Jack Robinson's swinging '60s; Tav Falco's Mondo Memphis
Jack Robinson self-portrait, Photograph Courtesy The Jack Robinson Archive
The story’s been told before — including a 2002 cover story in Memphis magazine by Marilyn Sadler — but it bears repeating now that we have the publication this month of Jack Robinson On Show: Portraits 1958-72 (Palazzo Editions).
A boy is born near Meridian, Mississippi, in 1928, and grows up in Clarksdale a shy kid with an interest in drawing, painting, and photography. He attends Tulane University and remains in New Orleans to work for an ad agency with side work photographing the city’s elite. On a trip to Mexico, he meets gallery owner Betty Parsons, who encourages him to move to New York, which he does, his photographs featured in Life magazine and The New York Times and eventually Vogue.
Under editor Diana Vreeland, he shoots fashion layouts and his subjects are among Vogue’s “People Are Talking About.” And, yes, people were certainly talking about Emilio Pucci, Lauren Hutton, Ralph Lauren, and Bill Blass; Sonny and Cher, the Kinks, Tina Turner, Elton John, the Who, Roberta Flack, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor; Kenneth Tynan and Tom Wolfe; Sol Lewitt and Ed Ruscha; Warren Beatty, Donald Sutherland, Michael Caine, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, and Jack Nicholson. In other words, everybody who was anybody.
But in 1972, the man from Meridian leaves New York and travels back south — to Memphis, where he stops drinking and starts working with local artist Dorothy Sturm at Laukhuff Stained Glass, then for Dan Oppenheimer, owner of Rainbow Stained Glass Studio in Midtown.
Then, in 1997, he dies of pancreatic cancer. And that is when Oppenheimer discovered that the man had stored in his apartment an archive of photo negatives that Oppenheimer knew nothing about, because his star designer at Rainbow had said next to nothing about his ’60s career. That archive numbered more than 100,000 negatives. Those images were the work of Jack Robinson.
You can purchase Robinson’s work at the Robinson Gallery & Archive in Memphis. You can view his work in the pages of Jack Robinson On Show. And you can read the kind words of Cybill Shepherd, whom Robinson photographed, in the book’s Foreword. George Perry, an author and lecturer who has worked with many of the greats in photography, supplies the Introduction. But the focus here is the 150 black-and-white images.
It’s no secret that Jack Robinson could be hard to get along with. An astute critic of the arts, he could be equally critical of others and something of a recluse. How, then, to explain Robinson’s obvious rapport with the wide range of subjects he photographed?
As he did in so many others, despite (or maybe because of) the stark, bare backgrounds he often used to zero in on his subjects, together with the unposed, off-handed expressions he coaxed from them:
There’s Gloria Vanderbilt, all smiles in 1972 but not against an empty backdrop. She’s pictured at home with her young sons Carter and Anderson Cooper, the three of them piled up in bed.
There’s Joyce Carol Oates, in an iconic 1970 photo of the writer looking positively unworldly, despite the fact that her session with Robinson was interrupted by the explosion of a bomb being assembled by antiwar radicals two blocks away in Greenwich Village.
There’s Shepherd, at her most fresh-faced and all-American just days after the release of The Last Picture Show.
And there’s Robinson himself, in a self-portrait taken in New Orleans in the early 1950s, standing off-center, a studio lamp in one hand, his other hand drawn to his chin to conceal his shadowed face but with fingers splayed to reveal his eyes, which gently meet the camera’s lens.
Why did Robinson move to Memphis when he was apparently at the top of his game in New York? And not only move to Memphis — disappear entirely into another artistic career? Too much drinking? Too many late nights in the company of Andy Warhol and his Factory friends?
Perry calls Robinson a “dedicated loner.” He also suggests that Robinson may have sensed his ability waning. Not his mastery of lighting and composition, which was vital to his studio portraiture, but his power to bond with his subjects, Perry writes.
Perhaps, and it’s sad to learn that when Jack Robinson died in December 1997, he had no known relatives or relations to claim the body or make the funeral arrangements. Those duties fell to Dan Oppenheimer, who, when he entered Robinson’s tidy Midtown apartment, found it outfitted strictly for its lone occupant, without so much as an extra coffee cup to offer the chance visitor.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Ghosts Behind the Sun (Creation Books), part one of a two-volume “encyclopedia” called Mondo Memphis.
Cultural Studies slash History slash Biography slash Music is how the publisher lists it.
“Splendor, Enigma, & Death” is how the subtitle puts it.
“Psychogeography,” according to another source, just about covers it — the psyche behind it: Memphis punk-rock pioneer (and author) Tav Falco of the band Panther Burns.
The geography is Memphis. The time frame runs from 1864, when a 16-year-old boy, in first-person narrative, describes serving under Nathan Bedford Forrest, to 2010, when Falco and his latest band members are set to release Conjurations: Seance for Deranged Lovers.
But, by 2010, the geography isn’t Memphis. Falco’s in Paris. And he isn’t the one doing the narrating. It’s Eugene Baffle, Falco’s nom de guerre. I think. Or maybe the notion of a reliable narrator doesn’t matter here. What does: this book’s opening line and leitmotif: “The road to Memphis is a long and unholy one.”
“Long” in that Ghosts Behind the Sun is 300 very packed pages of Memphis’ above- and below-ground history. “Unholy” . . . well, the chapter titles say it all: “Migrations, Plagues and Lost Causes”; “Stirring Up a Little Hell”; “Hop Head Rage.” And a very partial list of the personalities featured gives a good idea how free-ranging this book is:
The murderous Harp brothers and hell-raising Tiller brothers; Boss Crump and underworld kingpin Jim Canaan; men most-wanted Machine Gun Kelly and George “Buster” Putt; artists John McIntire and William Eggleston; musicians Charlie Feathers, Billie Lee Riley, Sam the Sham, and Alex Chilton; music writers Stanley Booth and Robert Palmer; nightclubs and hangouts such as the Plantation Inn, Pat’s Pizza, and the Well (before it was the Antenna club); strip-club owner Danny Owens and cotton magnate Julien Hohenberg. And then there are those who cannot be so easily classified — chief among them, Falco’s fellow Arkansan, mentor, and muse Randall Lyon, among the first in Falco’s circle to become “psychedelicized” in the ’60s and whose poetry Allen Ginsberg once described as “modern freak brain original.” (Italics Ginsberg’s)
Freakier still and in the words of musician and record producer Jim Dickinson: “Tav can play in one rhythm and sing in another rhythm, and neither one of them be right.”
Which didn’t mean Falco couldn’t make his mark on alternative Memphis musically and its long and unholy reputation nationally, abroad, and up above.
“You know those little Poor Clares . . . in Frayser?” Connie Gidwani Edwards asks Eugene Baffle (I think) in one of the many lengthy interviews reproduced in Ghosts Behind the Sun. (Connie was once romantically involved with painter Dewitt Jordan, until Connie’s brother Jimmy shot Dewitt dead in the head, a sight that Connie says led to her having 12 electroshock treatments.) “They’re a cloistered order; they don’t leave the convent. Order of Saint Clare, and you can visit them. You can call them on the phone. You can ask for requests.”
“Are they praying for you?”
“Yes, they are. They’re a praying order, and they pray for the whole city.”
“It needs some prayers.”