Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Photographer Jack Robinson

Jack Robinson, Jr. (1928-1997, photo at left) grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and attended Tulane University before dropping out after five semesters. He began his professional career in photography working for an advertising agency in New Orleans in 1951. Jack's hobby photographs documented night life of the French Quarter and the famed Mardi Gras excesses, as well as the thriving gay subculture in that renegade city. While working in New Orleans, Robinson fell in love with a young man named Gabriel, whom he photographed compulsively. Often nude poses, these photographs were especially sensual, distinguished by their play of light and shadow.

After spending a year with Gabriel in Mexico, the couple moved to New York in 1955, where Jack began a spectacularly successful career in celebrity and fashion photography. He was published in Vanity Fair and Vogue – more than 500 times in Vogue alone (1965-1972). An article in US Camera (1967) featured Jack’s work, publishing reprints of his portraits of Tom Wolfe, Sonny and Cher and Julie Christy. Diana Vreeland , legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue, chose Jack to do her own portrait. He also made particularly sensitive family portraits, as evidenced by the numerous photographs he shot of Gloria Vanderbilt, her husband Wyatt Cooper (a fellow Mississippian), and their sons Carter and Anderson Cooper.

In 1974 Vogue mounted a retrospective titled “50 Years of Women in Vogue”. Newsweek magazine then published a two-page spread that featured just six photographs from this show –  one by Avedon, two by Irving Penn, one by De Hoyningen-Huené, one by Edward Steichen and one by Jack Robinson. This cemented that fact that Jack was among the A-list of major photographers.

Carly Simon in Vogue, 1971

However, demons took over his life, stunting his career. His personal life was akin to so many other tormented eccentric geniuses from the South: Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and numerous musicians, and Robinson turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. His homosexuality caused personal suffering, since he was gay at a time when it was not socially acceptable. Worse, his social circle included major players in drug culture and the club scene, such as Andy Warhol.

As he sank further into drug and alcohol addictions, Robinson’s work dried up. His relationship with Gabriel failed. He had to give up his chic photographic studio address at 11 East 10th Street and had to sell his beloved Steinway. A broken and addicted man, in 1972 Jack retreated to Memphis, where his parents lived. He gave up commercial photography and took up painting, eventually getting back on his feet with the help of AA. He became an assistant to noted artist Dorothy Sturm, designing windows for churches at Laukauff Stained Glass. He lived the last 25 years of his life in Memphis, mostly in seclusion. In 1997 Robinson saw a doctor for treatment for an illness and died of cancer within a month.

"Moses Window" at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital; designed by Jack Robinson for Rainbow Studios.

At the time of his death Jack had been working as a designer for Rainbow Studios, a stained glass manufacturer owned by Dan Oppenheimer, who was both Jack’s friend and employer. Dan knew that Jack had once worked as a commercial photographer but was unaware of his fame and stature in that field. Robinson left his entire estate to Oppenheimer, including 140,000 photographic negatives. Among them, Dan discovered a stash of celebrity photographic prints, mostly from the 1960s, in a box in a closet inside Robinson’s home. Among them were portraits of Warren Beatty (below), Richard Chamberlain, Joe Dallesandro, Clint Eastwood, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Jack Nicholson, Nina Simone, Malcolm McDowell, Carly Simon, Michael Caine, Lily Tomlin, Henry Kissinger, Sonny and Cher, Michael Tilson Thomas, Joni Mitchell, Ralph Lauren, Ike and Tina Turner, Beverly Sills, Andy Warhol, and The Who. These works, never before seen by Oppenheimer, captured the glitterati of that era, in the prime of their youth. Many of these photographs are included in a recently published art book, "Jack Robinson on Show: Portraits 1958-72" (January, 2012).

Oppenheimer remains proprietor of the Jack Robinson estate and is owner of Robinson Gallery and Archive in Memphis.

No comments:

Post a Comment