Rebecca Lepkoff Keeps Going at 96

Photo League Veteran Is Focus of New Film, Exhibit

Still Shooting Away: Even at 96, Rebecca Lepkoff refuses to stop doing what she loves: taking evocative photos of street scenes.
Lisa Amand
Still Shooting Away: Even at 96, Rebecca Lepkoff refuses to stop doing what she loves: taking evocative photos of street scenes.

By Lisa Amand

Published June 21, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.

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Evans, author of the catalog’s essay “As Good as the Guys: The Women of the Photo League,” said Lepkoff and survivors, such as Sonia Handelman Meyer, Erika Stone, Vivian Cherry and Ida Wyman, all included in the show, have “indomitable vitality.”

Lepkoff is proud of “Radical Camera,” saying that when she first saw the show at The Jewish Museum, she was overcome with “a sweet sadness.”

“Those were nice times, very creative, and those were friends. We were very communicative of what we were doing,” she recalled. “We were all trying to do the same kind of thing. We could talk about problems, different techniques in the dark room or events of the day… the political situation.”

Each Leaguer had his or her own turf. Lepkoff, the Jewish daughter of Russian immigrants, naturally explored thoroughfares thick with pushcarts, rabbis’ offices, religious talismans, Yiddish and Hebrew signs and synagogues.

Born in a Hester Street tenement, Lepkoff moved frequently with her family. As a newlywed in 1942, she lived in a Cherry Street flat that boasted an icebox and pot belly stove.

Throughout her life, Lepkoff said, she spent most of her time on the Lower East Side and in visually rich Midtown.

These days Lepkoff branches out from the West 145th Street apartment she shares with her husband of 70 years, Eugene. She wants to capture, now digitally, local businesses hanging on to their cultural identities in the face of chain stores.

Upbeat and humble, Lepkoff attributes her longevity to the constant, mindful movement of the Alexander technique and yoga. Once on the road to becoming a professional dancer (she and Eugene met in a dance class), Lepkoff gave up that career to raise three children. With earnings from dancing at the 1939 World’s Fair, she bought her first camera, a second-hand Voigtlander, and was smitten.

She has always loved wandering the city, guided by an intuitive talent for capturing in her photos multiethnic merchants, children playing on stoops and sidewalks, derelict buildings and desolate alleys.

Lepkoff was ecstatic to find Arnold Eagle’s 1935 picture “Third Avenue El, 18th Street Station” placed next to hers of the same subject in “Radical Camera.” She has never forgotten Eagle’s encouragement. “He was the first one who looked at my photographs and said, ‘Your eye is really very good at composing them.’ ”

“Radical Camera” will travel to San Francisco in October and to West Palm Beach, Fla., next year. Lepkoff said she feels “like a piece of my life has come back, sprung back. It’s like a dream that takes you back to a certain time.”

Lisa Amand is a features writer from Brooklyn.

Final distribution of “Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York” is still in process, but it will have limited late June screenings at NoHo 7 in North Hollywood, Calif., and the Quad Cinema in New York City.



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