The early 1950s had to have been an odd time in New Orleans, a period when the city was starting to reawaken after the harsh World War II and Depression years even as it languished as something of a backwater. Commerce and the port were starting to thrive, as was the local recording industry in a decade when Fats Domino outsold every pop star but Elvis and the French Quarter was a beacon of freedom for those who found its laissez faire lifestyle liberating. Yet, in contrast to its celebrated coolness of recent years, New Orleans back then managed to be quietly bohemian without being especially famous for it. It was, in other words, a well-kept secret.
Jack Robinson's early 1950s photographs at the Newcomb gallery capture this odd ambience of subdued bohemianism at a time when America was a land of militant conformity, crewcuts and McCarthyism, and New Orleans was still the biggest city in the Dixiecrat South. The 1960s, with all the social and cultural revisions we take for granted today, was still a long way off, and the early '50s in this city was a transitional period, maybe not as repressed as the rest of the country, but nothing like what it would become. Born in 1928, in Clarkesdale in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Robinson attended Tulane in the late '40s and hung out in the Quarter before moving to Manhattan in 1955. There he would become famous for his fashion shots and celebrity portraits in Vogue and other high-gloss venues, but this newly unearthed cache of photographs on view at Newcomb reflect the years in which he was simply an avid documenter of the close-knit French Quarter subculture.
As photographs go, they reflect the tentativeness of the time. Most of these street scenes and character studies of bohemians, gays and regular everyday folks in their native habitat suggest either personal documentary shots of the sort now seen on Internet blog sites like LiveJournal, or semi-formal portraits reflecting Robinson's flair for illustration. (He started out as a graphic designer before turning photo pro). Most are straightforward documentation rather than the sorts of iconic images that knock your socks off, but as a group they display a pervasive collective presence that recreates the aura of a lost age.
Among the more surprising are the formal portraits of local artists, including George Dunbar and Gene Siedenberg back in the days when they were young turks in the French Quarter art scene. Although they remain alive and kicking, a half century is not a span of time that is easily glossed over, so seeing them as dapper young dudes is both unexpected and a tad disorienting even as they, significantly grayer, remain dapper today.
But such familiar faces are few and far between. Some dramatic portraits of a young woman suggest scenes from a psychological stage play, yet her name rings few bells. Even the gay Mardi Gras looks fairly subdued, as if a wartime rationing of sequins and feathers remained in effect. In the cold, gray light of the Stalin and McCarthy era, even a Lucky Dog wagon on Bourbon Street resonates more severely than anything we associate with Ignatius Reilly. Here and in other street scenes there is something gritty, not quite sinister yet distinctly muted if not shadowy. Remember, this was the time and place of Elia Kazan's 1950 film noir classic, Panic in the Streets, starring Richard Widmark and a still-unknown Jack Palance on the trail of bubonic plague on our waterfront.
But one who transcended the timorous tenor of the time was Elmo Avet, a French Quarter antiquities dealer who was to antiques what Fellini was to movies. Here he is seen in costume with a younger male escort, and while it could almost pass for one of Brassai's scenes from the "secret" Paris of the 1930s, their surreal extravagance would fit right in with our modern-day Societ de Ste. Anne Mardi Gras marching parade. In fact, the Ste. Anne founders were admirers of his theatrical, otherworldly style, and if Avet, who passed away some three decades ago, is little remembered today, it can at least be said that, in certain unexpected ways, his vision lives on.
- Jack Robinson Gallery and Archive
- Jack Robinson's photographs include this view of the late antiques dealer Elmo Avet, left, who epitomized a certain Felliniesque flair that lives on in the French Quarter and beyond.