Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 42-63
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Fat Tuesday at Dixie's
Jack Robinson's New Orleans Mardi Gras Photographs, 1952–1955
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Dixie's, a legendary hangout for artists and writers, notably Lyle Saxon, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal, was one of the first gay bars in New Orleans. Jack Robinson's Mardi Gras photographs not only capture the campy artistry that Dixie's patrons used to mock convention, but they show how important the club was as a center of social life for the denizens of the French Quarter and their kindred spirits. Photograph by Jack Robinson, courtesy of the Jack Robinson Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee.
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In February 2006, the Sophie Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University in New Orleans exhibited over eighty of Jack Robinson's photographs taken in Louisiana. Much of his work can be viewed online at http://www.robinsonarchive.com/ or in person at the Jack Robinson Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee. The first "Fat Tuesday at Dixie's" exhibition opened at the Robinson Gallery in Memphis on August 26, 2005, just before hurricanes Katrina and then Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, flooded much of New Orleans, and scattered the region's population. It was temporarily closed on August 29, when Katrina tore through the coastal counties of southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The exhibition was later reopened and a new section, "For Love of New Orleans," which highlights everyday street scenes and Robinson's photos of African Americans, was added. This exhibition and the following essay are dedicated to the victims of these storms.
The 1997 discovery in Memphis of thousands of images taken by a southern photographer, Jack Robinson (1928–1997), has thus far attracted only slight attention from the art world and the national press. This is, in part, because so little is known today of Robinson's success as a fashion and celebrity photographer in
the 1960s, when he took more than a hundred thousand photographs of the era's rich, famous, and beautiful for trendsetting magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. And yet the extraordinary images that are Robinson's legacy also give us a rare and remarkable perspective into the lives and lifestyles of southern artists and bohemians in the 1950s. This small representation of his 1950s photographs, published here for the first time, is part of an overall effort to bring Robinson and his early work out of the shadows.
As a Memphian and southern historian, I took it upon myself in May 2004 to unlock the mysteries of Robinson's life growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and honing his skills as a photographer in his twenties in New Orleans. A few letters, two clippings, and a postcard were about the extent of the primary written record from the period, but hundreds of negatives from the 1950s promised to provide clues to the artist's past.
Very little was then known about Robinson's life in the South. He graduated from a Clarksdale high school in 1945 and attended Tulane from 1945 to 1948 but left after his junior year without graduating. He was back in New Orleans by 1951 and had started taking photographs. In 1955 Robinson left the South for New York City and the world of fashion photography. Editors Diana Vreeland and Carrie Donovan recognized Robinson's genius and tapped him to shoot portraits of 1960s rising stars in music, art, film, fashion, and entertainment. From 1965 to 1972, Robinson's work was published in Vogue more than five hundred times, and his portraits advanced the careers of Joni Mitchell, Clint Eastwood, Tina Turner, Warren Beatty, Lili Tomlin, The Who, Rod McKuen, and dozens more.1
On some occasions, Robinson's personal life entered the frame. His photographs [End Page 43]
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After Irma and Dixie moved the club to 701 Bourbon Street in 1949, starving artists, entertainers, and theater people were added to the...