The Kinks at the times of their first big U.S. tours – the list goes on. There was also feature portrait work during this time, Warren Beatty, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Vanderbilt, again, the list goes on.
And by no means was this the full extent of Jack’s work in this period. He continued to shoot outside the studio, shooting parties with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, he would be the regular photographer for such Warhol Superstars as Baby Jane Holzer. The Berenson sisters, Marisa and Berry, were friends and regular subjects. As were Maxime de la Falaise and her daughter Loulou. Composer Jerry Herman was a friend and subject. Jack even photographed the Nixon White House. Jack photographed early shows for Pucci, Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren, and Halston. Celebrity fashion work with stars like Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli. Revolutionary designers Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and Elsa Peretti had some of their first Vogue exposures photographed by Jack.
By late 1971 things started changing. Diana Vreeland left Vogue and new editor Grace Mirabella changed the fashion focus from cutting edge to fashion for the every woman. The sixties were over and society was becoming more conservative. Jack’s lifestyle too was taking a toll by this time. Years of parties, hard living, and excessive drinking had worn Jack down. Personal relationships suffered. The work assignments began to trickle down, affecting Jack’s lifestyle even more. In 1972, Jack decided that this period of his life was over and he moved to Memphis, where his parents had moved from Clarksdale many years before. Jack spent the next few years helping take care of his aging parents and in 1975, with the help of a few good friends, Jack began to address his addictions. He finally quit drinking and decided to begin a new career. He would never take another professional photography assignment again.
Jack had been a graphic artist in New Orleans and even in New York had continued to draw and paint. In the late 1970s, Jack found an outlet for his art when he began designing stained glass windows for a Memphis stained glass company. For the next twenty years, Jack designed stained glass, winning awards and commissions for some of the most spectacular windows in Memphis and throughout the South. It was as if his photography career had never existed. He mostly kept to himself and rarely if ever spoke of his time in New York. When he died of cancer in 1997, even the people in Memphis who knew him best were truly shocked when they discovered his history. Inside Jack’s simple apartment were box after box, each filled with envelope after envelope, all neatly organized, categorized and labeled: New Orleans, Canal Street, Mardi Gras, Mexico, Rubenstein, Lauder, Suzy Parker, Julie Christie, Sonny & Cher, The Who, Donald Sutherland, Lauren Hutton, and on and on. Hundreds and hundreds of envelopes, each with negatives in glassine sleeves, contact sheets, some with Jack’s wax pencil notes, even the occasional print, prepared for a New York show that never happened. This was Jack’s legacy. He had told a few close friends that he wanted this work to be discovered, but only after he was gone. He was rightly very proud of his art but in his own eccentric way, wanted nothing to do with the fame or attention that he deserved because of it. It is only through the work of Dan Oppenheimer, the executor of Jack’s estate, that Jack’s art has been exposed to the world and that posthumously, Jack’s art will receive just a little of the attention it so rightly deserves.
We owe a great deal of thanks to Professor Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman of Arkansas State University, who has dedicated countless hours to researching Jack’s life and early work in New Orleans. Because of her tireless efforts, we now know the locations and subjects of many of Jack’s early photographs. Beyond research and identification, Sarah has also curated several shows of Jack’s 1950s New Orleans photographs, including the permanent collection on display at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street. To see the “virtual museum” Sarah designed for the Sheraton exhibition, click the button below.