Photographer mary randlett shoots landscapes drenched in the quintessential Northwest palette — a thousand shades of gray. A glint of sunlight...

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PHOTOGRAPHER MARY RANDLETT shoots landscapes drenched in the quintessential Northwest palette — a thousand shades of gray. A glint of sunlight might break through to sparkle on a beach shrouded in mist, or erupt from trees like a geyser from the Earth’s core. In many of Randlett’s prints on view at Tacoma Art Museum, the sun seems powerless, a cool disk suspended in a froth of thick overcast.

The late poet Denise Levertov, responding to a Randlett photograph, described “nuanced grey/ flowing to black.” Even the license plate on the Explorer parked in Randlett’s Olympia driveway proclaims her fascination with the minute gradations in Northern light: NUANCE. But let me tell you: That’s not a word you’d use to describe the photographer herself. Randlett’s as straightforward and outspoken as they come. Her voice has a raucous tinge, and her laugh escalates to a gleeful cackle. Even on her best behavior, Randlett can’t help spiking her conversation with a little profanity. Thinking back on how long she spent in the darkroom making prints for her Tacoma show, she grumbled: “Oh God, it practically killed me off!” And that’s the stuff that can go in a family newspaper.

Daughter of the late curator and art dealer Betty Willis, Randlett, 83, has been entrenched in the Northwest art scene since childhood. She is best known for her photographs of notable local painters, sculptors, poets, architects, dancers, actors, patrons and assorted celebrities. Her mother not only introduced her to many of them but instructed Randlett (a camera buff since childhood) to take their pictures, pushing her gently into a career.

As a young woman, Randlett went with her mother to visit actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Los Angeles, then drove her new ’49 Chevy north on Highway 1. When they got to San Francisco, they spent a day with renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham. “Mother didn’t tell me to take her picture, so I didn’t,” Randlett says, chortling at her own foolishness.

Fortunately, Willis did ask her daughter to snap some photos earlier in the trip, when they’d stopped in Big Sur to visit novelist Henry Miller. Thinking back on that day, Randlett veers off to explain the dynamic quality of the light, the quick leap from hot white to deep black, so different from the filtered sunshine of the Northwest. I had to press her to talk about Miller: What was the notoriously risqué author of “Tropic of Cancer” like?

“He was friendly as could be!” Randlett said. “Of course, I hadn’t read any of his books … “

That’s typical Randlett. It doesn’t bother her that she often went cold into photo shoots with famous people. She was never a big reader and chafed at the confinement of school. Sitting in her living room recently, surrounded by a clutter of artbooks, papers, boxes of filing envelopes, paintings by her artist friends, family photographs and the creative detritus of her long life, Randlett is clear about her real passion: “I’ve always been happiest outside.”

“A little point and shoot”

Dressed for the outdoors in jeans, a turtleneck, thick sweater, crew socks and white athletic shoes, Randlett teased me for wanting the heat turned up in her suburban house: “City-folk!” she quipped. Her curly hair more brown than gray, Randlett still has the energy and wit of a much younger woman.

The first daughter of Cecil D. Willis and Elizabeth Bayley Willis, Randlett was born in Seattle May 5, 1924. She grew up on Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill and Bainbridge Island, where she roamed the beach and learned to sail as a young teen. After her parents divorced in 1938, Randlett and her sisters Betsy, Petie and Pam lived with their maternal grandparents on Queen Anne. Asked if there was sibling rivalry, Randlett barely paused to consider the thought: “I was the oldest, so I didn’t know about it.”

She started taking pictures at age 10 with “a little point and shoot.” A few years later her family gave her a folding Kodak, which she was still using, along with a new 35 millimeter camera, when she entered Whitman College. That’s where she discovered the darkroom and learned how to control photographs outside the camera. She tried out infrared film and experimented with new techniques.

After college, Randlett moved back to live with her grandparents north of Seattle at Woodway Park. She met photographer Hans Jorgensen, a former assistant to New York fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and he accepted her as his unpaid apprentice. Randlett borrowed $325 to buy a Rolleiflex and started taking portraits of families and children to earn money. She credits photographer George Mantor with opening her eyes to a more casual style of portraiture, shot outside the studio.

