Northwest photographer Mary Randlett created five distinct bodies of work: architecture, nature, Northwest artists, Northwest writers, and public art. Her resume listed images of more than 500 writers and artists. Taken as a whole, her work is an uncommonly comprehensive visual documentation of the Northwest art scene in the second half of the twentieth century. Don Ellegood, former director of the University of Washington Press, with whom she produced a number of books, called her "beyond question the leading photographer in the Northwest." This biography of Mary Randlett is adapted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), which is illustrated with Mary Randlett photographs. Mary Randlett died on January 11, 2019, at the age of 94.
The eye of an artist and the soul of a poet give Mary Randlett's photographs a lyrical style -- particularly in landscape shots that capture Northwest light. With a camera always at hand, she has the gift of freezing ephemeral wonders into memorable images.
Randlett is a master of whispered drama, of landscape shots that evoke thoughts of time and eternity. More than any other Northwest artist, she has succeeded in capturing what naturalist John Muir referred to as "the velvet softness of the atmosphere" (Muir).
Randlett's remarkable photographs are held in the permanent collections of more than three dozen major institutions nationwide, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to more than 30 solo exhibitions, her work has been featured in enough books, magazines, and newspapers to fill several pages of single-spaced lists.
On Her Own
Like artists in other media, she has been in no one's employ. Her work has been done almost exclusively on her own initiative and at her own expense. "My life is my work; my work is my life," she explains (Randlett Statement, 1996).
Of all her subjects, nature seems closest to her heart. "I am happiest when I am surrounded by nature," she says (Randlett Interview). Her enthusiasm and energy resemble those of a teenager, as she goes in pursuit of something as elusive as a rain shadow, or waits for the moon to catch a particular pattern on water. Her most intriguing shots involve the interaction of light and water. She communicates her enthusiasm in hastily written letters of many pages, punctuated principally by dashes, filled with the excitement of what she has just seen, and where she is going next.
In an undated letter to the late poet Denise Levertov, she wrote, "I step into that great mysterious beauty and behold a world of total magic that unfolds before me. Nothing else exists; nothing else matters. I'm at one with the world." She describes the process of photographing it as "almost like making love" (Randlett to Levertov).
Capturing Northwest Light
"Between mountain peaks is that luminescent area of light I always search for and hope to capture," she writes. "I have always called it Toledo Light [for the dramatic sky in El Greco's noted painting Storm over Toledo]. We have wonderful liquid light in the Northwest. You get a range of luminescence going through all shades from clear white to pure black. It is what makes our area so visually unique. The landscape has a Chinese feeling. Our artists didn't have to go to China to paint scenes that have that look" (Interview)
She shoots black-and-white Tri-X film, which picks up nuances of graduated light, allowing her a full tonal range of soft grays. "Black and white gives me chills," she says. "Color gets in the way" (Interview).
Many of her most dramatic shots have been taken in winter, when mist veils mountains, arctic smoke rises from rivers, and a fragile gel of ice forms over inland lakes. In her darkroom, rocks, mist, snow, and water are whispered into place like sumi ink paintings. They show her singular gift for suggesting infinity beyond the frame.
"Seeing is the first great moment," she says. "When I photograph, I look for the greatest beauty I can find." She shoots in sharp focus and prints dark, pulling in a rich tonal range from whispers of white, through flutters of gray, to a dramatic Haida black. In the darkroom, she says, "When an image appears as I saw it, it sends chills up my spine. And when there is more than I saw in an image, I simply thank that Superior Being -- God, Nature, whoever -- for the gift" (Randlett to Levertov).
Childhood in Seattle
The feeling of kinship with nature stems from her early childhood. Along with her aesthetic sense, it is attributable to things learned through osmosis from her mother and maternal grandparents. Mary Randlett was born May 5, 1924, at Seattle General Hospital, where her paternal grandfather, Dr. Park Weed Willis, was a physician. Her mother, Elizabeth Bayley, grew up in Seattle, studied for two years at Mount Holyoke, and then finished her education at the University of Washington. Mary's dad, Cecil Durand Willis, ran a blueprint company (later known as Superior Reprographics).
Both her maternal grandparents were born in Colorado in 1876, the year of the Battle at the Little Bighorn. Her maternal grandfather, Frank Bayley, was a graduate of Harvard Law School. His wife, Mary Bass Bayley, was reared in Boston, and studied music at the New England Conservatory.
