The Visual Legacy of Legendary Lower East Side Photographer Rebecca Lepkoff [PHOTOS]

Posted on: August 25th, 2014 at 11:00 am by

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Image of Rebecca Lepkoff from “New York Voices,” Channel Thirteen/WNET.

The Lower East Side lost one of its most vibrant chroniclers this past week. Legendary photographer Rebecca Lepkoff passed away on August 17, a mere thirteen days after turning 98.

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Spinning the Top, Lower East Side, 1940s.

Growing up at 60 Hester Street, Lepkoff acquired her first camera with money earned as a modern dancer at the 1939 World’s Fair. She was fascinated by the street scenes which were taking place right outside her door, saying that, due to the very small and overcrowded apartments in the neighborhood, “everyone was outside: the mothers with their baby carriages, and the men just hanging out.”

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Image of Lepkoff’s father (center), shopping on the LES.

Even though the neighborhood was considered dangerous at that time, with the first wave of immigrants fleeing the area in the 20s and 30s for a better life, Lepkoff and her camera saw the community in an exciting and positive way.

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Shoemaker, 1947.

Her photos of pushcarts, store owners, street signs, young mothers, and children playing, transmitted an optimism and joyousness not found in other documents of the neighborhood. Some have called her the polar opposite of Jacob Riis, who documented the squalor of the earlier Lower East Side.

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Sailboat on the East River, 1940.

Lepkoff’s work was not limited to the Lower East Side. She also photographed the Pikes Falls hippie community in Southern Vermont, where she had a summer home, and she documented street life in Harlem, where she had an apartment in her later years.

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Young man in Harlem.

Lepkoff was a member of the Photo League, a group of socially conscious photographers that formed in the 1940s. Prominent members included Berenice Abbott, Ruth Orkin and Lisette Model. (The group was also very pro-women, which was unusual for the time.) Because of McCarthy-era pressure, the Photo League was eventually dissolved in 1951.

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14th Street, 1947.

Artist, photographer and poet Brent Pallas met Lepkoff at a poetry group. He shared some of his memories of her with us:

Rebecca was like an energizer bunny. If I called her in the morning it would definitely have to be before 9 am because she was already out of the house. Even in her 80s and 90s, she always took the subway at all hours.

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Postcard of Lepkoff, which she sent to Pallas in 2012.

When I asked her once why she was always out of the house, she told me she lived in a tiny place on the Lower East Side. It was a large family and she didn’t have any room, so she hated being in the house and was always outside.

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Butcher Man, 1948.

She was an excellent potter and poet, too. Her poems were always down to earth and sparkled with, and from, her life.

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Baby Carriage, 1940s.

A wonderful documentary on Lepkoff from PBS’s New York Voices can be seen below. A participant in the film sums her up well: “Lepkoff didn’t see decline on the Lower East Side, she saw life.”

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