Meeting Rollie McKenna

Suddenly, in the last week of August of 1995, I needed a new job. I had been raised in the family business in Downtown Mystic, A Stitch In Time Boutique, and had acquired a fledging interest in fine art photography through a young roster of poets and musicians in my hometown.  I was introduced to a new Rock and Roll family now, and I had made significant forays into local exhibitions and publications, and had set up my own darkroom in our rented artist collective in Stonington.  In fact, it was a fellow artist in our homegrown art scene that told me that Rollie McKenna lived in town, and she was an important literary photographer, having photographed the likes of Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, and many others. Albert was always incredulous as he stated, “and she lives right here in Stonington!”  So, on August 31, 1995, I took the phonebook out, paged to the listings for “M”, and found “McKenna, R” in Stonington, Connecticut at 1 Hancox Street, and I dialed her number. She answered the phone, and I introduced myself as a photographer who was looking for a job, “did she need anybody right now?”  She said, “As a matter of fact…I need someone to do some research for me, as I’m working on another book.” I answered promptly that I could help her out, so she suggested that I come to her house the next day so we could meet in person.

We sat on the back patio overlooking Sandy Point, and discussed her new project. She had published her autobiography, A Life in Photography (Knopf 1991), and in 1995, she was looking to complete a visual timeline of the many poets and writers that she had photographed in the 1950s through the 1980s.  The new book would feature each writer with an older photograph, next to a brand new photograph, along with a short biography of each writer that I was being hired to write, and a piece of “new“ work, by each writer, that Rollie called a “gleaning”.   I clearly had the easiest job, as it would prove challenging to get some of the writers to sit for a new photo, and produce new work. The time that had elapsed between each earlier portrait and also their literary output was the overriding factor.  The photographs captured the vanity and vulnerability of her subjects. But she was fearless in her vision, and she parlayed that same enthusiasm to me on the first day in her studio, which was September 5th, 1995 at 145 Water Street.

She handed me a copy of her master list, “People Photographed as of September 1995”, a nine paged single spaced alphabetical listing of the artists in her photography archives.  We fully reviewed the list together, and started updating the dates of her most recent shoots. I immediately began a handwritten studio log, noting the date in the upper right hand corner and “Gemma and McKenna” below it, which I carefully updated each day with all of Rollie’s directions: tasks at hand, current status updates, and reminders for the next day and week.  On my first day, I noted:  “Searched for the folder on Elizabeth Bishop to no avail, which contains the missing third page of a letter from 10 May 1956.  Need for the completion of Bishop in book, need other comments on life, other than the “lonely poet” symbol most publicly known.”  I had no reference for this bullet point listing, yet I wrote it, and it would come in handy during my days doing research at the local libraries. Another note from 20 September 1995:  “Pull negative of Alastair Reid from Master File (1960) and tell L and V (her photo lab in NYC) to lighten up contrast of his suit and into the background. AR8.60B  #25 need two sets 5” x7” with white borders”. I quickly realized her archival system was masterful. AR8.60B was “Alastair Reid August 1960 Second Roll”.

Rollie left for Key West that October 1995 through April 1996, and we talked on the phone daily and faxed furiously.  Also, letters were sent, and sometimes copies of faxes and letters that she received in Key West, like when she mailed me a copy of the letter she received from Tom Wolfe, expressing dismay at his tardiness in response to Rollie’s request for a gleaning. Every day I was working on the research for the biographies for the book. I collected magazine articles: The Sewanee Review Autumn 1972 to garner literary reviews on Rollie’s subjects, John Malcolm Brinnin, Lucille Clifton, Philip Caputo, and James Dickey. The Saturday Review 17 November 1955 for an article on a review of Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal, by John Malcolm Brinnin , by Louis Untermeyer. Mind you, this was all before the Internet. I could not Google ”Philip Caputo”. I also dove into Rollie’s sizeable and extremely well organized photo archives. To this day, 23 years later, I have enacted many of Rollie’s organizational techniques. It was of utmost importance to be able to manually retrieve any photo at a moment’s notice. Judith Bachmann handled the affairs at Rollie’s house, each day fielding phone calls from literary agents looking to gain clearance for publishing one of Rollie’s photographs.

