Jack Robinson’s Legacy
Words & Photos By Ken Billett
Beginning last summer, my love of black and white photography led me to learn about two imaginative men from the Mid-South: one man whose artistic talents created a legacy for others to enjoy and learn from; and another man we’ll learn about later (Dan Oppenheimer, local inventor, entrepreneur, and, most importantly, Jack’s friend) who honored that legacy by creating a unique local enterprise that thrives to this day.
Summer 2019 – Tina screams at me from across the open room. Her one-dimensional image appears in constant motion. Her long hair snaps across the picture’s frame like an out-of-control fire hose. Kris Kristofferson, Joe Cocker, and other icons of late Sixties counterculture stare at me – knowingly – from behind their black-and-white facades.
They see what I have slowly realized. This place is more than an old building and former warehouse on South Front Street. It’s a shrine. A shrine to a man who captured the essence of all that was good and vibrant about the 1960s and early 70s.
There’s a sense of awe when you enter the doors of The Robinson Gallery on Huling Avenue at the corner with Front in the South Main Arts District. The reverence comes not just from knowing the history of the famous faces hanging on the walls. It also comes from admiring the beautiful stained glass hanging in almost every window in this old building. These elaborate glass pieces, too, came from a man who poured himself into every artistic endeavor he ever took on.
I take my leave from the second-floor gallery. The adjoining space on that floor has been rented out for the next evening and round tables – white table cloth included – fill both that room and this section of the gallery. I step lightly across the ancient hardwood floors, as though I’m in a library, trying not to disturb the patrons.
Back downstairs, I stand next to a baby grand piano. From the wall behind the piano, a shirtless Malcolm McDowell plays with a piece of string. He looks down at me with the same menace that made the young actor a perfect fit as Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Next to Malcolm, Clint Eastwood eyeballs me while lying back on his elbows. His knit sweater vest can only be described as loud – even in a black-and-white photograph. Clint’s smirk is reminiscent of his early career in all those Spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and long before he perfected that You gotta be kiddin’ me look as Dirty Harry.
As a freelance photographer for Vogue and Life magazines, Jack Robinson captured the essence of a time when change was happening in almost all facets of American life. His posed and candid shots of young celebrities and others of the cultural elite spoke to how human they were, even when the shots were staged to show them as somehow larger than life. Jack Robinson captured many of his subjects with a wink and a nudge. As if to say, yeah, you’re already a somebody, and someday you’ll have your own legacy. <>
The Robinson Gallery, including the stained-glass works of Jack Robinson and other artists, is also home to Robinson Editions and the Jack Robinson Archives. The gallery areas are free and open to the public on most weekdays from 10 AM to 5 PM.