The University of Arizona

Center for Creative Photography

Rollie McKenna

Portrait photographer Rosalie (Rollie) Thorne McKenna (United States, 1918–2003) focused her life’s work on literary figures and architecture throughout Europe and Latin America. Born in Texas to a wealthy family, McKenna grew up in a Mississippi seaside resort with her grandparents. She studied American History at Vassar College from 1938 to 1940, returning there in 1948 for her master’s degree in art history. She became interested in European and American architecture, which would be one of her main photographic interests. McKenna established a close friendship with Malcolm Brinnin, who was a poet and director of the Poetry Center in New York. He would be McKenna’s main contact to her subjects in the literary and art worlds, including Leonard Bernstein, Bill Brandt, Alexander Calder, James Dickey, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Helen Keller, Ezra Pound, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dylan Thomas, and Tom Wolfe. McKenna’s subtle, informal photographs, mostly taken in natural light, show her subjects in surroundings familiar to them, giving the viewer a comfortable accessibility and sense of intimacy. In many cases McKenna fostered lasting relationships with her sitters. Commenting on her life in photography, McKenna stated, “Photography is the magnet that holds me together. I came upon it through the back door when I was most in need of identity and purpose. . . . It gives a sense of power, not to use as a weapon, but to interpret the force and frailty of life as I see it.” Housed at the Center for Creative Photography, Rollie McKenna’s archive includes prints, negatives, contact sheets, correspondence between her and literary figures, and a film she created about Dylan Thomas, among other objects central to her work and life.