Randlett grew up on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill. She and her three younger sisters spent summers with their Bayley grandparents at the family cabin on Bainbridge Island. During the most difficult part of the Depression, the girls spent two entire years on Bainbridge, where they were usually outdoors.
Randlett got her first camera, a small Kodak, when she was 10 years old. It was a gift from her dad. He brought home blueprint paper and showed her how to make cyanotypes. She produced her first album -- pictures of Orcas Island -- in 1937. Twice she enrolled in photography classes. Both times she dropped out after the first day, because instruction was focused on how to shoot rather than on how to process film.
By high school, she had acquired a Kodak 620 folding camera, which she used through her high school years. She disliked high school. She lost most of her sophomore year to a case of retinitis sufficiently serious that she nearly lost the sight in her left eye. She dropped out of school in the middle of her senior year when her younger sister received a scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla. "Mother sent me also, as I was 'wasting my time,' " Mary recalls (Interview). She had enough credits to be accepted into Whitman. There, she used a darkroom at Billings Hall to develop shots of friends and infrared shots of campus buildings taken with her Kodak camera.
In 1943, with her daughters at college, Randlett's mother Elizabeth Willis took a bundle of paintings by Mark Tobey (1890-1976) to New York, to the Marian Willard Gallery. (Willis shared a close, life long friendship with Tobey.) Willard reportedly didn't care for the work, but she allowed Willis to show Tobey's work from the back room of the gallery. Among those to whom Willis showed the new "white writing" style was painter Jackson Pollock, whose own paintings soon displayed a similar look.
Randlett graduated from Whitman in 1947, with a degree in political science, and no particular vocation in mind. She took a job at the Bon Marché department store selling sporting goods. Irritated that men doing the same job were paid more, although they sold less, she asked for a raise. She was fired.
'The Beginning of Everything'
She approached fashion photographer Hans Jorgensen, who had come to Seattle from New York, where he had been assistant to Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Jorgensen accepted Randlett for an apprenticeship in his commercial studio. He introduced her to the twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, which shot square-format, 2.25-inch-square negatives -- the camera used by fashion and editorial photographers in the field. She bought one from Clyde's Cameras for $325 -- a staggering expense in those days. But the camera was "the beginning of everything," she said. "It gave me what I needed to really get going" (Interview).
Jorgensen showed her how to print, but never how to shoot or how to crop images. She claims influence in shooting portraiture from only one person, George Mantor, who shot his subjects in informal settings with a 35 mm camera -- a strong contrast to the posed studio portraits taken with a large-format view camera that were then customary for celebrity photos and family portraits. Randlett explains:
"I have always worked in the field, never in a studio, because I wanted to photograph subjects in their own environment. It is the spirit of the subject which is most important. As the photographer, I have always tried to stay in the background, and shoot the subjects as they arrange themselves. My subjects become forms in space, forms moving through space, especially in nature, where they become illuminated and molded by the light and shadow of the moment" (Randlett Statement, 1996).
In 1949, when Morris Graves (1910-2001) was beginning to build his new house in Woodway, Randlett's mother, who was a close friend of Graves, suggested that Mary go to photograph him and document his home. Because she never asked him to pose, Graves permitted her to shoot. He was a family friend, who frequently dropped in at her grandparents' nearby house to use their telephone.
Randlett's photos first received national attention in 1949, when she shot pictures of the Slo-Mo-Shun IV hydroplane, the fastest boat in the world (150 to 160 miles per hour), on its first trial run on Lake Washington. The new design captured the interest of boaters across the nation. Her shots were published in Pacific Motor Boat and Yachting magazine, and went out over the Associated Press wire.
Memorable Road Trip
In May 1949, her grandfather bought her a car. One of her first trips was to Los Angeles to meet her mother. Elizabeth Willis, who had divorced when Randlett was 14, was at that time acting assistant director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. In Los Angeles, Randlett accompanied her mother when she went to sell paintings by Tobey and Graves to Vincent Price and Charles Laughton. Mary and Elizabeth drove back up the California coast, stopping off for three days in Big Sur to visit and photograph controversial author Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn could be sold only in expurgated editions.
In San Francisco, Randlett attended a workshop led by noted photographer Minor White, and met photographer Imogen Cunningham, who was a friend of her mother's from Cunningham's days in Seattle.
