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.”
By the time Robinson died in 1997, he was as much a part of the business as its founder. “He was the driving force behind the direction of the studio,” reflected Oppenheimer. “Had been for a long time.” As for the man’s secret photographic life? It would be because of the contents of a hand-scrawled last will and testament that Oppenheimer, and the world, would finally see all that Robinson had made.
Robinson was born in 1928. After a childhood growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he moved to New Orleans. He drifted from his family and found camaraderie and inspiration in the emerging 1950s New Orleans scene. Oppenheimer refers to this period of Robinson’s life as a “time of innocence.” The photographs from this period – flamboyant Mardi Gras celebrations and candid moments of humanity on the fringes of Southern society – are both artistically astute and deeply personal talismans that foretold of Robinson’s keen eye and talent for portraiture and street photography.
In 1954, Robinson and his partner accompanied celebrated New York art dealer Betty Parsons and Mississippi abstract expressionist Dusti Bonge on a road trip to Mexico City. Parsons had built – and was continuing to build – a career promoting rising visual artists of the era like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg. In Robinson’s street photography from that trip, Parsons saw signs of a similar brilliant creative light. Upon her urging, Robinson trained his eye – and his camera – on New York City.
A cover shot of model Isabella Albonico for Life magazine in 1959 cemented Robinson as a commodity in New York fashion photography. After Vogue magazine hired the esteemed Diana Vreeland as editor in 1962, Robinson entered his most prolific period, becoming a workhorse photographer for the magazine and photographing – like his contemporary Richard Avedon – seemingly every news maker of the time. Robinson had developed a calming bedside manner with his sitters. This genteel informality, coupled with Robinson’s precise eye, yielded images that captured the honest interiors of his subjects. Vreeland herself touched on this skill in a letter to Robinson in 1968. “Each and every one has personality and a great deal of character,” she wrote; the ability to extract that character “is your big strong point.”
A Robinson photograph of Gloria Vanderbilt has her posing on the sidewalk next to a pile of plebian construction materials, her belt-cinched waist as pencil-thin as any airbrush-altered model of today. In another, Vanderbilt lies in bed with her two young sons, one of them a fledgling Anderson Cooper. Iggy Pop stares an unbroken gaze in a beautifully lit portrait, a non-sequitur cigarette stuck up and jutting out of his right nostril. Elton John is captured from behind at the piano, his flowing curls the only part of him not hidden behind the glossy silhouette of his black leather trench coat.
But Robinson’s time in New York would end, synchronized with his patron Diana Vreeland’s departure from Vogue in 1971. Battling progressive alcoholism, he retreated South. When he arrived in Memphis, he kept the vast majority of his photographic life packed in boxes, though he did reserve a space in his apartment as a personal gallery. Robinson didn’t broadcast his past to his new acquaintances and didn’t seek acclaim in his new community, though he did remark that it would be nice, after he died, if someone would put together a coffee table book of his work.
While Robinson would occasionally mention an anecdote from his New York dealings, they sounded like tall tales to most. “Lauren Hutton called me last night,” he told some neighbors one night. Hutton, a Vogue cover girl, graced the cover 28 times during her modeling career. The neighbors dismissed the story as fantasy. And those few who did get a glimpse at the prints in Robinson’s apartment gallery didn’t believe he’d taken them at all.
In the absence of any close relatives, his negatives were like a surrogate family, records of human interactions and moments of authentic bonding between Robinson and the world. His coworkers at Rainbow Studio cared for him, but Robinson was increasingly demanding of colleagues, especially painter Susan Reuter, who was one of his best friends. It was Reuter’s job to execute onto glass his intricate and thoughtful patterns, but she couldn’t seem to get any work done without Robinson hovering and critiquing and screaming. His adherence to his own personal vision gave him the confidence as a photographer, but it could also make him a miserable coworker. “He firmly believed that he never made a mistake,” said Reuter. He and Reuter eventually had a falling out, and Robinson worked from home for the final years of his life, coming in only on Fridays to deliver his sketches and collect his paycheck.
In November of 1997, Oppenheimer got married in Clarksdale. He’d invited Robinson, but Robinson never showed. It was a full two weeks later when Oppenheimer finally heard anything about his whereabouts; Methodist Central Hospital phoned and asked Oppenheimer when he was coming to claim the deceased body. Robinson left to his employer all his possessions. All of his photographs. “He had no one else but Dan,” Reuter said.
After Robinson’s death, Oppenheimer set foot in his friend’s apartment for the very first time. Everything in the small dwelling was immaculate and in its place. White buttons were lined up by size, stacked neatly in the dresser drawer. All the white shirts were neatly folded. The blue jeans were waiting at attention on hangers. Every outfit was exactly the same. White. White. White. White. Blue. Blue. Blue. Blue. Pair after pair of size 12 shoes lined the closet, all of them inexplicably and intentionally three sizes too big.
The photographs were neatly boxed. A stack of 20x20 prints revealed iconic faces. Jack Nicholson. Sonny and Cher. An early James Taylor. Oppenheimer found thousands of envelopes of names, contact sheets, and negatives. Nearby were all of Robinson’s contracts with Vogue. It would take Oppenheimer five years for it to really sink in – “what Jack had documented.”
As he sifted through the images, Oppenheimer saw the possibilities. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he made a plan to elevate Robinson’s name back to prominence through business and retail. Oppenheimer founded Robinson Editions, which prints and sells photography to hotel and corporate clients. They license imagery to filmmakers and package exhibitions for international travel. There’s now Robinson Gallery in the company’s commercial Memphis compound, where Robinson’s work is perpetually celebrated. In 2011, Oppenheimer finally got Robinson’s coffee table book published. All of this is housed in a four-story, 27,000 square-foot industrial space that used to be the Hunter’s ceiling fan factory. Now it’s the home to Oppenheimer’s somewhat unlikely business portfolio. Robinson’s skill and photography directly fueled the growth of this creative economy amalgam, and so it’s fitting that banners bearing the Robinson name are the first thing one sees. On the first floor is the public-facing gallery, where Robinson’s Vogue portraits hang on one wall adjacent to his early New Orleans photography.
Through a door is the print shop and the offices; in them Robinson’s photographs lean and stack in every corner. The elevator in the building is an old freight shaft that rattles when it rides. There’s an event venue on the second floor along with the stained glass shop, where they still use Robinson’s designs. On the third floor is yet another business, Scale Models Unlimited, which makes detailed architectural replicas. It’s the one creative facet that Robinson had little to do with, though his personality is so imbued in the workplace consciousness that it finds residence here, too, among the functioning air strip and hangar made for the U.S. Air Force and the nine-foot Victorian house with a Dumbo weathervane made for Disney.
Oppenheimer estimates that close to 1,000 employees have worked for one of the many companies over the years. Most have been impacted by Robinson. “Who are we?” Oppenheimer asked rhetorically of his fleet of incorporated entities. “It’s a lot of me. But it’s also a lot of Jack. I call us the Robinson family of companies because he had so much influence.”
Robinson shirked away from the limelight in Memphis despite having moved so comfortably through the circles of high fashion and celebrity in New York. He cared for his friends, yet berated and challenged them during creative collaboration. As much influence as he exerted on Rainbow Studio while he was alive, his death made his presence even more known and felt. The building is a paradox, too. It feels at once a cathedral and a hole in the wall. It is both showroom and cluttered workspace. It simultaneously tells of absence and presence. Oppenheimer owns it, but Robinson lives here. These are the Robinson family of businesses. They’re the family that Robinson never had.
Want to know more?
Visit robinsongallery.com or danoppenheimer.com.