In 1970, Shelley and her husband, sculptor David Seccombe, and their daughter Claudia moved to Westbeth. Shelley Seccombe was a musician then, but a few years later, her violin began gathering dust when she turned her full attention to the waterfront and its decaying piers, which were just a block away from Westbeth. She began to photograph the fires and the deterioration of the pier sheds—and the “playground” activities among the ruins. Seccombe continued to photograph the piers, including the rise of the Hudson River Park, for several decades. In 2007, her book Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore was published by Fordham University Press and Friends of Hudson River Park. Her waterfront pictures have been exhibited around New York, with an almost yearlong solo show at the South Street Seaport Museum in 2006.
Terry Stoller spoke with Shelley Seccombe in October 2017 about her starting out as a musician; her move to Westbeth and taking up photography; her several decades of photographing the Hudson River waterfront; her book and various exhibitions of those photographs; and her current projects.
Terry Stoller: You went to college in New England and then came to New York.
Shelley Seccombe: I went to Bennington College in Vermont, studying music. I was a musician when I came to Westbeth, and I connected with a couple of people and did some playing. We formed a chamber music trio, with myself as violinist, Gloria Geer, a clarinetist, and Bennett Lerner, a pianist. We all lived on the third floor. We played at the Brooklyn Museum, and we gave a couple of less formal concerts. I think Bennett moved away first; then Gloria moved away. And I had other contacts, people with whom I played, particularly in the school where I was working uptown. But I got simultaneously involved in photography, and I got to the point where I wasn’t practicing. You can’t play well if you don’t practice. It kind of died a natural death. I haven’t played it for some time. In fact, I’m going to have it repaired and donate it for a student who needs a good fiddle.
You were teaching violin?
I was teaching, but not violin. I was teaching classroom music, third grade through high school. It was a preparatory school. There wasn’t a big instrumental music program there.
How did you find Westbeth?
I heard about it through a friend and made the application. As it turned out, it was very lucky that we had applied because we were sharing a loft at 863 Broadway, and the person with whom we shared the loft decided that he wanted to move to the country. That made it tricky for us because it was a situation where he had to walk through our apartment to get to his. We would need to be friendly with whoever it was. It just seemed like the time to go.
At some point after you moved to Westbeth, you got drawn in by the waterfront.
What happened was I came home from my teaching job one day, and the neighborhood was full of smoke from a huge fire at the end of Bethune Street on Pier 50. A lot of people have forgotten that there was ever a Pier 50 because the debris was cleared away so fast. After I started taking pictures of that fire, I got really drawn in. The elevated West Side Highway closed around 1973, and that’s when it became a playground for people.
Was it the fires and the destruction or the fact of the waterfront itself that attracted you?
It was clear that things were changing, and I wanted to see them before and after.
I’ve read that you had been an amateur photographer before that. It wasn’t that you picked up a camera for the first time.
For sure. At Spence, the school where I was teaching music, they got a new head who was interested in photography and built a darkroom in the school. I took advantage of that—I kind of hung out. The woman who was teaching photography said, I see your stuff in the washer. It looks pretty good. That made me happy. Then the photography teachers decided they wanted to learn to print in color. They hired a darkroom teacher and invited me to join them. So I did. It was a natural. It went perfectly with the work I was doing. And the teacher, David Preston, said, You should do something with this. So I sold my piano and built a darkroom in my apartment.
You moved from one art form to an entirely different art form. What made you feel you could do something like that?
There’s some photography in my family. We lived in a suburb of Chicago, where my mother’s uncle ran a local photo shop. I always wanted to work in the darkroom there. My parents said nothing doing. I couldn’t understand what the objection was until later when I found out that one of the darkroom workers was pinching bottoms. My parents wanted me to practice my violin, not that I was uninterested in that.
After you decided to be a full-time photographer, you left your teaching job in 1976. How did you have the wherewithal to do that?
I got a day job. I took a job in a local print shop in Queens, and I learned a few things there. And, of course, I’m married, and my husband had a job at the time.
In the introduction to your book Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore, Phillip Lopate wrote about your persistence in examining the same subject for decades. What fueled that persistence?
Photographing the same eight blocks? I did what was easy and convenient, in a way. That’s how it started. And there was always something different happening there. It wasn’t the same place every day. Sometimes the flag man was out there. I have many pictures of him. He called himself America. And he was always waving the flag and wrapping himself in the flag.
There were performers, and someone doing yoga.
