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Rebecca Lepkoff, who died this week at 98, is seen with her book Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. The documentary photographer captured subjects ranging from the changing face of New York City to the back-to-the-land movement in Vermont.

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Documentary photographer Rebecca Lepkoff dies at 98

From the Lower East Side to Pikes Falls, her camera captured the ordinary in an extraordinary way

BRATTLEBORO—Acclaimed documentary photographer Rebecca Lepkoff died Sunday morning in Townshend, only a few days after her 98th birthday.

The native New Yorker split the last six decades of her life between the city and Southern Vermont, and her camera captured memorable images of both places.

“She lived a long and incredible life,” said Jesse Lepkoff, her son. “She was an amazing artist, mother, and person.”

She was born on Aug. 4, 1916, in a Hester Street tenement on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood that would become her photographic muse. She considered becoming a professional dancer, but gave that dream up to be a mother and wife. Her husband of more than 70 years, Eugene, survives her.

After graduating from City College of New York in 1938, Lepkoff took part in a National Youth Administration photography program, from 1939 to 1941. She bought her first camera with some of the money she earned as a dancer at the 1939 World’s Fair, and quickly took to the developing genre of street photography.

Lepkoff later was part of the Photo League, formed in 1939 as a group of young, socially conscious photographers in New York. Lepkoff joined in 1945.

At its peak, the League claimed 300 members. It was a combination of a school, darkroom, gallery, and hangout for those who believed in the power of documentary photography to not just chronicle the world around us, but also to help change it.

Some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century were among its members: Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Morris Engel, and Walter Rosenblum, among others. It was notable for giving women the opportunity to break into photography and stand on equal footing with the men.

The League disbanded in 1951, a victim of the “Red Scare” years. Four years earlier, U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark included the Photo League on a list of organizations thought to be subversive.

Like many in the League, Lepkoff was a first-generation Jewish-American, the daughter of Russian immigrants. She set as her mission capturing the lives of ordinary people up in the tenements on the Lower East Side and the vibrant, close-knit multi-ethnic community that lived in the neighborhood, now vanished.

Bounded generally by the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the East River, and the Third Avenue El, most of the neighborhood Lepkoff grew up in and photographed was demolished in the early 1950s to build the Gov. Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing project.

“When it [the League] started, there was no photography that had to do with life at all,” Lepkoff said in a 2012 interview with The Lo-Down (www.lodowny.com), a website chronicling the Lower East Side.

“The only photography was commercial and fashion. No one took photographs of how people lived. The Photo League said, ‘The world is out there,’ and we should go out there and bring life back to be seen,” she said.

The best of her photos from the 1940s and 1950s are collected in Peter Dans and Susan Waserman’s “Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950,” published in 2006 by Princeton Architectural Press.

Even though urban renewal wiped out the place where she grew up, Lepkoff retained a deep, emotional attachment to the Lower East Side. She photographed the neighborhood into the 1980s.

“It is a piece of my history, my life,” she said in a 2012 interview with the Tenement Museum in New York. “It is very familiar but it’s so very different now. But as I walk along I superimpose, the double vision. I see it then, you know, and I have it now. It’s interesting.”

Vermont life

Lepkoff split her time between New York City and Vermont, and Vermont proved to be as fertile as the Lower East Side in terms of photographic subjects.

She has the distinction of photographing two generations of “back-to-the-landers” in the Jamaica area: Helen and Scott Nearing, and their friends, circa 1950, and the “hippies” who took some of their inspiration from the Nearings in the 1970s.

Lepkoff and her husband, Eugene, bought a home in Jamaica’s Pikes Falls section in the summer of 1950, and Lepkoff turned her camera on the Nearings and their world.

“Our house was a mile away from Scott and Helen Nearing,” Lepkoff told The Commons in 2010. “Scott himself had a history of political activity. Lots of people would come and live his style of being close to the earth.”

Her collection of Pikes Falls photos, “Almost Utopia: The Residents and Radicals of Pikes Falls, Vermont 1950,” was published by the Vermont Historical Society in 2008.

“The book is called ‘Almost Utopia’ because the people stayed for a long time and gave up; they couldn’t quite live there forever,” Lepkoff said.

Two decades later, in the summer of 1970, a new generation of idealists following in the footsteps of the Nearings came to Pikes Falls. Lepkoff’s camera was ready.

“They were really idealistic people,” Lepkoff told The Commons in 2010. “They made a beautiful garden with natural, organic gardening. They had a natural swimming hole and would go swimming there. They loved the body and used to go swimming in the morning or sun themselves or work in the garden, and they would do t’ai chi. ... They were really into vegetarian food and healthful living — really nice, poetic people.”

These photos became her “Vermont Hippies” series, which last showcased in a 2010 exhibition at the Vermont Center for Photography in Brattleboro. The Vermont Historical Society also has archived these along with her Nearing pictures.

One of her final public appearences was for her 98th birthday party put on by the Jamaica Historical Society earlier this month. Lepkoff also was a regular at the Townshend Farmers’ Market, where a booth, “Rebecca Lepkoff & family,” featured her signed books and handmade porcelain pottery.

Lepkoff’s daughter-in-law, Tamara Stenn, said the family will continue to run the booth into September and perhaps October. “We have quite a collection of Becky’s porcelain and hand-printed vintage, museum-quality photos and are seeking homes and/or ideas for them.”

Jesse Lepkoff said a memorial for his mother will take place soon, at a time yet to be determined.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #268 (Wednesday, August 20, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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