At first, requests for a new print would go to Rollie’s photography darkroom of choice, L and V Photo Lab in NYC. We would carefully pack up rolls of film, and negatives and overnight them to the urban studio. But then I suggested that I could get Rollie’s darkroom at the  Water Street Studio back up and running, and that I could handle all of the darkroom printing. By early summer of 1996,  Rollie  got a call from the Muskegon Museum of Art, in Michigan. We had sent them a copy of her autobiography on my second day of work back in September of 1995, and the Museum had finished selecting the 61 images from the book that they wanted for a Rollie McKenna solo exhibition. I inventoried all of Rollie’s framed photographs boxed up in the studio, and made a list on 31 May 1996, that we had 37 framed photos, ready to go, and 7 to be framed, and 17 to be printed and framed. I got busy right away printing up those 17 photographs, as Rollie was due back from Key West on 10 June 1996, and the moving company was booked to transport the exhibit to Muskegon on 26 July 1996. I finished printing the photographs, then sent the photos to Studio 33 in the Boro, to be matted. In the interim, I ordered all of the framing hardware, and a small party of us assembled and framed the remaining photographs at Rollie’s studio. Then everything had to be carefully labelled and packed up.

Rollie announced to me that the Museum wanted her to give a speech along with a slide show. She said that she wasn’t up to organizing the slide show, and writing a speech;  remember that in 1996, she was already 78 years old: an extremely hardworking and passionate artist, but still, she had to contend with some heart issues from time to time and a milder case of forgetfulness.  So I jumped on it. I culled the 36 images for the slide show, and found that over half of them needed to be produced into slide form, my first experience shooting slide film with a light set-up. My notes from Rollie said that “a blue tint suggests the wrong filter, and that I should use TMAX 100 film with a ASA of 50, and to make sure that the image on the copystand was equidistant to the lights”. These tips would come into play for me when I later worked for the Stonington Historical Society after Rollie moved to Northampton in 1998.

After the slide production, I settled into writing the speech from Rollie’s perspective, so that she could read my text, transposed onto index cards for easy reference. On the Denise Levertov slide from 1969, I wrote, “I approached Denise for this photograph again to join the legions contained within the Modern Poets, Second Edition (McGraw Hill 1963). She made the peculiar demand in her response,  ‘She wanted the right to have destroyed the negatives of any photographs I wouldn’t like to have in circulation….’ I said I would have to ask Elizabeth Bishop first……”   Rollie said the speech and slide show was a huge success and that she was very thankful for all of my hard work.

That Winter of 1996 saw more research for the book, and completing any studio and darkroom requests.  When Rollie returned from Key West in the Spring of 1997, she had a new companion who favored seclusion and privacy , and her work crew would soon find Rollie cut off from the familiar foundations. Soon everything was for sale, and we had to pack up the house and studio, as Rollie was moving to Northampton, Massachusetts. I remember her telling me that she wanted her life’s work to go to the New York Public Library, because that’s where her friend, James Merrill’s work was archived.  One day when I was packing up at the studio, Mary Thacher, the then Director of the Stonington Historical Society came by, as a friend of Rollie’s to inquire what was going on, and she hired me for the Stonington Historical Society to be a photo archivist.

We wouldn’t hear anything more about Rollie until we saw the obituary in the New York Times in June 2003. Alas, her third book, to be called Poets and Writers of an Age would never get published.

—Michelle Gemma
Mystic, Connecticut
2 August 2018

Inscription by Rollie McKenna inside her autobiography “A Life In Photography” (Knopf 1991), given to me on my birthday 10 October 1995.

—-This memoir was written 2 August 2018 for inclusion in a book about Rollie McKenna, published by the Stonington Historical Society on 1 November 2018.

Rollie McKenna

Book cover design by Chip Kidd.

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Destroy The Negatives

“Hi Michelle,
Although I have not run into you around Mystic in a very long time, I am sure you remember me since in the past you took photographs of Maria.

 

I have been meaning to call you, but usually do not remember until it is too late at night to do it.

 

As you know, Maria’s father was not at all pleased with the pictures of Maria.

Since the art festival is quickly approaching, I am emailing to ask that you absolutely do not use any photos of her in your booth this year or in any future years

– or show them at any other local events.

We have a friend who seems to go out of his way to check your booth each year and report back to her father, which always sends him into a tirade about how it was never the right thing to do.

 

I truly think it would be best if you destroyed all negatives of her pictures.  I know some were exhibited at the Wayne Richard Barbershop when it first opened, because someone else mentioned that at the time also.

 

Sorry this did not work out well.

Thank you for your consideration.”

—-Maria’s Mother

note: the photographer’s father was protective, also.

