To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are some images by pioneering street photographer Rebecca Lepkoff.
A quintessential New Yorker, Lepkoff gained international acclaim for her iconic images of the Lower East Side. She was born on August 4, 1916, in a Hester Street tenement. Like the majority of families living in the neighborhood at that time, her parents were Jewish immigrants, struggling to improve their circumstances. Lepkoff dreamed of becoming a dancer, and after graduating from City College she was hired to dance at the 1939 World’s Fair. With the money she earned, she bought her first camera, and began to shift her artistic vision to photography.
Lepkoff took advantage of free photography classes offered by the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, and later joined the Photo League. Founded in 1936 by photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the Photo League encouraged its members to document everyday life, a mission that Lepkoff gloriously fulfilled. Her photographs capture and make palpable a world that no longer exists. She focuses on the daily incidents of life that spilled out of too-small dwellings onto sidewalks and streets: mothers watching their babies, boys making fists, people shopping or sitting on stoops, neighbors chatting. Although indelibly stamped with the imprint of a vanished era, we recognize our own lives in Lepkoff’s images. They have an authentic quality that makes you realize the past really happened.
Lepkoff was one of many women in the Photo League, which was “gender neutral at a time when women were not particularly visible outside the home,” says Catherine Evans, co-curator of a recent traveling exhibition about the League. About a third of the League’s members were women, including many famous names such as Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ruth Orkin. Their work shares a commitment to documentary photography, but can hardly be characterized as “feminine.” As Evans noted, “if we were to cover up the wall labels in [the Photo League] exhibition, you’d be hard pressed to say ‘that was by a woman, that was by a man.'”
The vibrancy of Lepkoff ‘s photographs reflects her own vitality: she lived to be 98, continuing to photograph almost up until the day she died (August 17, 2014). Luckily, her legacy is preserved at N-YHS and other institutions and will continue to inspire women for many years to come.