John Summers


Rollie McKenna obituary

by John Summers, published in the Guardian, 21 July 2003

The American photographer Rollie McKenna, who has died aged 84, did more to create the image of Dylan Thomas than anybody except Thomas himself. Though she took portraits of many poets and artists of the 1950s and 60s, the two that went round the world on books and records were of the Welsh writer - in fine frenzy, with fag in pouted mouth, and bound, Prometheus-like, in vine-tendrils (his idea), against the white wall of her house in America.

Sadly, the impact of these wonderful pictures coincided with Thomas’s premature death, at the age of 39. In 1953, Rollie was with him in New York, where Under Milk Wood had just received its first stage performance. She captured Thomas rattling away at the bar of the White Horse Tavern, and it was most probably from drink that he died that November. The celebrated BBC radio production of the play, with Richard Burton as the first voice, was broadcast the following January.

Since 1949, Thomas had been visiting the US to give college poetry readings, and Rollie first met him in New York in 1952. Early the following year, she visited the writer, with his wife Caitlin and family, at his coastal home, the Boat House, in Laugharne, Dyfed.

She was so small that she could not cart around a tripod to hold her cameras steady. Films were a lot slower in those days, but the problem was solved when Thomas dismantled the lavatory cistern and fastened the pullchain to Rollie’s camera, so that she could step on the other end to tension it for long exposures. Meanwhile, Thomas stared into the camera from the gloom of the bikeshed, where he was typing out the final pages of Under Milk Wood on the old Underwood typewriter from which, some say, he culled the title.

He was apparently no recluse: ‘Dylan certainly liked being photographed,’ said Rollie. ‘He always enjoyed it. And I liked him, you know. He was always easy to get along with.’ Her sole regret was that she never received a cent from the worldwide use of the pictures.

Born in Houston, Texas, the young Rosalie Thorne acquired the nickname Rollie when her parents realised that they did not want her to be known as Rose – not, contrary to fable, because her preferred camera was a Rolleiflex. Though she did use one for the Prometheus picture – and I used it to take my photo of her on her return visit to Laugharne for her Portrait Of Dylan: A Photographer’s Memoir (1982) – her favourite was the Leica III, fitted with a Japanese Nikkor screw lens, as used by Life magazine photographers in the Korean war.

Rollie’s parents separated when she was three; she was passed from relative to relative, though this unconventional existence had the advantage of introducing her to a wide range of family friends, one of whom taught her how to use a camera. She studied American history at Vassar College, from 1938 to 1940, returning there in 1948 for an MA in art history. In the interim, she served in the US naval reserve and, in 1945, married Henry Dickson McKenna; they divorced in 1950.

Rollie furthered her art history studies, taking photographs of architecture along the way, in Rome and Florence, where she met Thomas’s friend and biographer, John Malcolm Brinnin. Through Brinnin, she met and photographed Truman Capote, her first literary subject; Brinnin then commissioned a series of American and British poets from her on behalf of the New York Poetry Center.

On the British leg of this venture, Rollie not only saw Thomas, but also took a portrait that greatly pleased TS Eliot. The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology (1963) featured her photographs of 80 subjects, including Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In 1965, she produced a 21-minute film, The Days Of Dylan Thomas, and a book of the same name, with text by Bill Read.

She also contributed to Time magazine, America Illustrated, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, People, Mademoiselle and the Observer. In 2001, the National Portrait Gallery held a retrospective exhibition of her work, which, as well as people, usually on location and rarely in a studio, included architectural photography.

• Rosalie ‘Rollie’ McKenna, photographer, born November 15 1918; died June 15 2003