Today’s post comes from Léa Greenberg, Vassar class of 2025 and Art Center Student Intern.
This May, I had the opportunity to visit the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona and escape the 90 degree heat by spending time in their air-conditioned archive viewing rooms. This visit to the CCP in Tucson, which I experienced alongside Mary-Kay Lombino, Deputy Director and the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator, was productive and eye-opening for me. I was in awe of the enormity of collected work and research materials from over 2,200 photographers housed on Arizona’s campus. It was thanks to the help of Emilie Hardman, Head of Archives and Digital Strategy, who hand-pulled the material we were fortunate to view.
Over four days, I discovered more than I anticipated about the life of Rosalie (Rollie) Thorne McKenna, photographer and Vassar alum, whom we are in the process of researching for an upcoming exhibition at the Loeb. From 10am to 4:30pm we spent our days combing through our requested selection of boxes within the 114-box collection of Rollie McKenna related material that the CCP owns. Her pristinely preserved materials included: negatives, contacts, prints, film, books, and pages and pages of correspondence.
I had the experience of holding a written letter from Helen Keller to Rollie McKenna, thanking her for a photoshoot done in her garden. I sifted through hundreds of contact sheets with Rollie’s red grease pencil, ruthlessly marking up her favorites to help her printers. Not just witnessing but being able to touch the first draft of her photo book on Dylan Thomas helped me understand her process, that much more.
One morning—before a day of viewing, reading, photographing, note-taking, uncovering, and discovering new information about Rollie McKenna’s life—we met with Chief Curator of the Center for Creative Photography, Becky Senf. An interesting conversation prevailed about new changes happening at the CCP and about the state of the art and artists in the world at the moment. This conversation sparked thoughts in me about my time going through this photographer’s archival material and thinking about this kind of material in a modern context. Today, many people consider themselves photographers, as their phones take high quality photos that sometimes come out better than a camera. This made me think, as well, about photographers like my mother—who considered herself both a working stock photographer and a passion photographer—in an age where digital photography is ever more accessible. What is my mother’s and other contemporary photographers’ collectable archival material? E-mails? Texts? And where are these stored? The cloud?—wherever that may be. Unlike the prints, paper letters and other various correspondence that I was looking through for Rollie, it was interesting to think about the future of archival material, and the potentially, increasingly rare experience of going through physical materials like those at the CCP.