The Lower East Side revealed

By Tonia Steed

Photographer Rebecca Lepkoff’s document of a bygone neighborhood

Photo by Eugene Lepkoff

L.E.S. chronicler Rebecca Lepkoff

At the magazine stand, the vendor unties bundles of newspapers. A little boy, suspenders criss-crossed over his dusty trousers, watches, fascinated. Behind them, people buy knishes and frankfurters. Root beer is advertised for 5 cents. It’s the corner of Essex and Delancey, circa 1930s. Today, six lanes of busy traffic stream by people buying Big Macs and pizza. The vitality’s still there, but the neighborhood has changed.

Rebecca Lepkoff knows this well. Born in 1916 to Russian immigrants, Lepkoff grew up at 343 Cherry Street and later lived in the Knickerbocker Village housing project sandwiched between Market and Catherine. In the late 1930s, Lepkoff picked up a camera and began documenting life on the streets of the Lower East Side, establishing a lifelong passion and a distinguished career as a photographer. Her work has appeared in numerous exhibitions and museums, as well as in books such as “A History of Women Photographers” by Naomi Rosenblum. We spoke on the occasion of the release of Lepkoff’s first monograph, “Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950.”

You were originally a modern dancer. What brought you to photography?

Bill Matons of the Experimental Dance Group was choreographing a performance for the 1939 World’s Fair and hired me as a dancer. We were all paid the equity rate, and I was earning a decent wage for the first time in my life. I used my extra money to buy a camera and just went out into the streets of my neighborhood and started taking pictures. It wasn’t such a leap from dance to photography. All arts are related, really. Choreography and photography are very visual, and the streets are like a stage. Over time, I danced less and got more and more into photography.

In the 1945, you joined the Photo League, an organization founded in 1936 by photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn to support both amateur and professional photographers with classes and exhibitions. How did this impact your work?

The Photo League was instrumental in the creative life of my photographs. Up until then, I had been working by myself. I saw a newspaper article about the League and was drawn to their philosophy. At the time, photography was dead. There was commercial photography, fashion photography, and what I call “picturesque” photography – pretty landscapes of little interest. Nobody was taking photos of the life around them, and there were no photography classes in academic art departments. The Photo League saw photography as an art form, and encouraged photographers to use their cameras to show how the world lives. This was totally new. It excited a lot of people. It certainly excited me. I registered for classes immediately.

Who were your primary influences?

Many well-known photographers, such as Paul Strand, Helen Levitt, and Walter Rosenblum spoke or taught classes while I was at the Photo League. But I learned the most in Sid Grossman’s class. He pushed hard – he would get very angry if a student didn’t bring in the assignment, and lots of students dropped out of his class. But I stayed, and was glad I did. Under his direction, I took a lot of the photographs in this book.

What attracted you to shoot certain street scenes and subjects?

I was never able to analyze that – I just went with a feeling. I would walk the streets, and see something I wanted to shoot. I would take a lot of time with the pictures, develop them in my darkroom, and then often return to the same spot and shoot some more if I felt I’d missed something. I wanted the images to capture what I felt when I was on the street, to capture the history of the people living in these streets. Back then, for example, the Lower East Side had a largely Jewish immigrant population. I was from such a family myself. In one photo in the book, an older woman walks half-bowed past an abandoned synagogue. On the wall next to the synagogue, you can see a movie poster. In my mind, this image captures the time when the synagogues were disappearing from the Lower East Side. I also did a series of photographs of [lone figures] walking underneath the El [the Third Avenue elevated line that ran down Pearl Street and was dismantled in the 1950s]. The photos show structures in half light – they’ve very dark, heavy. These photos are a portrait of these immigrants’ struggles.

In his essay in the book, Peter E. Dans, who also grew up on the Lower East Side, marks the end of the neighborhood of his youth and of your photographs when blocks of homes and storefronts were razed to accommodate the construction of the Alfred E. Smith Housing Projects in 1950. Do you agree?

No, I think the end came sooner, right after World War II. When the men came back from the war, they were anxious to start their lives, and they didn’t want to do it on the Lower East Side. [With the better economy in the late 1940s] there was an exodus of the Lower East Side’s Jewish population to the suburbs, and new black, Asian, and Spanish-speaking immigrant populations moved in. The storefronts changed, the signs changed, the faces changed.

It’s very different now. Well, the world is very different now. When I walk in the Lower East Side now, I hardly recognize it. The area’s so developed now. The little stores and three-story houses are gone, replaced with high-rise apartment buildings. The stoop used to be everyone’s living room, but no more. The borderlines between neighborhoods are dissolving and with them, the neighborhoods themselves.

People have bought this book for their grandparents, or because they remember this time and place themselves. It’s really the history of a neighborhood revealed.

Does the neighborhood still inspire you?

Oh, yes. The Lower East Side has changed, but it still feels very much alive. I live in Soho now, but when I walk around the Lower East Side I find I’m always taking pictures with my eyes. I get an idea for a shot and then go back with my camera. I always watch the groups of older Chinese men playing checkers in Bayard Street Park, for example. The scene is so intimate and yet social. I’m fascinated by it. That’s my next photo project.