Jack Robinson's 1950s New Orleans
By Sarah Wilkerson Freeman (copyright 2012)

These images were among thousands of negatives discovered in the home of photographer Jack Robinson after his death in Memphis, Tennessee in 1997. They are part of an extensive collection of photos Robinson produced during the 1950s in New Orleans where he began his career.
/ (1 of 1)
{image 4}

Jack Uther Robinson was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1928 and grew up in Clarksdale during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He graduated from Bobo High School in 1945 and enrolled at Tulane University where he attended for a few years but did not graduate. By 1950, he was working as a graphic artist in New Orleans for Charles Dolce’s ad agency. Robinson's office was located on the sixth-floor of a building at the corner of Chartres and Canal Street where the Marriott Hotel, built in 1972, now stands and directly across the street from the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel where many of Robinson's photographs have been on exhibit since 2008.

Equipped with a Rolleiflex camera and Kodak Safety Film, Robinson explored and captured on film the cityscapes of 1950s New Orleans. His street portraits show a visually rich world of nineteenth-century architecture and modern glass and steel skyscrapers, an intimate place where workmen, shop girls, nuns, businessmen, sailors, and white-gloved ladies--black, white, Creole--mingled on the sidewalks and neutral ground as they moved in and out of the French Quarter, on one side of Canal Street, and the Central Business District, on the other.

Robinson was a talented graphic artist who circulated within New Orleans' extensive networks of creative and innovative people. By 1953, a group of young modern artists, led by George Dunbar, Bob Helmer, and Shearly Grode, began to establish their own spaces for studying and showing their work and offered art classes in the upstairs room of 331 Chartres in the French Quarter. Robinson was among the handful of artists who participated, along with Dusti Bonge who is reputedly Mississippi's first abstract expressionist.

Newcomb College ceramics professor, Katherine Choy, was also a friend of Robinson who took a series of photos of Choy as she worked near the college's kiln room.

Illustrator Tilden Landry, artist Jean Seidenberg, and designer Lee Bailey all knew Robinson and allowed him to photograph them and their work when he began to teach himself photography.
/ (1 of 1)

Robinson also knew photographer Myles DeRussy, a local magazine and high fashion photographer who relocated to Chicago for greater opportunities. Robinson shot portraits of DeRussy who probably influenced Robinson's forays into fashion photography in New Orleans, such as these sessions with sisters Phoebe (white and black dresses) and Valerie (polka dot dress) Williams. Lee Bailey (holding fan) was instrumental in making connections for Robinson, who was shy and unassuming, and helped him gain access to white established New Orleans' society.
/ (1 of 1)

An edgier, non-commercial aspect of Jack Robinson's life and interests in this period are revealed in his Mardi Gras photographs, especially his images of the campy, gay-friendly atmosphere that characterized Dixie's Bar of Music located at Bourbon St. and St. Peter. In the late 1940s, sister proprietors Miss Irma and Miss Dixie Fasnacht established a club that attracted artists, writers, entertainers, French Quarter residents, and well known popular locals, such as businessman Clay Shaw (in toga).

In 1967, approximately thirteen years after this photograph was taken, Shaw (and his friends) would be investigated by the FBI for allegedly conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. He was tried and acquitted in 1969.

In the 1950s, Dixie's regulars personally challenged McCarthy Era hyper-conformity and homophobic conservatism with their Mardi Gras street performances when they gathered to socialize, celebrate, and parade down Bourbon St. on Fat Tuesday. The open and easy expressions of sensuality and sexuality at Dixie's pre-dated New York City's Stonewall riot by more than fifteen years and Gay Pride parades by a generation.
/ (1 of 1)

Robinson had limited professional success and opportunities in New Orleans, so in 1955, at age twenty-seven, he relocated with a close friend to New York. His talent as a photographer was quickly discovered by top fashion houses and magazine editors Carrie Donovan (New York Times Magazine) and Diana Vreeland (Vogue) who hired Jack to shoot portraits of the rising stars of the 1960s. Hundreds of his portraits of such cultural icons as Joni Mitchell, Clint Eastwood, Tina Turner, Warren Beatty, and The Who were published in Vogue.
/ (1 of 1)

But Robinson’s lifestyle, which included parties with Andy Warhol, took a toll on his health and career. He moved to Memphis in 1972 to be near his aging parents and found work in stained glass design. He downplayed his earlier career as a photographer and died in relative anonymity in Memphis in 1997.

Exhibitions and Virtual Museum:

Currently, twenty-four of Robinson's 1950s street portraits are on display in the Canal St. window of the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, situated directly across the street from the former location of the Dolce ad agency. The photographs now hang within sight of what was once Robinson's workroom window. It has been nearly sixty years since the photographer captured these images that remind of us of the beauty, spirit, personalities, and energy of a great city. Most of the exhibit photographs were taken in the vicinity of the 500 block of Canal St. where they now hang in a double-sided installation with twelve large format images suspended at street-level, easily seen by the public, and another twelve visible from inside the Sheraton's lobby. An additional twelve have been installed in the lobby's interior and plans have been made to extend the exhibition into other spaces within the hotel, making the project a virtual museum.

Many institutions and organizations, in the U.S. and U.K., have hosted exhibitions, informal gallery talks, and formal presentations. Notably, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Newcomb Art Gallery (Woldenberg Art Center, Tulane University, April-July 2006) reopened with the world premiere of more than 100 of Robinson’s 1950s photographs, an event that marked the return of these images to their point of origin--New Orleans. Responding to interest from the University of Nottingham, a travelling exhibition was designed and shown as part of a 2007 conference at the university. In fall 2008, the Southern Historical Association hosted an exhibition of selected Robinson photographs during its annual meeting, which happened to be held at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel. The fact that this site is directly across from Charles Dolce's ad agency where Robinson worked, and photographed city life, was an extraordinary coincidence. Since that time, the Sheraton has permanently hosted Robinson's Canal Street photographs for the benefit of the public and the project continues to evolve.

Sponsorship and Credit:

This and other exhibitions of Jack Robinson’s 1950s New Orleans photographs have been researched and curated by Dr. Sarah Wilkerson Freeman, Professor of History at Arkansas State University, who is currently working on a book based on Jack Robinson's 1950s photographs. Dan Oppenheimer, the Jack Robinson Archive, and Arkansas State University have generously supported this work. A special thanks is due to Jean and Charlotte Seidenberg, Dixie Fasnacht, Charles Dolce (and family), Joanne Clevenger, Ella Brennan, Leonard Parrrish, Lyle Bonge, and George Dunbar for sharing their insights and memories. Archivist and photographer Drue Diehl spent countless hours reclaiming Jack Robinson's images from the sixty-year-old negatives.

For more information about Jack Robinson's 1950s New Orleans photographs, exhibitions, presentations, and projects, contact Sarah Wilkerson Freeman at sarahwf@astate.edu.