‘I didn’t ask for permission to photograph someone.. I’d hand around such a long time in the area that people got used to me… At that time, people weren’t about the camera.’ – Rebecca Lepkoff
Rebecca Lepkoff was an American photographer born in 1916. She grew up in a tenement on Hester Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her father was a tailor and the family bounced around various Lower East Side addresses as they struggled to improve their circumstances. She grew up in a family of eight and lived in a two-bedroom tenement apartment, but Rebecca recalled many early happy memories.
In 1927, her mother, shortly after the birth of her youngest daughter, suffered a nervous breakdown and never fully recovered. Rebecca’s older sister, Celia, then 13, took on most of the responsibility of maintaining the family, and to work, dressed up and claimed she was 16.
The breakdown of her mother had a profound impact on the family, and Rebecca struggled through junior high school. She then attended Seward Park High School but dropped out at age 16, as the brunt of the Great Depression bore down in the Lower East Side. She later attended night school and earned her high school diploma.
In her teenage years, it was sports and her newly discovered athletic ability that drove her forward. She also took gymnastic classes and played basketball at the Educational Alliance, a settlement house and community center on the Lower East Side.
It was at the Educational Alliance that she was introduced to modern dance, and her interest piqued, she soon discovered a passion. “I started feeling better when I danced,” she recalled, as dancing proved an antidote to a difficult family life. She fell in with the Experimental Dance Group, a company led by Bill Matons, and was soon performing at museums and colleges. Eventually, she became a dance instructor with the group.
In 1937, at age 21, she was awarded a scholarship to the Doris Humphrey–Charles Weidman Dance Group. Still, to provide income to her family with whom she still lived, she worked seasonally in the garment industry, working in a button factory and sewing seams in another.
In 1939, she was hired to work as a dancer at the New York World’s Fair, where she performed routines in a staging about the history of railroads. She received equity pay, and with part of the proceeds, purchased a camera. This soon developed into another passion: photography.
She enrolled in photography classes offered free by the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, which, advantageously, had an office on the Lower East Side. The director of the program was photographer Arnold Eagle, of whom she had fond memories. She also recalled during this period that “there were times I didn’t have a change of clothes … You would wear your shoes down to nothing, and you wouldn’t be able to buy new ones.”
In 1940, the U.S. Census captured Rebecca, at age 24, living with her family at 221 East Broadway, only a block from the Seward Park Library. The size of the family was now six, as her older sister Celia and younger brother Samuel had moved out. Her occupation was listed as “dancer.” The apartment building at 221 East Broadway still exists. Now called “The Mayflower,” it may be the only extant Lower East Side structure where the Brody family resided.
In 1941, Rebecca married Eugene Lepkoff, whom she had met in a dance class. He was soon drafted and served in an artillery unit in Europe during World War II. After his return, the couple settled in an apartment at 343 Cherry Street on the Lower East Side. She had three children and focused her lens on the world she inhabited.
Lepkoff developed her eye under the tutelage of Arnold Eagle, the first of many idealistic Jewish photographers—including Sid Grossman, Paul Strand, and Walter Rosenblum—who introduced her to the Photo League and encouraged her to continue to document the city. Like so many left-leaning New York photographers who came of age during the Great Depression, many of them recent Jewish immigrants or first-generation Americans – Lepkoff soon found her classroom and home at the famed Photo League, where she encountered a large group of like-minded members who believed in the power of the documentary photograph.
Her work has been featured in a number of books, galleries, and museum exhibits, including A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum; Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck; and The Radical Camera, New York’s Photo League (1936-1951). In 2006, a monograph of her work, Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950, was published that includes essays by Peter E. Dans and Suzanne Wasserman.
Lepkoff’s work is included in the collections of the National Museum of Art (Washington D.C.) the National Gallery of Canada, and the Museum of the City of New York
Lepkoff died Sunday, August 17, 2014, at her home in Townshend, Vermont. Two weeks prior to her death, she had turned 98.