The American Northwest through Mary Randlett’s Lens

The American Northwest through Mary Randlett’s Lens

2000 1125 Juliet Schwab

I grew up in Seattle, surrounded by the landscapes that Mary Randlett photographed, but I only discovered her work after I had moved across the country. 

At American Moments, a 2015 exhibit of photographs at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., I saw one of her images and was intrigued by her depiction of the landscape with which I’m so familiar, defined more by form and tone than flamboyant color or dramatic light. I soon ordered her book Landscapes and became engrossed in her photography as well as her story. Randlett voices a Northwestern sense of place in the way that the South is portrayed by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in literature and Sally Mann with photography. She captures the mood of her native environment with remarkable attention to detail, while at the same time distilling it to its minimalist, abstract forms.

Born Mary Willis in 1924, she was raised in Seattle but spent a great deal of time outside the city, especially in the summers, visiting her grandparents’ summer home on Bainbridge Island and photographing the scenery of the San Juan Islands with her box camera, a birthday gift when she turned ten, and in high school with a 620 folding camera.

She lost a year of high school due to an eye infection and hadn’t even graduated when she tagged along with her sister to Whitman College in eastern Washington. There she engaged in the usual college shenanigans and learned the ins and outs of the hobby that became her lifelong vocation. Frances McCue in her forward to Randlett’s Portraits describes the profession as “part scientist and part artist,” which I think is what has drawn me (a humanities major and daughter and granddaughter of engineers) to photography; Imogen Cunningham, another Northwest native, likewise learned photography from a scientific perspective as a chemistry major at the University of Washington a generation earlier.

After college, Randlett apprenticed with portrait photographers in Seattle and took out a loan to buy a Rolleiflex, soon striking out on her own as a freelancer and continuing to photograph after she married and had children. Her mother, a museum curator, facilitated introductions to local artists, and her photographs of poet Theodore Roethke shortly before his death launched her into prominence. The artists she photographed were part of a loosely affiliated group who became known in the 1950s as the Northwest School, representing the nexus of the region’s geography and climate – mountains, rivers, and pebbly beaches, lit through an atmospheric softbox of mist and fog – with the influences of Asian art and abstract expressionism.

Mary Randlett knew and photographed local artists like Morris Graves and Guy Anderson, along with those such as Jacob Lawrence who passed through the region’s intellectual center of gravity at the University of Washington. While she took commissions for photographs of people, architecture and public art, Randlett was at heart a landscape photographer, and her portraits consciously place her subjects in their environments – their studios, homes, and gardens, or the landscapes that inspired their work. Throughout her life (she photographed until not long before her death in 2019) she shot black-and-white film and made her own darkroom prints, eschewing color for the infinite range of tones she saw in the Northwest’s subdued light.

The images in this article are drawn from two published collections of Randlet’s photographs, Mary Randlett: Portraits and Mary Randlett: Landscapes, both available from the University of Washington Press and quite affordable either new or used.

Deception Pass, 1972

This is my favorite Randlett photo, and possibly my favorite photograph ever.  Deception Pass is a narrow strait connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Skagit Bay; it owes its name to Captain George Vancouver’s expedition, which took several days to determine that it divided Whidbey Island, which they had believed to be a peninsula, from Fidalgo Island and the rest of the eastern Puget Sound land mass. It’s a beautiful place to visit, where a dramatic bridge spans the treacherous waters below. Here Randlett has captured one of infinite possible combinations of swirls and eddies thrown into relief by angular sunlight; only a singular tree clinging to a cliffside grounds the viewer in a specific place.

Richard Gilkey, c. 1997

Randlett’s portrait of artist Richard Gilkey places him on the porch of his home in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle, with the lines of the railing, columns, and logpile drawing the viewer’s eye to Gilkey in repose with a mug of coffee, and to the foggy landscape of the slough beyond. Gilkey himself had roots about as deep as Northwestern roots get, himself the descendant of Skagit Valley bridge-tenders and dike-builders, and Randlett’s photograph captures within his environment the artist who himself painted the Valley’s moody sloughs.

Swan in Falling Snow, December 1984

This image showcases Randlett’s ability to weave minute details in landscapes into a unified composition captured at the perfect moment. Two snowy shorelines frame an icy lake broken by a dark, almost script-like crack that leads the eye to a swan whose head is slightly turned toward the negative space behind it. Each element of the image unites into a composition that is simple but nonetheless more than the sum of its parts. Randlett has a number of images that similarly capture little details like the patterns in water, ice, and sand or the motion of an animal through its habitat.

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence and Jacob Lawrence

I love this image for the strength of the partnership and mutual respect it captures between the two artists, who were married nearly sixty years and moved from Harlem to Seattle when Jacob began teaching at the University of Washington. Frances McCue quotes Jacob Lawrence’s words showing his regard for his wife: “She’s a person whom I respect. She criticizes my work. You know, there are things an artist will do that he’s unaware of and which may not be quite right. And you have a person around whom you respect, who sort of pulls you up sometimes and points this out to you.” Randlett’s posing captures their relationship along with their independent characters, united as “kindred spirits” but each capable artists in their own right.

Rockport, Skagit River, January 1982

I struggled to select a fifth picture from the subtle but dazzling landscapes of mountains peeking from mist and sloughs lit by fleeting sunbreaks. So I settled on a photo of mud and melting snow. It’s not a striking image at first, but Ted d’Arms, who wrote the introduction to Mary Randlett’s Landscapes, describes what makes it special: “This is an ordinary winter day for Northwest sportsmen and it is as familiar as an old sopping-wet wool glove. The photographer has stripped away all of the normal means of seducing a viewer into ‘liking’ the place. It is not seductive but it is utterly convincing … The viewer becomes hypnotized by the barely definable elements that contribute to such an accurate description of place.”

My last two visits to Seattle were in the winter, and I spent hours walking among forests and marshes like these. The drizzle and clouds broke once the morning after a snowfall, when the late-rising sun backlit trees and shone on ephemeral patches of white. The Northwest, outside its brief bright summers, is melancholy but reveals a quiet beauty to those who look for it, and this photo epitomizes the out-of-season, damp, cool Northwestern landscape that Randlett knew, loved and captured so well.

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Juliet Schwab

Juliet Schwab is a freelance photographer and lover of all things ancient, especially history, languages, and cameras. She lives with her husband and three kids in the American capital, which as a Seattle native she considers the other Washington.

All stories by:Juliet Schwab
  • These images are absolutely fabulous.

  • I love how you describe your appreciation of the images.

  • I am totally agree with the first two comments, I have nothing more to add.

  • Beautifully written, I love your article. I’d never heard of Mary Randlett before, thank you for introducing her so eloquently. I love the swan photo – the composition and light are perfect. I live in the northeast and have always wanted to see the northwest – its on my list. Thank you for reminding me, I think sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget to explore new places. Well written, thank you.

  • Stewart Schwab July 2, 2021 at 7:17 am

    Your written descriptions are as beautiful as the photos themselves, detailed without being overly intricate. Your prose helps me understand the beauty of each photo, and ultimately the subtle beauty of Washington state.

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Juliet Schwab

Juliet Schwab is a freelance photographer and lover of all things ancient, especially history, languages, and cameras. She lives with her husband and three kids in the American capital, which as a Seattle native she considers the other Washington.

All stories by:Juliet Schwab