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TriBeCa Photo Exhibit Makes a Splash on Historic Boat

"Rotterdam Passing Pier 51," 1978.
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Shelley Seccombe

TRIBECA — Photographer Shelley Seccombe could not have found a better location for her latest show.

Her two-dozen photographs — sweeping vistas and quiet portraits of New York Harbor taken over the last 40 years — hang on the gently swaying walls of the Lilac, a 1933 steamship docked at TriBeCa's Pier 25.

Viewers must climb aboard the ship to see the images, stepping out into the Hudson River, a body of water that has inspired Seccombe for decades.

"It's utterly perfect for this," Seccombe, 73, said from the main gallery on the ship's lower level.

Seccombe was a music teacher when she moved to the Village's Westbeth Artists Housing in 1970, but her visually stunning new home along the Hudson River quickly turned her into an amateur photographer. Soon she took a new job in a print shop and spent all her spare time improving her craft.  

"It took over my life," Seccombe said with a smile.

After Seccombe snapped shots of the aftermath of the devastating fire that destroyed Pier 50 in the early 1970s, she realized that photography was about more than just creating a beautiful image.

"The Village was changing so quickly," Seccombe said. "I wanted to capture it before it was gone."

The oldest photo in Seccombe's new show, which runs through the end of July, is a shot of a Westbeth resident dancing on Pier 49 at sunset, taken in 1972. The most recent is a 2011 photo of New Jersey's Pulaski Skyway bridge, duplicated in a reflection below.

Seccombe said she is drawn to water because of the way it reflects light, replacing the usually dark, opaque earth with an ever-changing mirror.

The display of Seccombe's photos marks the first art show the Lilac has hosted, but it won't be the last.

Lilac museum director Mary Habstritt is planning a show of Paul Margolis' photos of abandoned parts of Ellis Island in August, and other upcoming events include a July 30 concert in honor of Coast Guard Day and possible film screenings this fall.

"We want to have ways [of] attracting people on board that go beyond the ship," Habstritt said.

The Lilac, the oldest surviving lighthouse tender, has already drawn hundreds of visitors, including school groups, since it moved from Pier 40 to Pier 25 in May.

Habstritt, 50, an Upper West Side resident, is also recruiting volunteers to staff and repair the ship, and she hopes to raise the several million dollars required to rebuild the boat's steam engine, allowing the Lilac to move on her own for the first time in years.

For the month of July, Lilac is open to the public Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Check Lilac's website for future hours.