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Rosalie Thorne McKenna collection

Identifier: AG 228

Scope and Contents

The Rosalie Thorne McKenna archive is comprised of correspondence files, biographical materials, project files and photographic materials. The bulk of the collection is professional in nature, dating from the early 1950s, when around the age of 30, McKenna began to develop an interest in a career as a photographer. McKenna held several professional roles in her lifetime including photographer, filmmaker, and writer, all of which are well-documented within the collection.

Correspondence files (1950s-1990s) constitute 3 linear feet of the collection. Professional correspondence forms the majority of the series, though it is evident that McKenna developed friendships and ongoing partnerships with many of those she worked with, including several of the subjects of her photography. Friends and colleagues such as John Malcolm Brinnin (1950s-1990s) and Richard Krautheimer (1950s-1980s) along with institutions such as the United States Information Agency (1950s-1980s) are well represented, as are various museums, galleries, and publishers. Correspondence may also be found in other parts of the collection such as Writing and Photography Project Files and the Dylan Thomas series.

There is also a series dedicated to McKenna’s extensive work surrounding the famed Welsh poet and writer, Dylan Thomas. The Dylan Thomas series is comprised of biographical, research, and photographic materials related to McKenna’s work with Dylan Thomas and the three major book and film projects on Dylan Thomas: The Days of Dylan Thomas (book, 1964), Portrait of Dylan: A Photographer’s Memoir (book, 1982), The Days of Dylan Thomas (film, 1965). The series also contains correspondence with Dylan Thomas’s family: especially with his mother, his wife Caitlin, and their children.

The collection contains 58 linear feet of photographic materials, namely contact sheets, negatives, and study prints documenting McKenna’s over forty year career as a photographer. Features within her body of work include an Italian Architecture series, a Latin American Architecture series and ongoing activities at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – both commissioned by the museum, a series documenting New York Harbor’s tug boat industry for the publication, Harbor Tug, along with various assignments for the United States Information Agency and America Illustrated. McKenna is particularly regarded for her works of portraiture depicting literary figures and artists such as Edith Sitwell, Robert Frost, Alexander Calder, Leonard Bernstein, W. H. Auden, and Anne Sexton. Materials related to McKenna’s photographic work may also be found in other parts of the collection such as Writing and Photography Project Files and Publications.

Other types of materials found in the collection include biographical materials, research files, publications, exhibition files.


  • 1896-2008


Language of Materials

Material in English

Conditions Governing Access

Photocopies of fragile newspapers clippings and other papers have been provided for research use. The originals, which are sleeved or bagged, should not be handled.

To access materials from this collection, please contact

Conditions Governing Use

© Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation

It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission from the copyright owner (which could be the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates or literary executors) prior to any copyright-protected uses of the collection.

The user agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Arizona Board of Regents, the University of Arizona, Center of Creative Photography, including its officers, employees, and agents, from and against all claims made relating to copyright or other intellectual property infringement

Biographical Note

Rosalie “Rollie” Thorne McKenna was born in Houston, Texas in 1918 and shortly after, her family relocated to Connecticut so her father could continue his education at Yale University. McKenna was given the nickname “Rollie” by her family which she continued to use both in her personal life and throughout her career. Around 1921, her parents separate, and McKenna moves with her mother to Mississippi and placed under the care of her grandparents. At this time she also develops a love of sailing that lasts into her adulthood.

In 1926, McKenna and her family develop The-Inn-By-The-Sea but by 1929 a financial crisis leaves the family with little assets, including the inn. The family moves along the coast for several months and eventually leases space in abandoned Fort Gaines buildings and opens The-Sea-Fort-Inn on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Between 1932 and 1935, McKenna moves with her mother and stepfather to Paris’ Left Bank where the family continues to struggle financially, and eventually return to the states, settling in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother gets a second divorce.

Between 1935 and 1937 McKenna attends Gulf Park Junior College in Gulf Park, Mississippi and later enters Vassar College in New York. After a brief engagement to Jack Hulburd, a Navy airman, McKenna graduates from Vassar and buys property in Millbrook, New York. During this same year (1940), McKenna visits the Southwest for the first time and stays at Victor Thorne’s Taos, New Mexico home

In 1941, McKenna becomes a medical technician in the Vassar College infirmary, and is hired by Time as a researcher in science and medicine. She also takes physics and chemistry classes at Columbia University while briefly considering becoming a doctor. Following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1942, Congress creates WAVES – Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service and McKenna enters the U.S. Naval Reserve.

McKenna weds Henry Dickson McKenna in 1945 and both leave the Navy and settle in New York. McKenna becomes a researcher at Life and accompanies photographers on assignments. Two years later, her paternal grandfather passes away and McKenna secures a small inheritance and quits her job at Life.

In 1948, McKenna begins master’s classes in Art History at Vassar College upon the urging of Agnes Claflin, Vassar Art Department Head, and Richard Krautheimer, Professor of the History of Architecture. McKenna travels to Europe as a supplement to her coursework, and there she buys her first camera, a Pontiac 35mm French camera with 50mm lens. McKenna then returns to the states to enter her final year at Vassar and settles down in Millbrook full-time. McKenna and her husband divorce in 1949.

