Press & Publications
We were recently featured in Legends Magazine. The full article can be found on their website. Here is an excerpt:
No one in Memphis really knew Jack Robinson. They didn’t know that the Meridian, Mississippi-born, Clarksdale, Mississippi-raised, gay graphic artist – whose designs for stained glass were the work of an intuitive savant – had lived a former life as a sought-after New York City fashion photographer, framing in his lens everyone from Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood to Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Andy Warhol and Tina Turner.
By the time Robinson moved back South to Memphis in 1972, he had built an archive of 150,000 thrilling, mostly black and white negatives that told, among other things, the stories of mid-century American celebrity culture through his own signature aesthetic. It wasn’t until his untimely death in 1997 that anyone in Memphis beheld this silver gelatin diary. Robinson had shuttered his fascinating past in the darkroom-shadows in life, but his death flung open the vault, developing a posthumous living legacy that will be forever fixed to the last place he called home.
Dan Oppenheimer is the caretaker of Jack Robinson’s story. He met Robinson in 1978 and knew him then primarily as the designer at a rival stained glass business. Oppenheimer, a life-long Memphian, had begun his own stained glass operation in 1975. By the early 1980s, Robinson joined Oppenheimer’s Rainbow Studio and helped transform the young business into a diversified juggernaut in the architectural design sector.
In each other, Oppenheimer and Robinson found fusion. Oppenheimer was at heart an entrepreneur and was willing to entertain any notions that furthered those aspirations. “I just wanted to be in business for myself,” he said. Robinson brought experience as a darkroom master to help innovate a photo-emulsion glass etching technique that streamlined production. This enabled Rainbow Studio to secure important contracts with the likes of Holiday Inn and T.G.I. Fridays, both of whom were incorporating stained glass into new locations across the South. Hotel clients were next. Etchings by Rainbow Studio adorned elevator doors of the Bellagio and Oppenheimer soon successfully pitched his hotel clients on comprehensive etched signage throughout their properties.
Robinson’s undeniable skills as a designer gave the business an edge in the more niche and creative projects as well. In a high profile international design competition for a series of windows at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, Robinson’s renderings of religious iconography won virtually uncontested. “They told us at one of the meetings that as far as they were concerned, there was only one legitimate submission, and it was Jack’s,” Oppenheimer recalled. “He was that good.”
In The Blink Of An Eye
Dan Oppenheimer was not prepared for what he found at the apartment of his friend and employee Jack Robinson. He knew that Robinson took photographs for Vogue and The New York Times in the 1960s, but he did not know the importance of the man and the work or that there was so much of it. Robinson, who died three years ago at age 69, had left everything to Oppenheimer, owner of Rainbow Studio, where Robinson had worked as a stained glass designer. When he entered that small Midtown apartment, he opened the door on a treasury from the ’60s and early ’70s, and a glimpse inside the soul of the era and its celebrities, all captured on film. There were 125,000 to 150,000 negatives.
Oppenheimer also found one cup, one saucer, one knife, one fork and one spoon. Robinson never had anybody over to his apartment, Oppenheimer said. He never visited Oppenheimer’s home. Robinson lived a solitary, probably lonely, life in Memphis. “He was very quiet and unassuming,” Oppenheimer said. “He was short. He was thin. He went to the `Y’ every day and worked out. He ran around the track. Ate health food. He had a size 8 foot, but he wore a size 12 shoe. He had big ears. He was so full of anger and angst.” Robinson, who grew up in Clarksdale, Miss., was “a classic North Mississippi tormented eccentric.”
But, Oppenheimer said, “Because of his assignments with Vogue, he captured the social change in America as it relates to culture, to the music, to the arts.” In 1974, a photo exhibit, “Fifty Years of Women in Vogue,” opened at Macy’s department store in New York. Robinson’s work was included along with that of heavyweight photographers Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen. For the first time since that show, some of Robinson’s photos are on display. David Lusk Gallery at 4540 Poplar is showing photos from Oppenheimer’s collection, and “Celebrities,” a major show of Robinson’s work, is slated for February. And Robinson’s images can be seen on the Internet at http://www.robinsonarchive.com.
Lusk is a fan of Robinson’s work, particularly his celebrity photos. “I like the fact that they’re not as posed or amplified perhaps as other celebrity photographers do in this day and time,” he said. “Jack’s are fresher and gimmick free. They show the personality like a good portrait should.” On Nov. 22, Robinson’s work will be included in “Cinema Century,” an exhibition at the Hulton-Getty photo gallery in London. More Hulton-Getty shows with Robinson photos are planned, including “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a one-man show. From what he could piece together about his friend’s life, Oppenheimer learned Robinson graduated from Clarksdale High School and then moved to New Orleans, where he went to Tulane University and later began his photography career. “The earliest work I have (is) late ’40s, early ’50s New Orleans and Mexico photographs,” Oppenheimer said.
In 1955, Robinson moved to New York. “Almost immediately (he) was sought out as a fashion photographer. In 1959 he had a cover of Life magazine, so he rose to the top real quickly. It’s a fashion cover.” Robinson was a freelance photographer, but he worked with fashion writer Carrie Donovan at The New York Times. When she moved to Vogue, Robinson continued to shoot for her. Robinson took pictures of the clothing as well as the big name designers who created them. These included Bill Blass, Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Emilio Pucci.
