Street photographer Rebecca Lepkoff moves so fast that even those half her age can barely match her pace. One day the exuberant 96-year-old is shooting Latino storefronts in her Harlem neighborhood, the next she’s snapping her beloved Essex Street on the Lower East Side. In May, she boated up the Seine to Paris, where she took hundreds of pictures. “They don’t tear down old houses!” she said.
Lepkoff, who came of age during the Depression, has suddenly become the “It girl” for a group of socially conscious photographers who roamed the country at a time when pinup girls still existed.
An international reawakening to the accomplishments of the Photo League, a group of young, idealistic photographers, has pushed Lepkoff into a spotlight she shares with a dwindling number of colleagues. Many legendary leaguers like Weegee, Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Morris Engel and Walter Rosenblum have gone to their graves, leaving her to answer questions about their avant-garde group, slandered sometimes as a Communist front during the Red Scare.
Lepkoff is as busy as ever. A traveling exhibit, “The Radical Camera, New York’s Photo League (1936-1951),” which includes four of her vintage photographs, is drawing crowds at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio after its debut at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan.
In a documentary about the league, showing this month in Los Angeles and Manhattan, Lepkoff and other members reminisce about their groundbreaking work and the chase for images, many of which are now iconic.
During a spring screening of “Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York,” Lepkoff gasped at stories in the movie about her demanding teacher Sid Grossman. “You’d stay forever at his classes,” she said. “I used to come home at 3 in the morning.”
Sitting next to her watching the film was Grossman’s widow, Miriam, who says in the film that FBI accusations about her husband’s Communist activities led to his early death.
Stores such as the one at New York’s Tenement Museum sell out of her pictorial portrait, “Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937 – 1950” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), prompting her to make regular subway trips to Orchard Street to sign a stack. “Forty books a month! That’s a wonderful sales thing,” she said. The museum shop currently has a waiting list. The book, first published in 2006, is being printed for the fifth time.
A third of the approximate 300 card-carrying members of the Photo League were women, active in a wide range of high-profile roles, said Catherine Evans, photography curator of the Columbus museum and co-curator of “Radical Camera.” “It was gender-neutral at a time when women were not particularly visible outside the home,” she said.