McKenna begins a residency at Fort Walton Beach, Florida where she stays with family in 1949. She adds more cameras to her collection, including a Rolleiflex and a Linhof Teknika 4x5, while also learning the printing process. She then returns to Europe from 1950 to 1951 where she studies the architects Brunelleschi, Alberti and Palladio, which will later inspire her 1952 Three Renaissance Architects exhibition. McKenna also meets John Malcolm Brinnin, who will become a lifelong friend and business associate.

Between 1951 and 1953, McKenna begins taking portraits of poets, writers, and other artists, initially through connections at the Poetry Center in New York and later by word of mouth. She begins exhibiting her work and contributing to several publications. McKenna meets Dylan and Caitlin Thomas through John Malcolm Brinnin, and the couple stays for a weekend at her home in Millbrook. In response to the growth of her career, McKenna rents her house in Millbrook and sets up her base in New York. McKenna photographs Dylan Thomas on various occasions— at her home in Millbrook, while visiting the Thomas’s in Laugharne, Wales, and again in New York when Thomas’s play, Under Milk Wood opens in 1953. Dylan Thomas dies November 9, 1953 in New York.

McKenna then tours Latin America in 1954 and 1955, led by architecture historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, on a photographic assignment sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art. McKenna’s photographs from this tour represent nearly half of MoMA’s 1955 exhibition, Latin American Architecture since 1945. McKenna continues to work steadily over the next several years for a variety of clients including MoMA, the United States Information Agency, and America Illustrated. A renewed relationship evolves between McKenna and her father, Henry Thorne, before his death in 1959. The inheritance McKenna receives from her father, allows her to pursue her dream of developing a film about Dylan Thomas

Between 1961 and 1965, McKenna buys a home in Stonington, CT. Soon after, one of McKenna’s childhood friends and mentors, Danny Jones, introduces her to Patricia, ‘Pat,’ Wilson at a party. Patricia and McKenna become friends, and later neighbors, at which point McKenna considers Pat and her four children to be family. McKenna moves her business from New York to Stonington in 1965 and raises the children with Patricia. In the same year, McKenna completes her award winning film, The Days of Dylan Thomas.

In 1970, the second edition of The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology, edited by John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read with photographs by McKenna is published. (The first edition was published in 1963.) In 1975, Harbor Tug by Peter Burchard with photographs by McKenna is published

In 1981, McKenna’s good friend Pat dies of lung cancer. Still in mourning, McKenna visits Wales to take additional photographs for her book, Portrait of Dylan: A Photographer’s Memoir, which she completes in 1982.

Around 1985, McKenna undergoes a successful open heart surgery for a mitral valve problem. Following the surgery, she begins work on a photographic autobiography, Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography. McKenna spends her winters in Key West, FL, and continues to work on several other projects in addition to the autobiography.

In 1991, McKenna’s autobiography, Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography is completed. A retrospective of McKenna’s work is held at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2001. McKenna dies at age 84 in Northhampton, MA on June 14, 2003. United States poet laureate Richard Wilbur wrote the foreword for McKenna’s autobiography, and described the scope of her portraits as “warm and sociable” despite the diversity and difficulty of her subjects.

Source: Rollie McKenna: A Life in Photography by Rollie McKenna, 1991


90 Linear Feet

Metadata Rights Declarations

  • License: This record is made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license.


Papers, photographic materials, and audio-visual materials, (1896-2008), of Rosalie Thorne McKenna (1918-2003) photographer, filmmaker, and writer. Includes correspondence, biographical materials, writings, research files, publications, exhibition files, negatives, study and contact prints, and other materials documenting the life and career of Rosalie Thorne McKenna.


The Collection is arranged into the following series:

  1. Series 1: Correspondence, 1950-1997, 5 boxes
  2. Series 2: Biographical Materials, n.d., 1896-1996, 2 boxes
  3. Series 3: Writing and Photography Projects, n.d., 1950-1996, 2 boxes
  4. Series 4; Exhibition Materials, n.d., 1952-2001, 2 boxes
  5. Series 5: Publications, 1942-1994, 1 box
  6. Series 6: Dylan Thomas Project Files, 1939-2008, 11 boxes
  7. Series 7: Photographic Materials, n.d., 1948-1995

Custodial History

This collection was a gift of the Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation in 2009.

Processing Information

Collection was processed by Brooke Laughlin, Feb. through Nov. 2010 & Molly StothertMaurer Oct. through Nov. 2010. Finding aid updated by Alexis Peregoy in 2017.

Rosalie Thorne McKenna collection, 1896-2008
Finding aid created by CCP Archives Staff
© 2019
Description rules
Finding Aid Based On Dacs (Describing Archives: A Content Standard)
Language of description
Script of description
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Finding aid encoded in English

Repository Details

Part of the Center for Creative Photography Archives Repository

1030 N. Olive RD
Tucson Arizona 85721 United States