Mary Randlett

Mary Randlett

By any standard, photographer Mary Randlett has led a fabulous life.

Her portraits of several hundred Northwest artists and writers are iconic — most famously the artists of the Northwest School. The indelible moments in her black-and-white landscapes capture the subtle gradations of this place.

Randlett’s life and work caused Don Ellegood, the late director of the University of Washington Press, to call her ”beyond question, the leading photographer in the Northwest.”

Born in 1924, Randlett attended Queen Anne High School. She grew up in an artistic milieu: Her mother was Elizabeth Bayley Willis, museum curator and under-sung champion of Northwest art. 

For all her awards and recognition, the Olympia resident keeps working. Her road trip with Frances McCue on the trail of poet Richard Hugo’s triggering towns resulted in the “The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs” in 2010, a book that wonderfully matched photographer and writer with Hugo’s lonely Northwest landscapes. 

Her work is housed in many permanent collections, including the Smithsonian Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, University of Washington and Tacoma Art Museum.

In 2007, the University of Washington Press issued “Mary Randlett: Landscapes.”

The book offers up the Northwest’s moss and rain, sun and shade and its quicksilver light, as if the freeways and tall buildings — the cash nexus — weren’t out there somewhere. But we know they are. 

Randlett’s presentation of “Landscapes” at the Tacoma Art Museum drew a large crowd, reinforcing her place in Northwest art history.

She has written, “I have lived near the water all my life…lived in that tossed light that came invisibly through the trees at sunrise and carried the dancing light of the rising dawn…. And so it continues on — these great and most beautiful forces of and in nature.”

Surprising lyricism, maybe, from the plain-speaking outdoorswoman, but the work suggests we shouldn’t be surprised. 

An epigraph in “Landscapes” features lines from poet Theodore Roethke, the subject of one of Randlett’s most famous photographs: “Those who are willing to be vulnerable/move among mysteries.”

Clearly unafraid, Mary Randlett is one of those.

— Mike Dillon