Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Conversation with Rebecca Lepkoff

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing photographer Rebecca Lepkoff about her new exhibit: Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff 1937-1951, on display at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  Born in 1916 on Hester Street, Lepkoff is comfortable behind a microphone. We spent a captivating 30 minutes talking her life and her art.

Rebecca Lepkoff signs a copy of her book for a fan at the Tenement Museum

Through Lepkoff’s work, contemporary audiences experience nearly a century of change and transition on the Lower East Side. In her photographs, the neighborhood acts both as a backdrop and a major subject. Art and history intertwine, producing works that are biographical and aesthetically graceful.

The Aimless Youth of Cherry Street, 1948

Speaking with Lepkoff, it's immediately clear that she maintains a fierce emotional connection to the Lower East Side: “You know I still go down to the Lower East Side. It is a piece of my history, my life. 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.”

Optimo Cigar Store, Madison Street, 1948

Lepkoff’s work is especially important for the Tenement Museum and the Lower East Side because her images document a forgotten place and time. She remembers earlier stages of the neighborhood's ongoing evolution. “These photographs were taken on the Lower East Side. There were some taken right here on Orchard Street…On Essex Street, when Essex Street was totally Jewish, some of the signs that were all in Hebrew letters. Little by little they disappeared until there weren’t any at all. And Spanish words started to come up…There was a candy and newspaper store that around 1950 when there was a transition of the Jewish people leaving and the Spanish people coming that there were three languages on the store window. There was Yiddish, Jewish – you know the Hebrew letters, Spanish and English on one window. It was just a time of great transition.”

To learn more about the Lower East Side and the life of this extraordinary woman, listen to the extended recording of her interview available on our website.

--Posted by Leah Mollin-Kling

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