Book Review: Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950

Peter Dans and Suzanne Wasserman
Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950
Princeton Architectural Press, 2006 $29.95
ISBN 978-1-56898-939-6

In January of 2010, I visited New York City specifically to explore the Lower East Side, in particular landmarks like the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Lower East Side Tenement House Museum. Wanting to experience the sumptuous interior talked about in Preservation Magazine, I went on a tour of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in the center of Chinatown. When the tour ended, a woman from Connecticut approached me said “you know, there aren’t any other places on earth like the Lower East Side.” I agreed with the woman and briefly discussed the complex spatial and cultural relationships found in this neighborhood of New York City. I emphasized the immigration trends and patterns that have impacted and shaped the Lower East Side and went as far as to call the neighborhood a microcosm of the United States. 

As cold as it was outside, I was deeply immersed in the rich urban fabric of this neighborhood, absorbing its buildings, people and streetscapes. Today, what visitors and residents experience walking around most of the Lower East Side are the results of the Urban Renewal projects of the 1940’s and 1950’s which demolished many areas deemed unfit to live in (this happened all over the country, not just in New York City).  Photographing the sector of the Lower East Side razed for public housing, Rebecca Lepkoff transports us back to a neighborhood most of us perhaps never knew had existed.

The photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff vividly capture the moments and memories of a neighborhood long gone (and perhaps forgotten by many) decades before Urban Renewal.  Lepkoff “[’s photographs are] filled with love and a sense of history and community[...] (31).” The Lower East Side brought international fame and recognition to Lepkoff whose striking images of people and the city celebrate the urbanity and simplicity of the vibrant neighborhood she once called home.

Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950 is the first monograph of Lepkoff’s work in the Lower East Side. The plates in the book shed much light on issues of cultural identity, race and multiculturalism, issues that photographer Gordon Parks had explored through the lens of his camera roughly around the same time Lepkoff was active. A member of the Photo League, the same organization photographers like Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand and other masters of photography were part of, the images of Rebecca Lepkoff are richly layered in beauty and history. Lepkoff, like Berenice Abbott, another photographer whose muse was the city of New York also celebrates the power and inspiration found in the bridges, factories, smokestacks and elevated railways. Lepkoff’s photographs bring out a sense of hope and heroism observed in the people who lived in this neighborhood.

Last Spring, I enrolled in a history of photography class at a university in Boston and having been exposed to many great masters of photography, the images in this monograph stylistically recall those of Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks and even Eugene Atget in their beautiful composition and play of light and shadow. Although I was not introduced to the work of Lepkoff in this class, I am hopeful that her work will be seen in future history of photography surveys.

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1 Comment

  1. That photo and your description remind me of a description I’ve heard of NY around that time. It isn’t literally true but true enough that it says something revealing. At that time, of course, there was no air conditioning. So in the Summer, everyone’s windows were open. It’s said that one could walk down the street and not miss a bit of the Yankees’ game — everyone had it on the radio. We no longer have that degree of shared culture. Looks like a great book. Thanks for the review.

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