Meanwhile, Randlett’s mother was busy introducing the budding photographer to her artist friends, including Morris Graves, who lived nearby and would come over to use the phone at her grandparents’ house. In August 1949, Randlett shot her first photographs of Graves at his property in Woodway Park, including an afternoon get-together outdoors with Mark Tobey, New York art dealer Marian Willard and Graves’ dog Edith. Randlett says hers are the only known photographs that show the two world-renowned painters — friends and at times bitter rivals — together.

The same year Randlett shot those historical images, another Northwest master, boatbuilder Anchor Jensen, came to her and said, “I want you to photograph this boat we’re building.” On Oct. 29, 1949, Randlett tagged along as Jensen and his crew towed the Slo-Mo-Shun IV beneath the Montlake Bridge for its maiden voyage on Lake Washington. “They kept talking about roostertails,” Randlett remembers. “And I thought: ‘What’s a roostertail?’ ” Carrying her Rolleiflex and trying to figure out how to shoot a picture that wouldn’t blur from the motion, Randlett documented the drama when “speedboat king” Stanley Sayres, the boat’s owner and driver, dropped into the cockpit and pressed the boat to over 150 mph, the wake spewing behind in a roostertail of foaming water. The following year the Slo Mo took the Gold Cup in Detroit, clocking record speeds over 165 mph.

Celebrities and nature

In 1951, Mary Willis married her college friend Herbert Randlett, an accountant, and during the next six years they had four children: Robert, Mary Ann, Peter and Susan. The young couple bought Mary’s grandparents’ house in Woodway Park. (They divorced in 1972, and Herbert died in the late 1980s.)

After all the kids were in school, Randlett’s career took its next big leap in 1963. She was invited to shoot a portrait of poet Theodore Roethke at his Seattle home. She remembers that Roethke’s wife, Beatrice, opened the door that July day. When Bea announced she had to leave on an errand, Roethke teased that it was safe to leave him alone with — he turned to Mary: “What did you say your name was?” Randlett began photographing him inside the house, including a few shots of the poet lounging on a sofa where he liked to read, pretending to be asleep. They finally moved outside to the front porch. That’s where Randlett captured her iconic picture of the hulking poet, perched on a bannister, framed in an archway — and that lucky touch — a rose reaching up from the garden to blossom forever, just within his reach.

The next month Roethke was found dead, floating in a swimming pool at the Bloedel guesthouse on Bainbridge Island — and Randlett was suddenly besieged. The London Observer called, wanting a photograph of Roethke. So did The New York Times Book Review. Book publishers began asking for her pictures of Roethke.

Taking pictures of celebrities is a photographer’s bread and butter, a sure way to create a market, and Randlett moved on to document many more artists and celebrities in the Pacific Northwest. Her subjects include painters Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan; photographer Imogen Cunningham (in Seattle, in 1965); Seattle Art Museum founder Richard Fuller; sculptor Isamu Noguchi; architects Victor Steinbrueck and John Paul Jones; novelist Tom Robbins; and poets Carolyn Kizer and David Wagoner, among many others. Randlett’ photographs appear in more than 75 books published by the University of Washington Press alone.

For her own pleasure, though, on the side, she has always photographed nature. A selection of that work is spotlighted in a book set to be released in November: “Mary Randlett Landscapes” (UW Press, $29.95), with essays by actor Ted D’Arms, poet Levertov and Northwest carver Barry Herem. The book also features seven poems written by Levertov in response to Randlett landscape photographs, with the accompanying images.

You can preview many of those photographs in “Veiled Northwest” at Tacoma Art Museum, a tour of some of the region’s most beloved places: Mount Rainier, Deception Pass, the North Cascades. But Randlett’s interest isn’t in place as much as mood and composition. And of course, the main ingredient in these introspective studies is light, its endless variations, its absence.

It’s just like Randlett, though, that even when she is talking about her love of the outdoors, she always brings it back to people — the artists who have inspired her. The mandala paintings of Leo Kenney taught Randlett to look for geometric shapes in the landscape, she says: “A rain drop hits the water, I’d just see circles.” Then there are painters Emily Carr, Kenneth Callahan, Neil Meitzler, sculptor George Tsutakawa, photographer Johsel Namkung and a host of others. For each of them, Randlett can point to a particular photograph she made to express her admiration.

“It’s just direct. That’s how I learned, from each one of the artists,” Randlett said. “It’s your friends who really make your world … I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.”

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com