“I have always worked in the field, never in a studio,” Washington photographer Mary Randlett once wrote, “because I wanted to photograph subjects in their own environment.”
Those subjects — artists, writers and arts patrons of the Pacific Northwest — are on handsome display in “Mary Randlett Portraits” by Randlett and Seattle writer Frances McCue (University of Washington Press, 183 pp., $45). A selection of Randlett photos will also be on exhibit at UW Libraries later this fall.
Randlett herself will be in attendance at Town Hall Seattle on Tuesday, Oct. 14 for an evening titled “Mary Randlett and Frances McCue: Images of the Northwest.”
Randlett’s quietly warm yet incisive black-and-white portraits amount to “an uncommonly comprehensive visual documentation of the Northwest art scene in the second half of the twentieth century,” wrote former Seattle Times art critic Deloris Tarzan Ament in her 2002 book, “Iridescent Light.” And she’s right on the mark.
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Randlett, now 90 and unavailable for interview, has been in the right place at the right time since 1949 when, at her mother’s prompting, she took photographs of novelist Henry Miller (with his toddler son in their tranquil Big Sur garden) and of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves at the latter’s home in the woods near Edmonds.
“All these people knew Mother,” Randlett tells McCue. “Most of the artists came and stayed with us.”
Randlett’s mother, Elizabeth Bayley Willis, looms large in her conversations with interviewers — and no wonder. Willis, the subject of a beautiful, pensive portrait in the book, was an unusual figure in Seattle’s art history. A former art teacher at Garfield High School, she had close friendships with painters Graves and Kenneth Callahan. She was a curator and, briefly, acting director of the Henry Art Gallery. She championed Graves’ and Tobey’s reputations in New York, and during a stint at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor helped organize a Tobey retrospective there.
In short, she was in the thick of things.
The closeness between mother and daughter also derived from unusual parallels in their personal histories. Willis, divorced in 1937, was the single mother of four children, and Randlett found herself in the same situation — mother of four, single parent — after her divorce in 1972.
Almost all of Randlett’s mentions of her mother make it sound as if she was just meekly doing what “Mother” told her to do. But McCue feels that’s misleading.
“She’s salty, you know,” McCue said in an interview at her Capitol Hill home last month. “Fiercely independent and a total iconoclast.”
That independent spirit jumps out at you in McCue’s accounts of road trips she’s taken with Randlett. (Sample Randlett quote: “I have never done anything I was supposed to do.”)
Randlett’s spectacular landscape photography got a book to itself, “Mary Randlett Landscapes,” in 2007. “Mary Randlett Portraits” is a companion volume of sorts.
The photographer — who after many years in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island now lives in Olympia — is eloquent on how landscape work and portraiture differ for her.
“I owe nothing when I take pictures of nature,” she told Barbara Winther of the Bainbridge Island Historical Society in 2005. “When you do people, you have a responsibility to catch the most beautiful part of them, make them look nice. I mean, it’s a real challenge. And I’m always petrified till I get going; then it’s OK.”
Randlett has hinted to McCue how she gets her subjects (and herself) to relax. With painter William Ivey, she recalled, “He lit up a cigarette, looked at me and says, ‘I don’t like having my picture taken.’ And I said, ‘I don’t either. That’s why I’m on this end of the camera.’ And we got along just fine.”
Once immersed in a portrait shoot, Randlett savors studying her subjects. She photographed poet Theodore Roethke just two weeks before his death in 1963.
“He had a wonderful face that was so mobile,” she told Winther four decades later. “Almost like putty! I mean, it just moved. Very filled with expressions.”
Randlett sought camera advice selectively. In high school, she enrolled for a photography class where she hoped to learn something about darkroom technique. But she dropped out after one day “ ’cause the guy was telling us how to take pictures.”
She had better luck with Seattle fashion photographer Hans Jorgensen. “Hans gave me the absolutely simple ways of printing,” she told Winther. “No gimmicks, just straight printing.”
She did try briefly to earn her living in a conventional way, taking a counter job at the Bon Marché. But when she complained to her boss that her male colleagues were earning more than she was for the same work, she was fired.
“It was the greatest day of my life!” she told Winther. “I decided all I wanted to do was become a photographer.”
That determination made marriage an awkward fit.
“I didn’t want some guy telling me what to do,” she explained to McCue. “Listen, I had my work. Anyone who would take any part of my work away was like ripping me apart.”
For the portraits, Randlett established her straightforward style early on. In both the landscapes and the portraits, she shunned color photography.
“Black and white gives me chills,” she told Ament in 1999. “Color gets in the way.”
When photographing someone, Randlett has favorite spots in Olympia and Seattle she likes to shoot. But she’s open to all possibilities.
“She manages, I think, to coax an essence out of people without doing any kind of stunts,” McCue say. “There’s not a lot of shenanigans in the photos.”
Randlett herself is forthright about her self-effacing approach.
“It is the spirit of the subject which is most important,” she says. “I have always tried to stay in the background, and shoot the subjects as they arrange themselves.”
The results can be surprising, even to her.
“Taking photographs is taking chances, entering unknown worlds where the results are not known,” she wrote in 1996. “That quick intuitive sensing of how it can be, how I want it to be. And now and then, getting more than I imagined possible. It is this gift that makes it all worthwhile.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org