Lower East Side Photographer Rebecca Lepkoff Dies at 98

Rebecca Lepkoff in her New York City apartment, 2011. Photo by Tobi Elkin.

Rebecca Lepkoff in her New York City apartment, 2011. Photo by Tobi Elkin.

Rebecca Lepkoff, the legendary Lower East Side photographer, died this past weekend in Vermont at the age of 98.

The Commons Online reported:

…Lepkoff died Sunday morning in Townshend, only a few days after her 98th birthday. The native New Yorker split the last six decades of her life between the city and Southern Vermont, and her camera captured memorable images of both places. “She lived a long and incredible life,” said Jesse Lepkoff, her son. “She was an amazing artist, mother, and person.”

The Lo-Down’s Tobi Elkin profiled the prolific chronicler of LES life in 2011:

Lepkoff, 95, grew up in a tenement at 60 Hester St. that no longer exists, and was always fascinated with the streets of her youth. Her black and white photographs depict scenes from a neighborhood that has all but vanished—girls skipping rope in the street; people gathered in front of the Loew’s Canal theater before a show; stoop-sitting and sharing gossip;  women hanging laundry on clotheslines strung between buildings. Lepkoff’s photographs have appeared in numerous galleries and museum shows as well as in A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum; Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck; Street Gangs by Sandra Gardiner and Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950 by Peter Dans and Suzanne Wasserman. Lepkoff purchased her first camera, a Voigtlander, with money she scraped together from working as a dancer at the 1939 World’s Fair and turned her ravenous eye to street photography. Her photographs capture the bustle of the LES in the 1940s and 50s, depicting loiterers, butchers, shoemakers, mothers and especially, kids. As a modern dancer who took classes with Martha Graham, Lepkoff must have identified with the frenetic energy of the streets—a different kind of contemporary ballet. “I went outside and at that time, people lived in the streets—everything happened in the streets,” Lepkoff recalls. “People would go out and sit with baby carriages. They sat on the stoops. People lived in the streets because the apartments were so small. You didn’t have to worry about the safety of kids—they’d play stickball and jump rope in the streets.” The streets, she says, were full of peddlers of everything from hot corn and sweet potatoes to knife sharpeners and cameramen making tintypes, a lost art.

Lepkoff was part of The Photo League, an influential group of socially conscious documentarians:

Formed in 1936 by photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the League aimed to support amateur and professional photographers alike with classes and group shows. Its premise revolved around the power of photography as a means of documenting the human condition. “When it [the League] started, there was no photography that had to do with life at all,” Lepkoff says. “The only photography was commercial and fashion. No one took photographs of how people lived. The Photo League said ‘the world is out there’ and we should go out there and bring life back to be seen.” League members viewed photography as a tool for social change. Some of its members also photographed under the auspices of the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) including Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand).  Within the fellowship of the salon-like group, Lepkoff was most influenced by Walter Rosenblum, who had been an Army combat photographer, and his wife Naomi, a photographic historian, who became close friends. Walker Evans, Sid Grossman, Rosalie Gwathmey and Lisette Model were also influences and inspirations. Lepkoff remained a member of the League until 1951, when it disbanded amid McCarthy-era pressure. Of her method, Lepkoff says she photographed daily, walking the streets until she found something she wanted to shoot, returning frequently to the same spots to reconsider the scene.  “A lot of times, I’d take pictures in my mind without the camera…  You observe all kinds of things,” she says. “People ask me—how did you know what to take? I didn’t even have to think. I just went outside, and there were the streets of my mother, of me, and whatnot. Very alive, full of activity, with people,” Lepkoff told Dans and Wasserman in Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. “I didn’t ask for permission to photograph someone. I would hang around and shoot a roll of film or more. I’d look at the proof sheets and then would go back,” Lepkoff says. “I’d hang around such a long time in the area that people got used to me.” … She tried to snap pictures quickly before the subjects posed. “At that time, people weren’t worried about the camera,” although she recalls photographing at the docks on the East River once when someone did ask her to stop. Today, Lepkoff photographs in Harlem, not far from her home in Washington Heights: “I witness the relationship between people—parents with children, a lot of fathers with babies—their mothers are nannies taking care of other peoples’ kids.”

A memorial service for Lepkoff has not yet been scheduled. You can watch a slide show we prepared of some of her photos here. The photos were courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery.

2 comments to Lower East Side Photographer Rebecca Lepkoff Dies at 98

  • Tobi Elkin

    She was a gifted artist and generous woman who will be greatly missed. Rebecca chronicled life on the LES with flair and sensitivity. I enjoyed spending time with her and listening to her stories.

  • Susan L

    Although she was very fortunate to live a long and full life, I’m very sad about her death. I met Rebecca 2 1/2 years ago, when the Tenement Museum hosted an opening for an exhibit of her photos. I have her book and the photos are wonderful & nostalgic.