A Sojourn in Paradise: Jack Robinson in 1950’s New Orleans by Howard Phillips Smith

A Sojourn in Paradise: Jack Robinson in 1950’s New Orleans
By Howard Phillips Smith
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN 978-1-4968-2752-4

 “Sojourn” a celebration of famed fashion photographer Jack Robinson

By Scott Naugle
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Prepare for a journey. Jack Robinson’s photographs return us to a place, emotionally and physically to an era, a New Orleans of a different century, in crisp, insightful, and artistic detail. “A Sojourn in Paradise: Jack Robinson in 1950’s New Orleans” is a work of beauty and history, illuminated and explicated by the commentary of Howard Phillips Smith.

Jack Robinson is a Mississippian. Born in 1928 in Meridian, his family moved to Clarksdale near the Arkansas line. His fascination and attraction with New Orleans grew during family visits to the city in his youth. He attended the College of Arts at Tulane University from 1946 through 1949, but he is not on record as graduating. He was, however, resolute in staying and building a life in the city.

Part of a growing gay community in The French Quarter, Robinson lived openly with his long-term partner, Gabriel Jureidini, among a closely knit group of friends. He was employed at Dolce Advertising on Canal Street.

Robinson’s photographs from this period reflect, possibly, his satisfaction with life. There are many images of open vistas down French Quarter avenues, bright sunlight from above, passersby on missions, striding positively into the future.

The black and white images from the early 1950’s are crisp, leaving little doubt about a contented and prosperous future. In one image, pedestrians hurry across a street, sharply dressed, women in wool skirts, men in suits and ties. In the background, a Chevrolet hood noses through under a Great Southern Cigars sign on a storefront. There’s motion, or the impression of it, purpose, bustle, and destinations, golden lives ahead. Eisenhower golfed and smiled. Racial unrest and the Red Scare were still far down the street.

Through his close friendship with Biloxi native and artist Dusti’ Bonge, and her lover, New York gallery owner Betty Parsons, Robinson’s circle of contacts grew. He and Gabriel moved to New York City.

Robinson established himself as a sought-after fashion photographer working with Diana Vreeland at “Vogue” magazine. Study any of his photographs from the period, Andy Warhol, Mia Farrow, or Jack Nicholson, and each becomes a complete visual biography of the person, the pose, the eyes, the tilt and turn of the head, all of a life within the flash of an instant. No written biographies necessary. They are captured in the images.

Gabriel died unexpectedly in 1968. Robinson sought solace in alcohol. He stored his camera on the shelf, recovered, and moved to Memphis. He spent the final decades of his life living quietly in Memphis as a stained-glass artist. Robinson died in 1998 from pancreatic cancer.

After his death, a friend, Dan Oppenheimer, entered Robinson’s apartment and discovered, “hundreds of thousands of negatives in the basement and ultimately the legacy of Jack Robinson.”

Enter Howard Phillips Smith, researcher, biographer, curator, rescuer, and author of “A Sojourn in Paradise.” Smith grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi and attended the University of Southern Mississippi. He is also the author of “The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans.” Smith resides in Los Angeles with his husband.

This is a big, fat, luxurious book. It is a two-hander, with three appendices, including a brief history of photography in New Orleans, and illustrative footnotes. The research is extensive and meticulous. “A Sojourn in Paradise” is a significant contribution to the history of New Orleans and mid-twentieth century photography.

Set aside a lazy hour, or two, in the early evening. Listen to the fountain bubble from the brick wall beside you. Mix a Sazerac. Ease into any one of the dozens of photographs for a contemplative tarriance through the lens of Jack Robinson.    

Scott Naugle is co-owner of Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse in Pass Christian, Mississippi.


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