Press Release

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College Presents: Making a Life in Photography: Rollie McKenna

Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center presents Making A Life In Photography: Rollie McKenna, the first survey of the prolific career of American photographer Rosalie (Rollie) Thorne McKenna, on view February 17–June 2, 2024.

McKenna, Vassar Class of 1940, worked independently as a sought-after architectural and portrait photographer, making unique yet underrecognized contributions to American modernism and documentary photography. McKenna’s work was published in numerous books and magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Fortune. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1955 landmark exhibition Latin American Modernism Since 1945 featured her architectural photographs. She made iconic portraits of artists and writers, including W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Alexander Calder, Truman Capote, T. S. Eliot, Laura Gilpin, Henry Moore, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, and Eudora Welty. Using her camera, McKenna forged an unusual path for a woman in mid-twentieth-century America toward personal and creative freedom. She embraced photography to explore the complexities of human experience—including her own queer and feminist life.

Making a Life in Photography offers a new thematic frame to consider the significance of McKenna’s contributions to photography: Her career as an independent, working photographer enabled her to make an independent life; and in turn, her self-determination motivated her to pursue photography. In reference to the framework of the exhibition, Mary-Kay Lombino, Deputy Director and Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator at the Loeb, says, “We emphasize McKenna’s entrepreneurship and work outside of the darkroom to demonstrate, especially to an audience of undergraduate students thinking about making their own way in the world, that artists are not simply born into creativity, but rather, they make careers as creative professionals.”

McKenna’s rich history of self-determination and spirit goes beyond her photography: As the US entered World War II, she enlisted in Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), becoming the first woman to attain the rank of sharpshooter in the U.S. Navy and receiving the Navy Expert Pistol Shot Medal in 1943. During her brief and only marriage, McKenna returned to Vassar in 1948 and 1949 to pursue a master’s degree in the history of art, with special dispensation secured by professor of art history Agnes Rindge Claflin under the G.I. Bill.

The exhibition, presented thematically in four galleries, features over 100 gelatin silver prints made during the artist’s lifetime, drawn primarily from the Loeb’s collection with the addition of several key loans. Exhibition themes include People & Places, McKenna’s Modernism, Life & Photography, and McKenna at Work, while other issues such as artistic legacy, the complexities of privilege, and accepted conventions of both womanhood and photographic genre are addressed. “This career retrospective of McKenna, who is the most represented individual photographer in the Loeb’s collection, highlights her work as emblematic not only of the Loeb, but as part of her history with Vassar College,” says T. Barton Thurber, the Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Loeb Art Center.

Complementing the exhibition in the Loeb, a satellite exhibition, Rollie McKenna’s Photography: In Print and at Vassar, featuring McKenna’s photographs published in books and magazines and photos taken for and of Vassar, will be shown in the Thompson Library. The Library’s Archives and Special Collections houses archival documents and work prints that relate to McKenna’s time on campus as a student and later as a frequent visiting photographer covering student life, campus architecture, special events, and faculty personalities. Among the work is a 1955 story from Seventeen magazine, “Anne Goes to Vassar,” written and photographed by McKenna, which chronicles the story of Anne Breukelman, class of 1958, during her first days at Vassar. The Library exhibition is located on the first floor, just beyond the main entrance and circulation desk, on view from February 22–June 2, 2024.

The Loeb exhibition is also accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, co-published by Vassar College and Scala Arts Publishers, including contributions by Jessica D. Brier, Mary-Kay Lombino, Rebecca Senf, T. Barton Thurber, and Luísa Valle.

Making a Life in Photography: Rollie McKenna is generously supported by the Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation and the Hoene Hoy Photography Fund.

Related Events

Thursday, February 22, 2024
4:00 p.m.

Loeb Art Center Atrium & Galleries

5:00 p.m.

An evening with Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas in conversation with scholar Monica Bravo
Taylor Hall, Room 102

Thursday, March 21, 2024
5:30 p.m.

Cyberfeminist Performance + Praxis
Taylor Hall, Room 203

In this two-part lecture by Mindy Seu and Celine Wong Katzman, Seu will do a performative reading of the Cyberfeminism Index followed by Wong Katzman’s introduction to building intersectional feminist, archival, and curatorial frameworks in the contemporary art world.

Co-sponsored by the Vassar Art Department and the Loeb Art Center.

Thursday, April 4, 2024
5 p.m.

Gallery talk on Making a Life in Photography: Rollie McKenna
Loeb Art Center Galleries

Exhibition curators Jessica D. Brier and Mary-Kay Lombino, joined by Loeb Director T. Barton Thurber and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Luísa Valle, will lead an exhibition tour focusing on highlights from McKenna’s prolific career. 

About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is a teaching and learning museum, free and open to all, supporting Vassar College’s educational mission and communities. Formerly the Vassar College Art Gallery, the Loeb is the first art museum at a college or university that was part of the institution’s original plan. Today, the permanent collection includes over 22,000 works, comprised of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, textiles, and glass and ceramic wares. The Loeb strives to be a catalyst for scholarly, creative, and social justice work by Vassar students and others. It aims to reflect a commitment to broaden, and amplify, the voices represented in the museum setting, and to ensure that the Loeb’s programs and practices have a positive impact on campus and beyond. To learn more, please visit or follow @theloeb.

Commitment to DEAI

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College commits to Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) as core values across its culture, systems, and practices. We pledge to allocate resources (human and financial) to create and sustain a museum culture in which difference is celebrated. The Loeb staff is dedicated to integrating DEAI priorities into gallery installations, programming, interpretation, collections management, acquisitions, and internal processes. Our ongoing work is guided by an intention to care for all people engaged with the Loeb while welcoming the exchange of ideas, enriching experiences, and diverse perspectives through art.

Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible.  The Loeb is now open to the public every day (except Monday) from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Loeb is located at 124 Raymond Avenue near the entrance to the Vassar College campus. Parking is available on Raymond Avenue. Directions to the Vassar campus in Poughkeepsie, NY, are available at

The Art Center is also accessible via the Dutchess County Public Transit, Bus Route L. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that Vassar stands upon the homelands of the Munsee Lenape, Indigenous peoples who have an enduring connection to this place despite being forcibly displaced by European colonization. Munsee Lenape peoples continue today as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin, the Delaware Tribe and the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma, and the Munsee-Delaware Nation in Ontario. This acknowledgment, however, is insufficient without our reckoning with the reality that every member of the Vassar community since 1861 has benefited from these Native peoples’ displacement, and it is hollow without our efforts to counter the effects of structures that have long enabled—and that still perpetuate—injustice against Indigenous Americans. To that end, we commit to build and sustain relationships with Native communities; to expand opportunities at Vassar for Native students, as well as Native faculty and other employees; and to collaborate with Native nations to know better the Indigenous peoples, past and present, who care for this land.

Vassar College is a coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Contact: Alison Hendrie,, (914) 450-3340

Go to the Exhibit page on the Loeb website.

January 17, 2024
Rollie McKenna, Anne Sexton, 1961, Gelatin silver print; printed 1983, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Purchase, Francis Woolsey and Helen Silkman Bronson, class of 1924, Fund, 1983.5

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