A few weeks ago I attended the South Main Association Christmas party. It was at the Jack Robinson gallery on Front Street, and I had no idea what I was walking into. The party itself was what you might expect: a little mingling, a glass of wine, someone playing piano in the background. What I didn’t know was anything at all about Jack Robinson, and I quickly realized that I needed to learn. A poster on the second floor talks about his life, and you can easily miss it because of all the photographs that command your attention. He was born in Meridian, Mississippi, a town I know because of its proximity to Mississippi State where I went to college and a few friends who happen to be from there. He grew up in Clarksdale, MS (another town I know because of its general closeness to Memphis and the home of an ex-boyfriend) and then he moved on to New Orleans. He even worked as a graphic artist. Similarities basically end there, but I like to think if we had ever been at the same party we would’ve found each other and had an incredible conversation.
He apparently took up photography as a hobby, but his friends encouraged him to move to New York City and pursue it as a career. People noticed his talent, and it was a particular assignment as a freelance fashion photographer that caught the attention of an editor at the New York Times. That connection helped him land other jobs, including a Time magazine cover and many features for Vogue. This is where the story takes a turn and becomes a little more vague, but the subtext would imply that he had some personal struggles (likely related to hard partying, and all that implies) that turned to health struggles and then professional struggles. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
In 1972 he moved to Memphis to care for his aging parents, and shortly thereafter sought help to straighten out his own life. The story goes that he never took another photography assignment, rather creating stained glass windows and panels, and rarely sharing details of his former life. Upon his death from cancer in 1997 his friends found box upon box filled of incredibly well organized, labeled, and preserved negatives, contact sheets, notes, and photographic prints all prepared for a NYC show that never happened.
His wishes were for his work to be discovered after his passing. Few knew of his plan, but the executor of his estate was instructed to expose his art posthumously.
It is unclear how to visit the gallery itself as a casual observer, and the web site mainly mentions how to rent it for events, but I urge you to figure out how to get in.
What I’d REALLY like is to explore is what remains unseen by the public, as it sounds like there are potentially thousands of images on file, but I doubt I can swing that. Regardless, it was nice to experience this treasure located just a few blocks from the shop.