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Rollie McKenna, Photographer Best Known For Portraits, Dies

Rollie McKenna, a photographer best known for her portraits of Dylan Thomas and other lions of English literature, died on June 14 in Northampton, Mass.

She was 84 and had formerly lived in Stonington, Conn.

Rollie McKenna _ her full name was Rosalie Thorne McKenna _ found her calling at 30 when she bought her first camera on a visit to Paris.

She was working as a researcher for Time and Life magazines, haunting the literary and artistic circles of the United States and Europe.

From the 1950s into the 80s, she specialized in literary stars, notably Thomas, the Welsh poet to whom she was introduced in the early 1950s.

She became his friend and principal portraitist and in 1955 made a film, “The Days of Dylan Thomas,” which won international prizes.

She also published “Portrait of Dylan: A Photographer's Memoir” (1982).

Her first literary portrait was of Truman Capote, in Florence in 1950.

Among her later subjects were W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, John Minton, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, James Earl Jones and U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur.

Wilbur wrote the foreword for her autobiography, “A Life in Photography” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

He described the realm of her portraits as “warm and sociable” despite the diversity and difficulty of her subjects.

Her “refusal to coerce or to use the intimidations of the studio,” Wilbur wrote, “are part of the genius of Rollie McKenna's portrait work.”

She approached portraiture as a modernist, using natural light for midrange shots in which the subject appears to have collaborated in choosing a setting and pose.

The portraits are serious, for the most part, with exceptions like a laughing Roosevelt taken for America Illustrated magazine in 1961.

McKenna's work was exhibited widely, most recently two years ago in a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

It was published in national magazines and books like “Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology” (1963) and her collection “Writers and Artists.”

Rosalie Thorne was born in Houston and raised in Mississippi. She worked in a medical laboratory, did science research for Time magazine, served with the Naval Reserve in Washington in World War II and studied art history at Vassar College.

She learned photography on her own to illustrate Italian Renaissance architecture. She also took pictures of scenes in the American South and West and set up shop in New York as a commercial photographer.

She wrote that trips to Europe meant a break from a souring marriage, and a visit to a friend in Kuwait in 1950 produced a harvest of pictures of local life, like Bedouin falconers.

Her marriage to Henry Dickson McKenna ended in divorce; there were no children.
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