McKenna, Rollie (1918—)

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McKenna, Rollie (1918—)

American photographer who specialized in black-and-white architectural studies and portraits . Born in Houston, Texas, in 1918; daughter of Henry Thorne (an army pilot) and Bel (Bacon) Thorne; awarded undergraduate and graduate degrees from Vassar College; married Henry Dickson McKenna (an architect), on April 27, 1945 (divorced 1949); no children.

A classic late bloomer, Rollie McKenna was 30 years old before she picked up a camera and discovered her life's purpose. "Bought camera. Wanted one so badly, hope it's wise," she recorded in her journal following the purchase of a Pontiac 35mm during a visit to Paris in 1948. McKenna began her new found career photographing architecture, then moved into portraiture, becoming best known for her penetrating images of poets, artists, and musicians. The camera "gives me a sense of power," she wrote in Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography, "not to use as a weapon, but to interpret the force and frailty of life as I see it. I love to take pictures; an act both aesthetic and kinesthetic. There is satisfaction in coordinating muscle and sensibility—as with sailing or executing a well-placed tennis stroke."

Rollie McKenna had an unusual childhood, which she later credited with preparing her for the unconventional life that followed. Born in 1918 in Houston, Texas, four days after the end of World War I, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents Henry and Mabel Marks Bacon at the age of three, when her parents separated. The Bacons ran a hostelry in Pas Christina, Mississippi, which eventually evolved into a large resort, The-Inn-by-the-Sea. After an absence of several years, McKenna's mother Bel Bacon Thorne , now divorced from her husband, returned to the family and shortly thereafter married Roger Generelly, a tall, handsome man who subsequently became the assistant manager of the inn. Hotel life brought a variety of interesting people into McKenna's life, and provided her with a youthful playground like no other, complete with swimming pools and ponies. Life was idyllic until the stock-market crash in 1929, when the family lost everything. Boarding a 78-foot schooner loaned to them by a friend, they cruised up and down the Mississippi and Alabama coasts for months, finally taking refuge on Dauphin Island, Alabama, where they turned an abandoned Civil War fort into another hotel, The-Sea-Fort-Inn.

In the climate of the Depression, the inn barely turned a profit, and McKenna, her mother, and stepfather spent the early 1930s on the move, settling wherever Roger could find work: New Orleans, Paris (where they located briefly after a job offer in Majorca fell through), Rye Beach, St. Louis, and Manchester, New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Bel and Roger's marriage slowly unraveled and by 1935, when McKenna entered Gulf Park Junior College in Gulfport, Mississippi, they had divorced. In the college's coastal setting—reminiscent of The-Inn-by-the-Sea—she felt very much at home, and earned her tuition by teaching tennis and sailing. Upon finishing her second term at junior college, McKenna was rescued financially by her paternal grandfather, Victor Thorne, who made it possible for her to continue her education at Vassar College. Thorne, an architect with a passion for Renaissance painting, became increasingly important to McKenna during her college years, as did the various other Thorne relatives she came to know during that time. Her great-grandmother Harriet V.S. Thorne had pursued photography as a hobby when the medium was still in its infancy, and had been one of the first members of the New York Camera Club when it was incorporated in 1888. Harriet had produced a treasure trove of negatives, which McKenna received from two of her cousins in the early 1960s but put aside until 1978. Upon graduating from Vassar, McKenna was given an additional gift of $5,000 from her grandfather Thorne which she used to purchase 14 acres of land and a ramshackle house in Millbrook, New York. It became her first real home and what she called "the beginning of long-sought security."

To support her new house, which she repaired and remodeled with the help of a Yale University architectural student, McKenna took some technical training and became a medical technician at the first Vassar College infirmary. Bored with the job after a year, she secured a position at Time magazine as a researcher in science and medicine, a position that led her to flirt briefly with the idea of becoming a doctor. With the outbreak of the war, however, McKenna left the magazine and retired to Millbrook, taking up the management of a victory garden and serving as an airplane spotter until 1942, when she joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). While posted in Washington, D.C., she met and married Henry Dickson McKenna, called Dickson, a Yale architectural school graduate who had just finished a stint as a photo interpreter on General Douglas MacArthur's staff.

Following the war, the newlyweds settled into a sunless apartment in New York City, where Dickson worked as a draftsman and McKenna was hired again by Time, Inc., this time as a researcher at Life magazine. She and Dickson eventually bought an old-law tenement in the German section of New York, which they remodeled. Meanwhile, they took advantage of New York's postwar cultural boom, and in the process became friendly with many of the artists and theater personalities of the time. The marriage floundered, however, and following an illness which necessitated an operation to remove her appendix, McKenna left her husband to recuperate at her house in Millbrook. She had just settled in when her grandfather Thorne died, leaving her devastated.

Recuperating slowly from surgery and the loss of her grandfather, McKenna searched for direction in her life. Having received a generous inheritance from Thorne, she left Life and returned to Vassar to pursue a master's degree in art history. A three-month trip to Europe in late May 1948 clarified McKenna's path even further. After purchasing her first camera in Paris, she used it to record the rest of her trip, the Italian leg, in a rush of photographs. Returning to the United States, McKenna finished her degree, made plans to end her failing marriage, and set out to perfect her photography. While fulfilling a six-month residency in Florida in order to get a divorce (Florida being one of the few states at the time to allow partners to divorce on grounds of incompatibility), she obtained several new cameras and began to learn the rudiments of developing and printing. At the suggestion of her mentor at Vassar, Professor Richard Krautheimer, she charted a photographic project concentrating on the Renaissance architecture of Italy, and in August 1950 she boarded the French liner Liberté for the trip abroad.

