So in tune with the rhythms of the street, Lepkoff’s photography can best be described as “choreography of the streets.” She writes, “People ask me — how do you know what (photos) to take? I didn’t even have to think. I just went outside, and there were the streets of my mother, of me, of whatever. Very alive, full of activity, with people …. Mothers with children. People would hang out the windows and talk from the windows, they would sit outside …. You’d get photographs of that.”
Looking at her photos today, in one way is nostalgic: As a kid in the late 50’s my Long Island cousin and I would roam parts of the Lower East Side of New York City, the area that is featured in a large portion of Lepkoff’s photos. Without doubt my experience of roaming New York and Baltimore’s gritty neighborhoods is the root of my fascination with the city. Still, Lepkoff’s influence on me is not so much from her location as it is in her ability to capture — choreograph, if you will — in her photos the rhythm of the daily in the life of the city. Each time I look at one of her photos, I am amazed anew at what I see. Each time I look at one of her photos I am inspired to try as best I can to capture the rhythm of daily in my work.
Lepkoff is not only proficient in framing the rhythm or in using her camera, she is also a master of the dark room. For whatever reason, I tend to shy away from wanting to play with exposure and so-on in the digital darkroom, yet Lepkoff’s photos remind me that the message you want your photo to convey can often be enhanced in the darkroom.
A bit about Rebecca Lepkoff (who will be 95 this coming May, and I should add, still mounting gallery shows): It was Lepkoff’s first love, modern dance, that led her to photography. Dancers, notoriously underpaid in the 30’s, often lacked the funds for other pursuits. For something to do, Lepkoff and her fellow dancers would visit New York City’s art and photography galleries. It was through these visits that Lepkoff came to appreciate the potential of photography, both as an art and media of social expression. Becoming a dancer in the New York World’s Fair (’39) “Trains on Parade” exhibit finally afforded her the luxury of purchasing a camera. Camera, now in hand, she took advantage of free photography classes as part of the New Deal’s National Youth Association. Her interest, and skill, was furthered by photographer Arnold Eagle (instructor and director of photography for the program), who knowing Lepkoff’s modern dance background, encouraged her to see the movement on the streets as choreography.
In 1945 Lepkoff came across a newspaper notice about a Photo League exhibit; subsequently becoming involved in that movement. It was here that Sid Grossman took notice of her and helped her refine her technique. Lepkoff was a quick study, taking what she learned to the streets as she photographed them. She states that it was her goal to make her subjects comfortable so that she could get the best possible photographs. To that end she spent considerable time on the streets. Thus, her subjects came to know her to the extent that her camera became almost invisible. Even so, Lepkoff was tenacious when it came to getting a shot that she wanted. Once, when taking photos for the book, Street Gang, she “lost” the police officer who was assigned for her safety.
After her children came along, Lepkoff cut back on her work somewhat, yet with her husband’s encouragement she stayed involved, capturing on film the social issues of her day — not only capturing them, but also exhibiting them to raise people’s conscience about the needs of those who lived in New York City’s Lower East Side.
We close with her thoughts for today’s photographers:
I think photographers today should really look around them and think about what they are seeing. They should just think about the meaning of what they are looking at. That is, to drink it in. People just walk through the streets and just use things, and if you ask them a little later on, “What did you see?” I don’t know if you’re going to get much of an answer… I think that if a photographer has a camera, he or she has to think of what’s out there and make a statement. It has nothing to do with the camera, really. It has to do with the way they see life. The camera is visual. But they have to know what they’re thinking and feeling …. If you walk around the streets and you don’t really see, in a thinking way, what’s out there–then is useless.
Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950, Test by Peter E. Dans & Suzanne Wasserman (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).