 

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“This Night Has Opened My Eyes”

“The dream has gone
But the baby is real
Oh you did a good thing
She could have been a poet
Or, she could have been a fool
Oh you did a bad thing
And I’m not happy
And I’m not sad”

—-the Smiths, “This Night has Opened my Eyes”, from Hatful of Hollow, a compilation album released 12 November 1984, Rough Trade.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatful_of_Hollow

featuring Model: Liz Walz wearing a handmade dress by Susan Hickman for Crocker House FashionShow
Photograph by Michelle Gemma

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33: THE MAGIC NUMBER

“Since the most ancient of times numbers and numerology have been believed to conceal secrets and messages. For some, numbers have very special significance, with the ability to conceal true meaning from all but the initiated. To some, certain numbers can convey that something of particular importance lies within the text under their study. Such numbers needn’t even be written to convey the presence of a hidden code within a sentence or paragraph, only that the sum of letters included adds up to a particular number.
No number holds more esoteric significance than “33.” The number three is significant in all major religions. There is a Trinity for Christians, and a Triple Goddess for the ancients.”

“In the written words attributed to Shakespeare, to Francis Bacon, to Spenser, Dante, and others we can find hidden code words and paragraphs that use this number to alert the initiated reader that something important is connected.
In the works attributed to Shakespeare there are many phrases and passages referencing the number 33. Julius Caesar is stabbed 33 times. The body of work shows a mastery of numerology. The number 33 reflects the interface of the familiar world with the higher spiritual realm. In Hamlet, the Ghost is represented in the first scene with an entrance described in a sentence with 33 characters. And Horatio addresses the ghost in 33 characters as he leaves. “Stay: Speake, speake, I charge thee, speake.” In Julius Caesar, the ghost of Caesar visits Brutus in a passage that starts with a 33-character sentence, “That shapes this monstrous apparition.” Brutus recovers from the shock and addresses the ghost in a 33-word sentence.”

“From Iraq through Phoenicia to Phoenix Arizona, whether by design or coincidence, the 33rd parallel passes through some very significant places.
The ancient city of Babylon was very near the 33rd-degree latitude line while modern Baghdad is on the 33rd parallel. This area was once thought to be the Garden of Eden. Heading west, the line passes through Damascus, Beirut, and onto two Templar castles one exactly on the 33rd latitude the other at 32.71. The light of the sky is embodied by the Sun with the solar year divided by the sun’s cycle of 11.06 years, equaling 33. The Sun, defined as a circumference of 360 degrees divided by 11, equals 32.72.”

Crossing the ocean, the 33rd parallel brings us to Charleston, South Carolina. This city is the original site of Scottish Rite masonry in U.S. Charleston’s Fort Sumter is the location of the first shot fired in the Civil War as that state succeeded from the Union.
Coincidence or not, Dallas, Texas, was of course where President Kennedy was assassinated. Not only is it on the 33rd parallel, but also the date of 11/22 adds up to 33. During Kennedy’s administration Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti was upset because aid from the U.S. was cut off. He claimed to put a curse on JFK, which caused his death on the date of those powerful numbers.
While writers on this subject often include Roswell, New Mexico, we’ll go on to Phoenix, Arizona. This was once the center of the Hohokam culture. The largest site, known as Snaketown, was only five miles from the 33rd parallel and the observatory called Casa Grande is five miles from the line as well. Here this advanced ancient culture built 500 miles of canals irrigating 25,000 acres.”

“Despite the reputation given to such beliefs by organized religion, science in modern times has come to understand the concept of a body clock, the effect of the lunar cycle on animals, and most likely people, and the reality of circadian cycles. Ancients might have known this as well. There are 33 vertebrae in the spine. In India, it is believed a vital energy is needed to awaken the spiritual energy located at the base of the spine. This coiled-up energy is known as Kundalini, and through Yoga energy it ascends to the brain and beyond. Both Hindu and Tantric arts seek this awakening.”

“The spinal column is often referred to as Jacob’s ladder, or the Serpent. It is also compared to the caduceus symbol of Mercury, Thoth, and medicine. Did the ancients also know there were 33 turns in a complete sequence of DNA? Could the Caduceus symbolize the two intertwining snakes apparently reflected in the 33-sequence, double helix DNA ascending a vertical pole, which could be the 33-vertebrae spine?”

“When the two threes are put together facing each other they offer a design that is said to represent the ancient Hermetic maxim  ‘as above, so below.’ ”

 “The heavens mirror the earth; the spirit reflects humankind.”

Photo Narrative featuring Writer Royal Young on location in Great Neck, New York

Excerpts from the article, “33: The Magic Number, Why Is This Number So Important To So Many?” by Steven Sora, Atlantis Rising magazine, March/April 2015 Issue #110

https://atlantisrisingmagazine.com/article/33-the-magic-number/

Photographs by Michelle Gemma

 

 

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last quarter moon

The LAST QUARTER MOON occurs on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, at 5:45 AM EDT.

