There is a certain irony to speaking with photographer Mary Allessio Leck on one of the coldest days yet in the winter of 2015. For one thing, she grew up in Massachusetts and really doesn’t mind the winter weather.
“I like the cold, as long as I’m properly dressed,” she says, noting that perhaps folks in central New Jersey complain about the chill because “People around here don’t seem to wear hats.”
The other interesting thing about talking with Leck during a cold snap is knowing that, at this time, she has ample opportunity to grab her camera, go outside, and explore the beauty ice can make.
Photographic images of ice in an assortment of geometric shapes, colors, textures, and reflections make up half of Leck’s upcoming exhibit at the Gallery at the Chapin School in Princeton; beautifully arranged close-ups of flowers make up the other. Indeed, the exhibit is titled “Parallel Views — Flowers and Ice” and runs Monday, February 2, through Friday, February 27, with an opening reception, Wednesday, February 4, at 5 p.m.
“‘Flowers’ and ‘Ice’ are disparate subjects, one suggesting passion, the other coldness; one is living, the other inanimate,” Leck writes in her artist’s statement. “Yet each inspires me. My interests in flowers and ice run in parallel — both subjects have great variety of forms, textures, colors, and patterns. Both are dependent on particular properties of water. Both can be extraordinarily beautiful. Both, also, can surprise and provide opportunities for discovery.”
“Looking at flowers and really seeing them has been educational,” writes the emeritus professor of biology at Rider University. “As with flowers, the allure of ice to me is in its diversity. Ice left by the ebbing tide along a tidal creek can be delicate, with a particular prominent geometric feature — often triangles, but trapezoids or circles can occur. Ice crystals, a foot or more long, can extend away from an organizing focal point, such as a branch at the edge of a stream. Water sprayed onto shrubs from waves hitting a lake edge can create abstract shapes that sparkle like crystal in the sun.”
Since her retirement in 2001, Leck has been busily studying photography, taking pictures, and exhibiting, mostly exquisite close-ups of flowers that show the pigments, textures, and details of each. The interest in capturing images of ice sprung literally from her Kendall Park home and yard, which she shares with her husband, Charles Leck, a noted ornithologist and retired professor of ecological sciences at Rutgers University’s Cook College.
“My husband had ice in one of his birdbaths, and we played around with it (with the camera) and got some really interesting images, just from that and the containers on the patio,” Leck says.
Her keen sense of observation had already developed an aesthetic interest in ice, even before Leck thought of it as a subject.
“A long time ago, maybe back in January, 1994, we were on a tour of the (Abbott) marshlands, in a tidal place, and I was looking at the ice,” she says. “I found it amazingly interesting, especially the ice that was collecting on the edge of the marsh.”
That amazement continues to be an inspiration and when asked about her work, Leck says, “I am attracted to natural subjects, marveling at textures, colors, and especially if the photograph enhances my understanding of the object it shows.”
Leck captures her images with a Canon EOS Rebel a level of camera that suits several of her needs. “If I were to upset while canoeing, which we once did in the Okefenokee Swamp, I haven’t lost a zillion dollars. There are some upgrades that would be nice, but I’m satisfied at the moment. I haven’t yet exhausted the limits of this camera, which is related to my level of ‘seeing’ the quality of the product. The two lenses I use most are a 100 mm macro and extension tube and a 28-135 mm wide angle. These allow me to explore as near and as far as I am currently interested. I use a tripod regularly. I often use a light box indoors for close ups; then I’m not much bothered by wind,” she says.
Reading about Leck’s upbringing, you realize that she was always an individual who not only loved nature, but looked much more closely at flora and fauna than the average person does. When she was very young, her family lived and farmed on the Dalton, Massachusetts estate of the Crane family — of Crane & Company fine stationery.
“My father was one of the farmers; he helped raise cattle,” Leck says. “It was a different way of growing up and naturally led to my botanical career. But regardless of where we were, we always had gardens, and I helped out, planting and weeding. Plants were always important, since my mother canned and froze and what not. My interest in plants was evident even before I began school.”
Leck remembers being a very young child, riding on a tractor with her father, asking him the names of the wild flowers in the woods nearby. Later she would peruse his flower guide, teaching herself to recognize and name the flowers when she found them in the woods and meadows. She also participated in 4-H activities, showing her vegetables and flowers at fairs.
“These were all activities that ultimately led me to an academic botanical life with an interest in seed germination ecology,” she writes in her artist’s bio. “This, in turn, led to interesting studies, for example, in tundra of the Colorado Rockies and at Barrow, Alaska, as well as a tidal freshwater wetland along a tributary of the Delaware River near Trenton.”