There was a guy who dove off the end of the pier.
Eventually you came up with a record of the destruction of the piers. But you’ve said that wasn’t premeditated. What was your intention?
I didn’t think of it as a piece of work. I thought of it as fun. I was doing it because I liked it. I didn’t have any clear idea that it would have a purpose, except maybe as a picture in a Village newspaper.
Do you now see yourself as a documentarian?
I’m afraid I do. I’ve been trying to work out of it. Somehow it keeps popping back. Yesterday when I was walking around town, I couldn’t help but take a picture of this building and that building and that building.
In 2004, I started contributing my work for Friends of Hudson River Park. And at about the same time, I joined Professional Women Photographers. There weren’t any criteria for membership. Someone I knew was in that group, and she took me to a meeting. Later in 2004, one of the people I met there arranged a solo show for me upstate in Stamford, New York. I remember thinking, I need a theme for a solo exhibit, and the waterfront was the only series I had that was strong enough to show. This was two years before the exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum in 2006.
That means you were taking photographs for about thirty years before you had a solo show. What kept you going?
I’m not sure that I thought having a show was the goal. I would have liked that. I thought about writing about it too. I did go back to teaching in 1978. I got a job teaching photography at the Nightingale-Bamford School. I was there part time for twenty-two years. And I took courses at the International Center of Photography. ICP’s building was on Fifth Avenue, a couple of blocks from the school.
Do you want to talk about some of the other things that drew you to the waterfront and the piers?
I think it was a hunger for space. The pier shed on Pier 49 at Bank Street was demolished after a fire. The wooden deck was empty. It was like a big stage. People would go out in the evening to watch the sunset. In the daytime, there would be people out there sunbathing, and I loved watching the tugboats.
You have an amazing photograph of the catwalk inside Pier 48. Did you go up there?
Yes. That’s where my husband David was very useful. He’s very good about structure. He knows what’s safe and what isn’t. And he’d say, no problem, you can go there. That’s David at the end of the catwalk.
You photographed your daughter Claudia on an empty pier.
It was such a great contrast with all those wooden skids, her wearing her little dotted swiss dress.
Because the waterfront and the piers have a rich history, your work has appeared in publications, for instance, in Art in America.
Right now I have one photograph in a permanent exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called “New York at Its Core.” It explores four hundred years of New York City’s history. My picture is in the 1970-80 section. It’s one of the photos that was in the May 2015 issue of Art in America. Everybody’s interested in that image. It’s Sunbathing on the Edge, Pier 52, 1977—with an opening cut in the shed’s wall, from Day’s End, the Gordon Matta-Clark piece. I was a little concerned about publishing photographs of people, thinking they might not like it. However, nobody has ever objected. The way things are now, if people do things in public, it’s pretty much fair game.
Your Sunbathing photo was in a 2012 show titled “The Piers: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
I had several images in the show, including an inside view of the collapsed roof of Pier 51. I know the curator. He invited me, and I said why not. Exposure is always good.
I’m wondering how you made these connections, and how publications find you.
Absolutely the best thing I ever did for my career was to volunteer to do photography for Friends of Hudson River Park, and they supported me. They were really enthusiastic about my work and helped get Lost Waterfront published. Friends CEO Albert Butzel suggested the book’s title and wrote the foreword. Matthew Washington, who worked at Friends, showed my photographs to the curator of the South Street Seaport Museum.
At the same time that you were photographing the piers, you were also photographing things at Westbeth, the children in the courtyard and the original Village Halloween parade. Were you pursuing your interests, or were people asking you to take the photographs?
It’s about fifty-fifty. I used to show up with my camera, and people knew that and would say, Are you coming today? Will you bring your camera? It wasn’t a formal arrangement.
You took a photo of Westbeth tenants Paula and Ron Faber that was used online in conjunction with a 2014 WNYC story.
I just happened to have it, and I was asked for it, and I was able to find it. I have so many pictures, and there’s such a lot to organize.
In 2011, you had a solo show called “Waterways” on the Lilac when the steamship was moved to Pier 25.
I did. Hard to get to. It’s not easy any time to get people to go on a boat to see a show.
Do you get calls from people who ask for pictures of the waterfront?
Occasionally. Very often it’s somebody doing a book, and they’ll ask for a picture and what would I charge. I’m pretty lowball.
How do they find you?