It was a seminal time in Randlett's development as a professional photographer, but her career was put on hold when, later that year, she married Herbert Randlett, an accountant who would in future run the foreign department at the Seattle Trust & Savings Bank (later Key Bank). She had dated Herbert's fraternal twin, Bob, when she was a student at Whitman.
When Randlett's grandparents moved from Woodway Park into Seattle, Mary and her husband moved into their Woodway house, which sat on 2.2 acres, a mile and a half from Morris Graves's house, Careladen. Over the next six years, Mary had four children: Bob, born in 1951; Mary Ann, in 1953; Peter, in 1955; and Suzy, in 1957.
Documenting Northwest Artists
Randlett's career did not begin in earnest until 1963, when her children were in school. Noted poet Theodore Roethke was spending part of his time on Bainbridge Island, at Elizabeth Willis's studio cabin. He asked whether Randlett would come to his house in Seattle to photograph him. On July 18, 1963, Mary shot four rolls of Roethke. He died of a heart attack August 1, 1963. Her pictures were the last ever taken of the poet. She was bombarded with requests for shots from as far away as England.
Roethke's students were soon coming to her to be photographed. She shot portraits of Robert Sund, Duane Niatum, David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, Joan Swift, and visiting poet Richard Eberhart.
To widen her photo archive of Northwest artists, she wrote to Kenneth Callahan, William Cumming, Ambrose and Viola Patterson, and Guy Anderson, asking to photograph them in their studios. All of them agreed. Nothing was posed; she asked them to do whatever they normally did, while she and her camera watched.
She went on to photograph William Ivey, Allan Wright, and Philip McCracken in their studios. The circle expanded when Cumming took her to photograph Eustace Ziegler. Graves told her of Leo Kenney. Callahan suggested that she photograph Neil Meitzler at his cabin.
Inspired by Callahan's and Meitzler's mountain paintings, she shot the south fork of the Stillaguamish River near Meitzler's cabin. Pictures she considered to be her "first real nature photography" were taken in 1963, of the mountains at Snoqualmie Pass and the Cle Elum River. In her photos, the water looks like strokes of paint.
In 1964, she walked into the University of Washington Press with a Roethke photograph that was to be used for an upcoming book of essays on Roethke's poetry edited by Ralph Mills. It was the beginning of a relationship with the University of Washington Press that has lasted for more than 35 years, as her photographs were sought for more than a dozen books on Northwest art, artists, and landscape, in addition to two dozen more books on other subjects.
Buildings and Architects
In 1967, Randlett began to document Seattle buildings and architects for a program called Action Better City, a plan by the Seattle branch of the American Institute of Architects to improve Seattle architecturally. She photographed activist architects Fred Bassetti, Al Bumgartner, Ibsen Nelsen, Ralph Anderson, Richard Haag, Laurie Olin, and Victor Steinbrueck, as well as the buildings and homes they designed. She shot the structures at Gas Works Park before it was dedicated as a park.
Contrary to accepted practice at the time, she did not use a view camera for architectural work. "Always hated them," she explains tersely (Interview). Many of her shots were published in Puget Soundings, edited at the time by Dale Douglas Mills and Barbara Huston, who became Randlett's allies. "We used Puget Soundings to advocate 'our way' to better the city and the arts," Randlett once explained.
In 1968, she photographed Duane Pasco carving a totem pole on Occidental Avenue in the heart of Pioneer Square, where Richard White and Ralph Anderson were beginning to restore buildings. In 1969 and 1970, she captured on film the beginning of the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, and documented the fabrication and installation of Noguchi's Sky Viewing Sculpture at Western Washington University.
She took her first 35 mm camera, a Pentax SpotMatic, with 135 and 300 mm lenses, to Alpental, where her son Peter was skiing. The trip produced a series of mountain pictures that bear close kinship to classical Chinese brush paintings.
The Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Center had exhibited her photographs in 1965. But it was a major step up when the Seattle Art Museum mounted an exhibition of her photographs of Northwest artists in 1971. It marked the first time that body of her work had gained recognition. Neil Meitzler, who had become a close friend, designed and installed the show.
Encouraged by the recognition, Mary photographed nearly all of the major artists working in Oregon in 1971 and 1972. "Doing artists gave me wonderful eyes to see nature," she said. "Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Neil Meitzler gave me the eye to see the mountains. Richard Gilkey and Clayton James, the delta land and rivers. Philip McCracken, many images in nature. Robert Sund taught me how to listen to poetry. People have been my catalysts."