That “freshwater wetland” is the Abbott Marshlands, once called the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh, and comprises some 2,800 acres along Crosswicks Creek and the Delaware River, between Trenton and Bordentown. This is a place of passionate interest to Leck, founder of the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands (www.marsh-friends.org) and a member of its executive committee.
The “Friends” are a group of volunteers working under the auspices of the D&R Greenway Land Trust in support of preservation and protection of the Abbott Marshlands. Leck has also been on the Greenway’s board of trustees since the late 1980s.
“The marsh has been a real pull for me, in part because it’s a novel habitat — when we go we never know what we’ll find. It’s just so varied,” she says. “In the spring, you have mud, but come back a few months later in summer and you’ll have all this greenery, plants that can be 10 or 12 feet tall. Plus, it’s tidal, so that makes it even more interesting.”
Leck remarks on the tidal quality of the marsh, which became tidal a mere 2,000 years ago, and its Native American residents, who lived there some 13,000 years ago.
“Because of rising sea levels it became tidal, but it was not when the Indians were here — which I find very cool,” she says. “They probably lived on the bluffs, but would go down to the lower areas to fish and hunt. They came not long after the glaciers melted, so it was always quite wet and muddy. You have a tendency to think that it’s looked like this for a long, long time, but not too long ago things were quite different geologically.”
Graduating in 1962 with a bachelor of science degree in botany, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Leck earned her Ph.D., also in botany, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1966. She became part Rider’s biology faculty in 1970 and remained there for more than 30 years.
Her professional awards are numerous and among her books and publications is “Seedling Ecology and Evolution” (Cambridge University Press, 2008), which she co-edited with V.T. Parker and R.L. Simpson. The book partially grew out of Leck’s decades-long research on seed germination ecology and soil seed banks of the Abbott Marshlands.
“My research interests continue to involve the germination ecology of tidal freshwater wetland plants, and I am quite happy in hip boots,” Leck writes in her artist’s bio.
Although she has had a camera since her youth and often used photography to support her teaching and research, Leck embraced fine art photography only after her retirement about 15 years ago. She has studied with Ricardo Barros and Richard Wright, and, as a member of the Princeton Photography Club, has taken part in many short workshops with the group. However, her studies continue. “Because I’ve had no art training, I am challenged to know how to ‘see’ and understand why a photograph is ‘good.’ Another challenge lies with processing photos and effective use of Photoshop,” she says.
In addition to participating in an array of juried, curated, and invitational exhibits, Leck has been on the committee for the “Voices for the Abbott Marshlands” juried photography show numerous times. She also co-curated the D&R Greenway Trust’s 2010 exhibit, “Ebb and Flow: 10,000 Years at the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh.”
“Although I’ve had a camera for many years, my serious photographic interests developed only after I retired,” Leck writes. “Now I have time to experiment, and I am drawn to unusual floral features — color patterns, textures, even glistening cells that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not been peering so closely at plant and flower parts.”
“Photography of both flowers and ice uses basic scientific techniques of observation and experimentation,” she adds. “Underlying my photography is the fun of exploring, discovering, and trying to figure out explanations for what I’ve seen.”
Noting examples of works in exhibition that blend her mind and eye, Leck says, “The one that is most botanically fascinating is the entirely white Indian pipe. This species is a non-photosynthetic flowering plant. It is actually a hemiparasite because it receives it’s nutrients via a fungus that, in turn, derives its nutrients from a tree. The whole flower is structurally interesting. The ice photo that brings together the scientist and the photographer is ‘tapestry.’ It took me some time to figure out what caused the elaborate light pattern on the bottom of the small puddle. I eventually found that there was an internal crystal structure that altered the passage of light. That arrangement was discernible only from particular viewpoints.”
While exhibiting in a school such as Chapin, Leck has the opportunity to speak to the students and share her enthusiasm for the outdoors with the young people.
“For those interested in science I hope (my photos might enhance their ability) to look and get a perspective around the things they’re seeing,” Leck says. “I hope I can help motivate the students to get outside more, but it takes more than one person showing them pictures. Maybe through scouts, camping, and other activities, they’ll make those connections to nature. Obviously they are into their computers and gadgets, but perhaps this (introduction to the beauty of nature) will help them figure out how to make things work without those electronic things.”
Parallel Views — Flowers & Ice, Gallery at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton. Monday, February 2, through Friday, February 27. Reception, Wednesday, February 4, 5 p.m. Gallery tours of the photography exhibit by Mary Allessio Leck, can be arranged during school hours by calling the gallery manager, Sharon Gomberg at 609-924-7206. www.chapinschool.org/The-Gallery-at-Chapin.