On the Web, probably, or through Leslie-Lohman Museum, or maybe the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. I have a couple of pictures in a publication they did called Greenwich Village Stories. I occasionally will get somebody inquiring online because I have a website, and they’ll see my stuff. I’ve sold a couple of pictures that way. Not frequently, but enough to be happy about it. I’ve got to work on the website. But I make the website, and then I just leave it alone. It was George Cominskie who said to me, They’d never find you unless they knew your name already. So I made a second website that’s called New York Waterfront Photos (newyorkwaterfrontphotos.com).
In your book acknowledgments, you include Westbeth residents, sculptor Isabel Borgatta and artist Jack Dowling, the former Westbeth gallery director. How did Jack help you on the book?
He’s just been generally helpful. He connected me with somebody, I think. It’s general support. Isabel gave me access to her river view windows.
Were you in Westbeth gallery shows?
I was. In 2016, I also put together a show. I belong to a salon group; there are eight other women. We meet once a month, and we show each other work. We had a show called “Downtown 9,” which I organized at Westbeth. One of the people in the group is a wonderful digital printer. She made the large prints for the South Street Seaport Museum show because she can make larger prints than I can on my printer. I’m a good digital printer now. I got rid of my darkroom. I’m very happy to be away from all those chemicals.
You told me you’ve been focusing on other subjects.
It seems like recent times to me, but Claudia went to Tucson in 1988. As soon as we started going back and forth to Arizona, I got completely captivated by the agriculture, like the grain piles in Kansas. I’m working on a number of different projects now, one of which is an informal book that I have to put together to have published. David and I got hooked on the roadside memorials for victims of road accidents. They were a kind of novelty to me when we started doing it. At the end of the nineties, we found so many more of them. They used to be mainly in the Southwest. In Arizona and New Mexico, there were a lot of them. But we started seeing more and more, and now they’re in every state. And I made a collection of them that I call the Heartbreak Highway. Most of them are on the roadway or near the roadway. I have to write a little bit more for the book. That would be easy to write about. It’s such a clear emotional subject. And I have probably at least three other books in the works.
I’m a bird watcher, and I like to find places to go. There are a bunch of places that I’ve gone to in the past that started out to be birding spots. They’re just places around the city that you can get to that are interesting like the Museum of Tibetan Art in Staten Island. So I’ve been looking at these places for a long time.
How hard will it be to get a book of photographs published?
I did very little of the arrangements on Lost Waterfront, except that I suggested the book designer, Scott-Martin Kosofsky, who is very accomplished at figuring these things out, and had a clear strategy. It was very nicely done. I would certainly ask him again. Now I know some people at Fordham University Press. And I would think of self-publishing a small edition and seeing how that goes.
And your other projects?
I’m photographing the moon as it sets over New Jersey along the river and any other place that I can find it. But this is my convenient access. I go across the road, and I sit there until it happens.
Another project is to transcribe my mother’s diary from 1928-29 and match it up with some of her photographs, which are gorgeous. She was a child prodigy. She was a pianist and composer, and she went to Paris when she was 21 and studied with Nadia Boulanger. She and her mother and my aunt lived in Paris for the better part of a year. And they traveled. They had a grand tour, and I have pictures of their trip to Italy, Pompeii and Vesuvius. When they came home to Chicago, it was back to basics.
Going back to your waterfront photographs, your book includes pictures of the Hudson River Park. How do you feel about the reconstruction of the area along the river that meant so much to you?
I have mixed feelings about it. It’s very sanitized. I miss the character. There is talk about an art piece across from the Whitney. There was an article about it in the New York Times [Oct. 4, 2017]. An artist named David Hammons has proposed making an outline of Pier 52 with thin steel poles. It’s going to take up the whole space, but it’s empty—just the structure. I was talking to someone at the Whitney about that and how everything has changed. I said, If it hadn’t been for the influx of people coming and squatting and using this place and that place, there would be no Whitney there. It would not have moved down there. This whole process got started by artists and squatters and gay people looking for empty rooms. I guess that’s what always happens. The artists move in first, and then pretty soon gentrification takes over.
Phillip Lopate wrote that the “interval between death and renewal is what Shelley Seccombe has so beautifully documented.” This is what you’re referring to, that the waterfront was dying, but people came and didn’t let it die, and the renewal followed.
That sums it all up.
Phillip Lopate. Introduction to Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore; photographs by Shelley Seccombe. Fordham University Press and Friends of Hudson River Park, Inc., 2007. See page 12.
Photo credits—All photographs: Shelley Seccombe. Courtesy of Shelley Seccombe.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council