'A Village Love Affair' exhibit captures photographer's life in Stonington Borough
Ours is a culture that worships at the altar of Visual Documentation. Selfies. Instagram. Flickr. Muzy. YouTube videos chronicling every possible moment from the world at large, and fans who spend big money for tickets to a sporting event or concert — so they can watch the entire event through the lens of their iPhones.
Does anyone remember cameras? Or even black and white film?
Think back to the late Rollie Mckenna, who wandered the streets of Stonington Borough snapping random images of neighbors and the casual, everyday processional called Life in a Small Town. Sounds quaint — and it is. But consider that McKenna, who was a longtime resident of the Borough, was acknowledged as one of the world's finest photographers for her images of architecture and remarkable portraits of literary giants such as Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, and many others.
But McKenna, who died in 2003 and would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year, also enjoyed a love affair with the Borough and, by the simple act of doing what came so naturally to her, captured the spirit of the community through her instinctual and affectionate images.
That's the gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow premise behind a joint art exhibition and book venture that kicks off Friday at the Richard W. Woolworth Library & Research Center in Stonington. Titled "A Village Love Affair: A New Photography & Publication featuring Rollie McKenna's Images of Stonington," the projects are focused on her Borough photos but encompass the whole of her life and work. In addition to photographs of the village and some of the writers she worked with, the exhibit also includes an astonishing and beautifully conceptualized array of entries from McKenna's voluminous diary entries; oral history interviews from residents who knew McKenna; personal letters and contracts with publishers and magazines; and equipment from her career including cameras, film cannisters and lenses — and even McKenna's actual darkroom.
The exhibit runs through autumn 2019, after which it finds a permanent installation in Stonington's Old Lighthouse Museum.
"A Village Love Affair" was probably inevitable inasmuch as, in 2002, the Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation donated over 5,000 prints and negatives from her private estate to the Stonington Historical Society, whose purview includes the Woolworth Library. Over the years, in addition to regular duties and ongoing exhibitions and programs, the museum has been cataloguing McKenna's archives, chiefly through the efforts of Michelle Gemma, a photographer for the artist website PortFire and owner of the Mystic Army Navy Store, who was McKenna's research and photo assistant from 1995 to 98 and worked at the Stonington Historical Society from 1998 to 2010. She also wrote an essay for the "A Village Love Affair" book.
Referring to McKenna's youth, when she lived with a succession of relatives and as such became very self-reliant, Gemma says, "She developed a confident edge to pursue multifaceted conversations with anyone she came in contact with. In fact, she was most known for putting her subjects immediately at ease.
"She brought that same respectful curiosity every time she picked up the camera. The Stonington 'candids' are really good on their own as Art. There were some misses as we always see when we look at a photographer's contact sheet. But the photographs that she presented to the world are high art, in my opinion. It was her disarming character that made her subjects feel at ease, and it was her diverse background and education that informed her photographic choices."
Between McKenna's work and voluminous archival material and her fascination with the Borough, an exhibition thereof seems a natural idea. But the big question came down to logistics.
"We knew we had an amazing and untapped collection of Rollie's work and that it would make an incredible exhibition," says Elizabeth Wood, executive director of the Stonington Historical Society. "Plus, Rollie was iconic in the village for so long. But she left for Northampton in 1995, and so there was sort of an unfinished story here. Of course, the hard part was figuring out how to come up with an exhibition given all the material we had. Chris (Kepple, the society's director of development) had such enthusiasm and vision for the McKenna project. 'You can do this!' he kept saying."
This past spring, with the help of a Project Implementation Grant from Connecticut Humanities and a financial contribution from the McKenna Archives (as well as the remainder of the photographer's archives), the exhibition/book project was green-lighted. A committee of Borough residents was formed to curate the production, headed up by noted digital photographer Francis Hills. After thousands of negatives were cleaned and scanned, prints were made and, over six months, the committee narrowed it down to, first, 600 images and finally the 130 included in the show.
"It was important to have input from people in the Borough who were around at the time who could provide perspective on Rollie's photographs," says Chelsea Ordner, director of Woolworth Library. "The photos stand on their own, of course, and some of them are very well known. We wanted to represent the greatest hits, so to speak, but also show unfamiliar images that, in many ways, are more amazing because you haven't seen them before."
The viewer can instantly see the consistent traits of empathy, creativity and compassion across the broad range of McKenna's work. But it's interesting to see how those qualities emerge depending on the subject matter. Her author portraits aren't typically formal but instead have a familiar element; she clearly knew the subjects and a whimsy, relaxed vulnerability comes through.
Gemma says, "She treated everyone with tremendous respect ... (And) by using natural light, she worked outside of a posed studio setting and therefore interacted with her subjects. She once climbed a tree to photograph Richard Wilbur, which so surprised him that she was able to take the most relaxed portraits of him."
There was certainly an overlap with that artistic element to her work because McKenna was friends with and photographed famous Stonington residents such as poets James Merrill and J.D. McClatchy, gardener and author Eleanor Pereny, and novelist Grace Stone. In some ways, though, the pictures of village life are more remarkable than her more famous author or architectural pieces.
As luminously evidenced in the exhibit, there's a revelatory and fresh aspect to spontaneous shots of such things as a softball game, a parade, people at work or in storefront conversation, family gatherings or folks at the beach. They innately portray the distinct architecture, rhythm and spirit of Stonington as well as the personality of her subjects.
"To see the street portraits of town life is very different,"Ordner says. "The images of writers provide context for this exhibit, but we're the Stonington Historical Society and we were fortunate enough to come into a huge collection from Rollie's estate. So we focus on the Stonington aspect. And that's wonderful because she took these photos as a member of the community, and she's invested in that fashion as well as an artist."
Wood adds, "Some of them (Stonington photos) blow your mind. You look at them and have to catch your breath. You start to understand her gift, that she had a way of seeing everyday life in a way that just completely comes through in the photographs. And people knew her in town. She was very free in that she liked to walk around and always had her camera with her."
In addition to the images themselves, the exhibition offers so much more. There's a substantial video component including projections in the foyer. Too, the oral history interviews with Borough residents, filmed and edited by Kepple and Stonington resident/longtime NBC "Dateline" producer Betsy Osha, can be heard by guests at listening stations in the reading room and the darkroom.
And the book "A Village Love Affair" — which is available for purchase at the library, the historical society and Bank Square Books in Mystic — contains several photos from the show as well essays by Gemma, Francis, Stonington writer/McKenna Committee member Robert Palm and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ann Dillard. The volume was conceptualized by graphic designer Susan Lindberg with a cover by award-winning designer/author (and sometimes Borough resident) Chip Kidd.
"Basically, we're excited," Wood says. "This was a really good idea for a long time, and it finally gained some traction and momentum, and it happened. And response has been great. The word gets out, and people want to know more. A lot of residents remember Rollie and even more have heard of her and can't wait to see this. She was a remarkable artist and person."
Gemma adds, "It is all very exciting that, like James Merrill, Sandy McClatchy and so many, Stonington has another honored resident artist. Art is permanent; many other things are not."
If you go
What: "A Village Love Affair: A New Photography Exhibit & Publication Featuring Rollie McKenna's Images of Stonington"
Where: The Richard W. Woolworth Library & Research Center, 40 Palmer St., Stonington
When: 1-5 p.m. Mon., Fri. and Sat. and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed. through fall 2019, with eventual permanent installation at the Old Lighthouse Museum
How much: Free, copies of the "A Village Love Affair" book are available for $50 at the library, the Stonington Historical Society and Bank Square Books in Mystic
For more information: (860) 535-1131, stoningtonhistory.org