[Older woman sitting on a stoop, Lower East Side, New York City, 1940s].
The 74 photographs in this collection capture the bustling street life of Manhattan's Lower East Side during the late 1930's and 1940's. Many are portraits depicting street vendors, shopkeepers, mothers, and especially, kids. There is also one photograph of a ticket line in Broadway taken in the 1970's. The majority of the photographs are vintage gelatin silver prints; there are also a few digital reproduction prints.
Rebecca Lepkoff (nee Brody) was born to Russian Jewish immigrants on the Lower east Side in 1916. Her parents emigrated from Minsk in 1910 and settled in a tenement apartment on Hester Street. As the family grew (Rebecca would eventually have five siblings), they moved from tenement to tenement but always within a few block radius. Lepkoff's father worked as a tailor; when Lepkoff was about 11 years old, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown which left her unable to properly care for the children. As a teenager, Lepkoff became interested in dance, and was hired as one of the dancers for a performance about the history of railroads at the 1939 World's Fair. With her earnings, Lepkoff bought a camera and took advantage of free photography classes offered by the New Deal's National Youth Administration.In 1941, Rebecca married a man named Gene Lepkoff, who was soon after drafted for military service during WWII. After he returned from service in France and Germany, the Lepkoffs moved into their own Lower East side flat on Cherry Street. Although still dancing, Lepkoff became more and more interested in photographing the neighborhood. In 1945, she joined the Photo League, an organization created in 1936 by New York photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn. A volunteer organization open to amateurs as well as professionals, the Photo League members were committed to documentary photography that captured the urban experience. Inspired by her classes with Sid Grossman, Lepkoff tirelessly shot photographs of her neighborhood, returning to the same scenes over and over until she captured the image she wanted. In 1948, the Photo League was black-listed as a communist organization by the U.S. Attorney General, and by 1952 it was forced to close. Lepkoff continued to photograph but her attention was also consumed with raising her children (born in 1950, 1953 and 1962). After her third child was born, the Lepkoffs moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, but they returned to New York City in 1979, after their children were grown. Lepkoff continued to photograph the Lower East Side throughout the 1970's and '80's.
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024, 212-873-3400.