Picture it: A whitewashed lighthouse perched on a rocky bluff in Maine is set off by a brilliant pink and purple sunset. Palm trees in Bora Bora sway in the sun over a blue, ripply sea and beneath a sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Washington’s own Mount Rainier stands snow-peaked and shining above a wide field of shockingly colorful wildflowers.
Most people in America have probably seen at least one of Mary Liz Austin or Terry Donnelly’s breathtaking photographs. Many have even hung the couple’s work in their own homes — though perhaps for only a month.
The talented Vashon pair have not only developed a knack for capturing great scenes, but over time have built a large arsenal of timeless landscape photographs — stunning pictures that appear in hundreds of wall calendars each year. Their shots have also graced the covers of magazines from National Geographic to Country Magazine, adorned office walls all over the world, been broken into pieces as puzzles and filled the pages of six of their own large, glossy coffee-table books.
“I would call them modern masters,” said Rick Dahms, a friend of the couple who is also a photographer. “They’re the top echelon, especially in what they do.”
You wouldn’t know it to meet them, though. On a soggy December afternoon, Austin and Donnelly, sitting in the large office at their home on Vashon Highway, spoke with ease about their years traveling and the business of selling photos, but were reserved in discussing their talent or their prolific body of work. Rather, they said, they simply love photography and have found a way to make a living at it.
“There are a lot of great photographers, but they don’t all know how to sell their work,” said Austin, a warm woman with a quick laugh who keeps a large garden at the home.
Donnelly, the more soft-spoken of the two, said the pair have been successful in part because they know where to market their photos and have the skills and background necessary to manage their own business, Donnelly-Austin Photography.
“We’ve created a body of work that sells and that body of work is largely based on providing pictures to a known market,” he said.
When Austin and Donnelly met in the 1980s in Illinois, they both owned their own businesses. Donnelly enjoyed shooting black-and-white photos as a hobby, occasionally taking classes to hone his skills.
Eventually Donnelly, feeling a pull to turn his passion into a living, sold his small chain of shoe stores to shoot full-color, landscape photographs, mostly for magazines. He used a large-format camera that was new to the scene and produced a better image than the traditional 35-millimeter. Several years later, Austin followed suit.
The couple, who married and have now lived on Vashon for 20 years, spend about 100 days a year on the road, traveling mostly in a small camper to national parks and other picturesque spots around the county. At least once a year they fly to a tropical locale or other tourist hotspot — Italy, Japan and the like — to mix up their portfolio. The two say they love that their work allows them to travel, but stress that they don’t spend much time kicking back or sight-seeing.
“If you’ve ever travelled with photographers, it’s extremely boring,” Austin said.
Upon arriving at a new place, Austin and Donnelly, who each shoot and sell their own separate photos, usually spend a day scouting locations. The next several days involve rising before dawn and returning after dark. In between, they travel from spot to spot, painstakingly attempting to capture their favorite scenes — be it mountains or forests of fall colors — from the best angles and in the best possible light.
“We have never had a campfire. We don’t have time,” Austin said with a laugh.
Sometimes a day on the field produces no usable photos — the light was wrong or the seasonal foliage not right yet — and sometimes the weathers cancels their work altogether.
“We’ve waited out many storms in our camper,” Donnelly said.
The couple has occasionally shown work in Vashon galleries — a good outlet for their more creative pieces that wouldn’t suit calendars — but it’s hard to find the time. That’s because shooting photos is only the beginning of their job.
Most people don’t realize, they say, that their other 200 days a year are spent in the office, selecting, editing, organizing and selling their photos. The couple keeps regular office hours, manages a website and tends to an enormous film and digital library of their work, which includes an entire room stacked with 20 file cabinets full of negatives. They have two employees who help them and keep the business running while they travel.
“It’s kind of the silent partner,” Donnelly said of the business side of their work. “People don’t see us do that; they just see us travel.”
With long hours on the road and equally long hours at a desk, it’s is a profession that only a certain type of person could survive in. It’s also, Austin noted, a profession that’s dominated by men.
Austin pulled from a shelf a copy of the latest Sierra Club calendar — considered the top publication for landscape photographers to appear in.
In the 2013 edition, a shot of Donnelly’s from Kauai, Hawaii tops the February page, and a Mount Rainier scene taken by Austin is on August. Austin quickly perused the rest of the calendar and said that only one other woman had a picture in it that year.
The pair have run into many other husband-and-wife teams on the road, they say, but oftentimes the wife acts as an assistant. And when a pair does both take photos, they usually market them under the same name, something Austin said would never fly at their house.
“I worked really hard for my photo; he doesn’t’ get any credit,” she said with a laugh.
And those who are familiar with the couple’s work say Donnelly and Austin each have a distinct artistic flavor. They also say each photographer’s work is constantly evolving, even though they’re often shooting the same types of scenes they’ve shot again and again.
“The pictures they bring back always seem to be fresh, coming from a new viewpoint,” Dahms said. “They’re truly explorers of photography.”
Though Donnelly has about a decade of photography experience on top of Austin and has a more recognizable name to some, these days their photos sell at about the same rate. The two have become each other’s competition of sorts, regularly submitting shots from the same locations to the same publications. But they say their marriage has easily withstood the business, and what’s more, they’re spurred on and pushed to grow by seeing one another’s work.
“Sometimes I look at his photos, and I just kind of say, ‘Damn, that’s good,’” Austin said. “It’s not really competition. It’s more inspiration, and it causes you to up your game a little bit.”
The Pacific Northwest 2013 Travel & Events Calendar features two Vashon photos taken by Terry Donnelly — a scene from Quartermaster Harbor and a picture of jack-o’-lanterns outside the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie. Copies are available at the Roasterie, as well as several online retailers.