On Tuesday morning, the Last Quarter Moon is exact, when the Sun in Libra squares the Moon in Cancer.

“The Last Quarter Moon phase points to some sort of crisis of consciousness. After basking in the awareness symbolized by the full light of the Moon at the time of last week’s Full Moon, we disperse our knowledge and come to a point when we need to sort out what works for us–and what doesn’t–in preparation for next week’s New Moon, when something new is born once again. This is not the best time to start a major project, as the decreasing light of the Moon symbolizes a descent into unconsciousness. It’s time to begin finishing up the details of that which was conceived at the last New Moon. What revelations did you have last week? What did they mean for you? What can be done now?”
https://cafeastrology.com/thisweekinastrology.html
Kodak 5063 Tri-X film
Photograph by Michelle Gemma

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Seventeen Seconds

1.   “A Reflection”
2.   “Play for Today”
3.   “Secrets”
4.   “In Your House”
5.   “Three”
6.   “The Final Sound”
7.   “A Forest”
8.   “M”
9.   “At Night”
10.   “Seventeen Seconds”

Photo Narrative
“Seventeen Seconds”
featuring Model: Titus Abad
all Photographs by Michelle Gemma
Eolia Mansion at Harkness Park, Waterford,  CT  USA
Photo Captions  from the album “Seventeen Seconds” by the Cure (1980) Fiction Records
I picked up this album in 1992 at the Heathrow Airport in London on a trip with my friend Matthew Hannan, on our way back from a visit to Megen Cox in Scotland.
An important trip as I brought a camera along and shot my very first roll of film, almost completely damaged by the airport x-ray. But the remaining frames, developed with assistance by Matthew Mclaughlin at the first Greenman Collective at Alice Court in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, led to the cover shot for Green, the Red Beard, a book of poems by Hannan, on Hozomeen Press.  Full Circle, here we are, together again at PortFire.

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Moon in Capricorn

Signs of Earth

CAPRICORN
featuring Model: Piper Meyers
Coogan Farm
Mystic,  CT   USA
Photograph by Michelle Gemma
new film picked up from the Lab:

120mm Ilford Delta 400 Pro film shot with Mamiya 7 scanned on Epson Perfection V600 Photo

from the new series: Personal Universe, an astrological study starring the model stable of Michelle Gemma (2017-2018)

https://michellegemmaphotography.com
https://michellegemmaphotography.wordpress.com/

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“There is a Light that never goes out”

SCRIPT  FOR  MICHELLE  GEMMA  PHOTOSHOOT

featuring Model: Alycia delosSantos   as my Leo for the forthcoming series: “Personal Universe” (an astrological study of the zodiac featuring twelve models portraying their sign)
today’s locations: House of 1833 in Old Mystic  and the Mystic Hilton in Mystic

“There is a Light that never goes out”

3 PM: arrive at the House of 1833:

You are my Leo goddess queen, and you are invited to the Mansion for a party and you are the honored guest.

We are going to get you dressed up in a fur coat ; in a beautiful vintage backless burgundy dress and you’re ready!

 

You’re ready for the honor,  for the party ; to celebrate and be celebrated!

You show up to the Mansion as expected: you stalk around waiting for it:: you go room and room and it’s empty:

no one is there: the fireplace is not lit.

You change outfits hopeful that the party is about to start:

we were just a little premature:: more stalking; as in leonine prowess::: “what is going on?”


— Nothing


So we go to the hotel for the party:

4 PM: arrive at The Mystic Hilton
There are lights there are people: there is a fire:::

 

You can dance
You can see people and be a lioness.
I keep thinking of the Smiths lyric:
“Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
Who are young and alive
Driving in your car
I never never want to go home
Because I haven’t got one anymore”
So this is the triumphant realization of our arrival at the hotel:: we are seeing people and we are happy and at peace!

 

 

 

You have fun then at the end we wrap you in velvet swaths and you retreat to your den to relax and to dream:::::

“There is a Light that never goes out”
all Photographs by Michelle Gemma

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night

 

“The fog was where I wanted to be.”
“Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here.”
“Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead.”
“I didn’t meet a soul.”
“Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is.”
“That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.”
“Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land.”
“The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea.”
“As if I had drowned long ago.”
“As if I was the ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.”

featuring Model: Kathryn O’Reilly
all photographs by Michelle Gemma
Photo Shoot for Aquarius:
Personal Universe series
24   August  2018
Bluff Point,  CT  USA
Eve of the Full Moon
script:  Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night excerpt:
http://michellegemmaphotography.com/
https://michellegemmaphotography.wordpress.com/

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