Gardenia of Eden

Billie Holiday by Robin Carson

What a wistful look was captured in this famous portrait of Billie Holiday, a world of experience in those dark eyes. What did it take to capture that? The song Strange Fruit (the subject of my last post, Bitter Crop) and a bottle of gin.

The photo session for publicity shots was arranged in 1944 by a young playwright friend of Billie’s called Greer Johnson. The photographer, Robin Carson, had been clicking away for a good while but felt he had failed to capture the singer’s essence. Billie didn’t know what else to do and Johnson suggested she sing Strange Fruit. She protested a bit, said she needed an accompanist, downed the gin, then finally sang it a cappella. Johnson recalled it as: “one of the most fantastic performances I have ever heard in my life, and the camera never stopped”. She has the look of having been transported which seemingly was the impression she gave often when singing that unique song.

By way of yardstick, here’s a photo of Woody Guthrie by Carson from about two years before:

Woody Guthrie by Robin Carson

2 comments so far

  1. Vicky Nelson on

    Robin Carson was my grandfather. I have copy negs of these images, and more.

    • ArkAngel on

      Thanks, Vicky, for getting in touch. Did you know your grandfather well? And did you ever see him at work photographing? On the evidence of what I have seen of his work, he was clearly gifted.

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