Here at Off the Grid we were saddened to hear of the passing of Rebecca Lepkoff. She died on Sunday, August 17 at the age of 98. Ms. Lepkoff was a photographer that captured the very human quality of life on of the Lower East Side from the 1930s onwards.
Rebecca Lepkoff was born in a Hester Street tenement to Jewish-Russian immigrant parents in 1916. The story goes that she purchased her first camera with money earned by dancing at the World’s Fair, although images dating as early as 1937 suggest it wasn’t necessarily her first camera. She was immediately drawn to realistic photos that documented street life, particularly of her Lower East Side neighborhood and the teeming Midtown streets. She also took photographs of southern Vermont, where she had a second home and of Harlem, where she had an apartment later in her life.
Lepkoff was a member of the Photo League, an influential group of socially conscious photo documentarians founded by Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn. Recent exhibits on the League focused on the large number of women photographers that were part of the group, including Berenice Abbott, Vivian Cherry, and Lisette Model. Lepkoff remained a member of the League until 1951, when it disbanded amid McCarthy-era pressure.
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. It has been reprinted several times and is sold at St. Mark’s Bookshop and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
While Lepkoff had training as part of her membership in the Photo League, it seemed she had a natural eye for her subject. The Lo-Down‘s Tobi Elkin interviewed Ms. Lepkoff in 2011 and asked about her method:
“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.”
Rebecca Lepkoff will be missed, but her legacy will live on in her extraordinary body of work. Ms. Lepkoff is represented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Off the Grid is grateful to gallery for permission to use Lepkoff’s work in this post.