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Guide to the Rebecca Lepkoff Photograph Collection
1930's - 1950's, 1970's
 PR 295

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Susan Kriete

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on April 26, 2013
Description is in English

Biographical/Historical note

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.