By 1951, McKenna was committed to photography; a second trip abroad in the spring of that year increased her skill and confidence. She subsequently sold many of her architectural prints and slides to Vassar, and also assembled and circulated a traveling exhibition called Three Renaissance Architects: Brunelleschi, Alberti and Palladio, which was later purchased by the American Federation of Art for educational purposes. While continuing her architectural work, McKenna became interested in portraiture. Shooting in her usual black and white, she took as her mission to strip away the pretence and "prettification" of studio photography, and to create a more truthful image. One of her early projects, a series on poets for the Poetry Center in New York, was displayed at the center in November 1951, serving as her first solo exhibition. That same year, another exhibition of her portraits was held at Vassar. Through a friend, several of the pictures were purchased by the State Department to create an exhibition called Young American Poets, for distribution in Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. Around the same time, Vogue did a story on poets using several of her photographs, and Harper's Bazaar also bought and published several images. McKenna summed up the year as a banner one.

From 1951, portraits of literary personalities became a photographic obsession for McKenna, who subsequently produced some exquisite images of writers such as Robert Graves, Truman Capote, Sir Herbert Read, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore , Dame Edith Sitwell , Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, among many others. Some of McKenna's most haunting images of this period are of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whom she first met in January 1952, when he and his wife Caitlin Thomas visited her in Millbrook. She subsequently photographed the poet and his family several times before his untimely death in November 1953. Shortly after, Mademoiselle magazine ran a story on him using McKenna's pictures. "It is sad and ironic that Dylan's fame would turn on so tragic an end, and that my career would be accelerated by it," McKenna wrote. As well, many of McKenna's photographs of Thomas appeared in Bill Read's The Days of Dylan Thomas (1964), a title also used for McKenna's prize-winning film about the poet, which she painstakingly created from her numerous still photographs. Judith Crist called the film "documentary creativity at its best," while Archer Winsten of the New York Post wrote: "It is a curiously touching memorial, at once objective and supported upon a foundation of poetic emotion."

In addition to her portraits of writers, McKenna produced numerous portraits of other creative artists, including painters, sculptors, actors, and musicians. "My challenge is to reach inside myself to catch the essence of a person—or what I feel is an essence," she said. To achieve this, she often took numerous exposures ("Pick a number from one to a hundred"). Overshooting, she explained, could help warm up a wary subject and guarded against darkroom mishaps. "However many exposures I make, it's important to me to give my subject a loose rein and myself all the awareness, openness and concentration I can muster," she added. "It's the result, not the method that counts, for when the actual shooting is over and done, another 'decisive moment' occurs—editing."

Just as McKenna was achieving recognition for her portraits, other opportunities began coming her way. Between 1954 and 1955, she accompanied the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock to Latin America, to photograph buildings for an exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art entitled "Latin American Architecture Since 1945" (1955). In 1956, she became a contract photographer for the U.S. Information Agency's new Russian-language publication America Illustrated, a nonpolitical journal circulated in what was then the Soviet Union. McKenna's assignments for the publication were extremely varied, ranging from photographing the United Nations during the Suez crisis to traveling to Florida to record the activities of retirees. She also photographed Eleanor Roosevelt and created a picture story of Helen Keller for the magazine. McKenna was so moved by Keller that at first she was unable to photograph. "When I did, I wondered if doing so might be taking advantage of her blindness," she wrote.

During the 1960s, McKenna divided her time between her house in New York City and a home by the sea in Stonington, Connecticut, where she eventually moved her business in 1965. In 1961, she had mounted a successful one-woman show at the Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village, her first New York exhibit. Another well-received exhibit, "The Face of Poetry," opened at Princeton University and subsequently toured 20 other institutions. Many of the pictures in the exhibit also appeared in The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology edited by John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read. (A second edition was published in 1970, with several new poets and updated photographs.) As McKenna's career flourished, so did her personal life. Pat Willson , who moved next door to McKenna with her three children following her divorce in 1962, gave the photographer a family identity she had never before known. She helped Willson raise the children, sailed and traveled with her throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and nursed her through the lung cancer which claimed her life in 1981.

Soon after Willson's death, McKenna's own health began to deteriorate, the result of a heart condition similar to that which had killed her father in 1959. Despite a less strenuous work schedule, and winters spent in the mild climate of Key West, Florida, McKenna had to undergo open heart surgery to repair the problem. Calling her operation a gift, she recovered to resume her work and become involved with a new circle of writers and artists.

At the end of her book Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography, McKenna includes a series of photographs called "Continuum," in which she displays—side-by-side—past and more recent portraits of W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick , W.S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, Barbara Howes , and Leonard Bernstein, among others. "Photographing is my connection to the world," McKenna wrote at the beginning of the section. "As I grow older, I identify more and more with the people I have photographed over the years. Although many are gone, we remain attached, and through my pictures, I share them with the world."


McKenna, Rollie. Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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McKenna, Rollie (1918—)

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