In 1972, Mary was divorced. Her children grown, she moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where she lived for three years. There, she did research on Northwest Coast Indians for a friend who was working at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery, and photographed locations from the East Coast to Michigan for the National Register of Historic Places (National Register of Historic Places, Vols. I and II, 1976)
Only one image from the Northeast pleased her as a good nature shot: a sand and water shot from the top of the Cape Hatteras Light House. The image was used for the book jacket of Helmut Wilhelm's Heaven, Earth, and Man in the Book of Changes (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975).
In 1975, she moved back to the Northwest. Nearly all of her documentary photography in the Northwest to that point had been done without pay. Now, without the support of her husband, she had to begin to think in economic terms. Dale Mills, then working for The Seattle Times, renewed their relationship by commissioning Randlett to photograph homes for the Northwest Living section of the newspaper's Sunday Magazine. Among the artists and writers whose homes she photographed was that of author Tom Robbins.
She received occasional commissions such as one to photograph noted Haida carver Robert Davidson and Tsimshian carver Norman Tait for the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
In 1976, she went to the archeological dig at Ozette on Cape Alava to photograph Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty for their book Exploring Washington Archeology, published by the University of Washington Press. The intent was documentary, but once there, she found the landscape an irresistible subject. Her View from Ozette shows partly submerged rocks leading like stepping stones to an outcrop of rock tufted with trees that suggests the Chinese island of the immortals. The dark island stands reflected in the glistening tide flat against an impenetrable curtain of mist.
In 1978, Mary began to document winners of the King County Arts Commission's awards to outstanding artists. She also documented the creation of works commissioned for the Kingdome by artists Philip McCracken, Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, and Harold Balazs. She followed each process from model to finished piece. The King County Arts Commission supported the project only to the extent of buying prints of four completed photo panels.
In 1980, she documented two totem poles carved by James Bender for Market Park, which she and architect Ibsen Nelsen were responsible for renaming Steinbrueck Park, in honor of the late architect. Victor Steinbrueck's tireless work on behalf of the Pike Place Market had helped to keep it intact and safe from commercial development.
In 1983, Mary received the Washington State Governor's Art Award for outstanding contribution to the field of photography. That year she was photo editor for the University of Washington Press's publication of William Cumming's memoirs, Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School.
From 1964 through 1994, Randlett's pictures appeared in 179 books and catalogs. Her photographs were regularly sought for use in gallery and museum exhibitions of works by artists she had photographed.
In 1985, she did several photographs for Historic Preservation in Seattle (Seattle: Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority), a book by Lawrence Kreisman, with whom she later collaborated on several books.
In 1986, she earned $4,000 for photographing the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, to capture the essence of the place. The photos illustrated another of Kreisman's books, The Bloedel Reserve: Gardens in the Forest, published by The Arbor Fund in Seattle. Prentice Bloedel, whose home the Reserve had been, had helped Randlett in the past by buying an enlarger for her darkroom. His daughter, Virginia Wright, had given Randlett money to frame photographs for her shows.
Fifty of her photos of the Bloedel Reserve and of Gas Works Park were used in a 1997 show of landscape architect Rich Haag's work at Harvard University. The photos are reproduced in a book that documented the show, published by Princeton Architectural Press (Saunders).
In 1989, in recognition of the quality of her work, the King County Arts Commission awarded Randlett $2,500 to take updated photographs of nine Northwest painters and sculptors for an exhibition of their work at the Janet Huston Gallery in La Conner.
Painting in the Darkroom
In 1997, Randlett's mother, then in frail health, sold the family house on Bainbridge Island. Mary moved to a home in Olympia, where she set up a darkroom. There, she does all of her photo printing. Dodging and burning in elements of a shot to ease the viewer's eye into seeing what she wants to emphasize is her way of "painting in the darkroom" (Interview).
The Rolleiflex updated SL66 is still her preference for shooting portraits, but she likes 35 mm Nikons for nature shots, keeping one loaded with color film and another with black and white. She carries lenses in a range from 18 mm to 300 mm, with 1.4 and 2x extenders. She makes broad use of zoom lenses, but dislikes automatic equipment in any form.
Randlett's energy has not flagged as she has aged. On the contrary, her work has seemed increasingly vital. "Taking photographs is taking chances," she says. "I enter the world of the moment. I get a quick, intuitive sense of how a thing can be, how I want it to be, snapping the shutter, and now and then getting more than I imagined possible. It is this gift that makes it all worthwhile" (Randlett Statement).