“In 1960 he was sent to Europe by the Times to photograph the great fashion houses in Milan, Rome, London and Paris. The photographs are incredible. It was the peak of fashion.” Robinson, who became a favorite of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, also shot celebrities for the magazine’s “People are Talking About” section. “It was whoever was at the height of newly emerging talent. Jack did a lot of those. Clint Eastwood. Jack Nicholson. You can just imagine who was coming on the scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Right after Woodstock, he was assigned to photograph all those acts who played Woodstock.” The Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and Joe Cocker are among the performers Robinson shot. “And these are studio shots. They would come to the studio, and they would mug for him. Of course, the deal was they were having their picture taken for a feature in Vogue. And he was able to get a lot out of them. It was real in-your-face style.”
“He clearly had a way of engaging his people,” said Eric Rachlis, director of licensing services at Getty Images in New York, which is handling the printing and distribution of the Robinson images. “When you see Nina Simone laughing or the full shots of her where she seems to be moving her hips or Kris Kristofferson taking off his shirt, (you know) these people felt comfortable or he was able to get them to reveal themselves to him.”
Robinson didn’t just do magazine work; he shot numerous family pictures for Gloria Vanderbilt. But Robinson “just burned out,” Oppenheimer said. “Jack was running with the Andy Warhol crowd. He kind of got caught up in the scene he was working in and playing in, and he became an alcoholic.” Oppenheimer saw evidence of Robinson’s decline in the day books and address books the photographer kept from 1965 to 1972. Robinson used to own a Steinway grand piano that he babied. In the early ’70s, he wrote about having to sell the Steinway. “His handwriting got worse and worse. His job sheets were getting fewer and fewer. He was just clearly on a downhill.”
In the early ’70s Robinson moved to Memphis and lived with his mother, who was dying. Robinson’s friend Audrey Taylor Gonzales, who was fashion editor and a feature writer at the old Memphis Press-Scimitar, got him into Alcoholics Anonymous. Apparently, the only portraits Robinson took after leaving New York were of Gonzales and her family. “Jack was a genius photographing skin and forms,” recalled Gonzales, who now lives in Uruguay. “After 1970 when he sort of fell apart, he did exclusive photos of me and the kids. I have tons of them down here. He even did some studio style photos like he’d do for Vogue to show me he could make anyone look good. “We built a studio for Jack down in the basement of my house, and he was very close to my children.” Robinson also “loved to farm, and he had a patch of a field behind my house where he grew tomatoes and all sorts of things.” After Gonzales left the Press-Scimitar, she opened an art gallery. “Jack helped me with the gallery, but he never wanted to have his photographs displayed. I often suggested a book or a show, but he just wasn’t interested.”
Robinson did some photography at the gallery, said Jim Karn, who worked there as a teenager. “I worked for Audrey hanging the artwork and taking it down and crating it up,” Karn said. “He (Robinson) photographed all the artwork, so I kind of got to work with him. He taught me a lot about photography because he was always like, `Move this light over here.’ And he always took the time to tell me why, which I thought was nice. First of all, I didn’t have to do anything he told me to do because I wasn’t working for him. But everything he did, he made it interesting. So, every time I was doing something with him I was learning stuff.”
Robinson got a job designing stained glass for Mickey Laukhuff. In 1990, after Laukhuff retired, he began working for Oppenheimer. “He was the best by far,” Oppenheimer said. “We had known that for a long time. He was a general all-around artist. He was a painter, a pianist, a photographer, a stained-glass designer and water colorist.” Robinson didn’t physically work at Rainbow Studio. “I wouldn’t let him work here. He went home and worked. He was just too difficult to get along with.”
He designed the windows for the chapel in the dome at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. During that job, Robinson and Susie Reuter, who was head painter at Rainbow Studio, didn’t speak to each other, Oppenheimer said. “He’d come in and give instructions to me, and I’d relate (them) to her. This went on for a solid year, but the windows were fabulous.” Oppenheimer and Robinson didn’t hang out together, but they’d chat when he visited the studio. “We talked for hours every time he came in. Just (about) everything. He was a critic of the arts. He loved to talk about the people he had to work with.” He and Robinson also talked on the trips they’d take around the South to churches that needed stained-glass windows.
But, Oppenheimer said, “He was pretty depressed. Nobody could be that angry all the time without being depressed. I never saw him laugh except to laugh at people.” Robinson told Oppenheimer he was going to leave everything he owned to him after he died. “He wanted me to take care of his stuff. I was the only one who put up with him. He was my friend. And he was a tormented genius.” Oppenheimer didn’t know Robinson was ill. “He went to the doctor ’cause he wasn’t feeling good, and the doctor drove him straight to the hospital. He died of pancreatic cancer four weeks later.” Robinson apparently died alone. “No one came to see him the whole time he was in the hospital. He never got a postcard. He never got a Christmas card. I had all of his mail forwarded to me, and there was no contact. I went back and looked at his phone (bill). No long-distance calls.” Oppenheimer was amazed at the photos he found at Robinson’s apartment on Central, across from the University Club of Memphis. “Off the bat, I knew the photographs were important.”
He contacted Getty Images and began corresponding by phone and E-mail with Rachlis. Hulton-Getty, which is owned by Getty Images, is making prints of many of the photos, which will be for sale, Oppenheimer said. The prints will be numbered and controlled “so that there won’t be copies afloat out there. Jack never printed series. These are virtually all heretofore unpublished things.” And, he said, “None of the vintage work is going to be for sale. (They’ll) just stay in my collection. It’s the least I can do in respect for his memory.”
A story written for the Commercial Appeal
November 4, 2001, by Michael Donahue
© Copyright 2001, The Commercial Appeal