Text/Context July, 2009: Shooting Delancy

No alternate text on picture! - define alternate text in image propertiesThe Lower East Side, renowned as the preeminent Jewish immigrant neighborhood in the United States, has also acquired a well-deserved reputation as an incubator of American Jewish culture in theater, music, art and literature. Less known is the role the neighborhood played, starting in the late 1930s, as a source of inspiration for a group of American Jewish photographers. Their pictures of New York City would come to influence the course of American photography, establishing a style later identified as the New York School of Photography and helping to shape how Americans came to see the city. At the same time, these photographers would lay the foundation for a body of work that contributed another dimension to Jewish visual culture.

Most of these photographers found their way to the New York Photo League, located in an aging industrial building near Union Square. There they took classes, joined documentary group projects focused on various New York neighborhoods, and discussed what photography could do to change how people saw the world. Photo League images of New York street culture focused not on the monumental city of concrete and steel, but on eye-level interactions, public performances and those passing exchanges that characterize crowded places.

Rebecca Lepkoff, the second of six children, grew up on the Lower East Side, and is now in her nineties. Her immigrant Jewish parents came from Minsk. The family moved often, as their finances fluctuated, but always within a radius of a few blocks: Hester Street, Clinton Street, Jefferson Street, East Broadway. When Lepkoff was 11 years old, her mother had a nervous breakdown and the family plunged into poverty. The stigma of being poor rankled. Lepkoff remembered how her teachers at Seward Park High School relentlessly criticized her, her clothes, her fingernails. So, she quit, but she didn’t tell anybody.

She just spent the school day at the Seward Park Public Library and read through all the classics. Then at the Educational Alliance she discovered modern dance. Soon she was working in the garment industry and dancing with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman’s company during the slow season. At the 1939 World’s Fair she choreographed a dance about railroads, received equity rate pay for her dancing, and, with her first disposable income, bought a camera. Lepkoff’s early training in modern dance tuned her “into the choreography of the movement of the streets,” as she told an interviewer.

She took her first photography class with Arnold Eagle on Houston Street. Eagle encouraged her. In 1941 she married Gene Lepkoff and in 1945 discovered the Photo League, where they were doing photography in the way she was. The League “opened up a whole era of my life in photography,” she reflected.

She registered for an evening class with Sid Grossman, a founder of the League who believed in photography as a form of social action. At the League photographers came to understand their work as a blend of art and politics, the personal and collective. As a broadly blue-collar cooperative venture, their photo commitments extended beyond strikes, picket lines and poverty to the everyday interactions that sustained urban community.

Lepkoff found her own neighborhood, the streets of the Lower East Side, endlessly interesting. She would walk out the door and there would be something to photograph. Lepkoff understood how gender shaped interactions on the street, as can be seen in her photograph of two women exchanging information about health practices on Delancey Street. Each intently eyes the other. One is reaching into her purse while the other holds a dollar bill between her fingers. The nurse, dressed in white, stands with a clipboard behind a sign that announces “Last Ca . . .” the letters cut off leaving us to guess that it may be a Last Call. But what catches our eye because it caught the photographer’s eye is the other person observing this street interaction. A man with glasses, large protruding ears and a cigarette dangling from his mouth grins quizzically. Maybe he is watching Lepkoff take the picture; or perhaps he is looking at the two women. Like the photographer, he is a curious observer of the street scene. In the background, tenements help to place the interaction on the Lower East Side. On the far right, a streetlight echoes the curve of the nurse’s starched white hat, a touch of grace. Here is an example of the new form of interpersonal street photography. Young Jewish American photographers who attended the Photo League tried to assimilate their city visually by exposing its web of sightlines.

Lepkoff made it a practice to frequent the same streets, hanging out with her camera. She’d shoot a roll of film and then head home, returning later the same day. As a young married woman without children, she worked part-time jobs in order to photograph. “Sometimes I would be on the street for a long time, so people would sort of feel relaxed about my being there,” she remembered. “I have these portraits where people were just looking straight at me without posing...”

In her photograph of a girl standing on one foot as she leans against a building, Lepkoff captures just such a moment of nonchalance. The girl has placed her hands in her pants pockets; her body reflects her comfort on the street. She could, in fact, be Lepkoff herself when she was young, though her neat cardigan sweater, crisp white collar and clean pants do not suggest poverty. The girl’s face is in shadow, but her body catches the sunlight. Like Lepkoff, she too is watching the street, observing something off-camera. It is an ordinary street scene, one that we might have ignored if we were not actively engaged with seeing the city. Lepkoff notices and invites us to stare at one who is also staring. The horizontal white stripes of the girl’s cardigan visually echo the striped shadows of the fire escape: something to catch a photographer’s eye. Both sets of stripes disrupt the patterned rectangular building façade, complicating the scene as a piece of graphic design. On the closed factory door within its vertical rectangles, girls (to judge from the neat, ornamented handwriting) have repeatedly scribbled “Mother” in chalk. Words, we are reminded, are the city’s own commentary. Graffiti, like photographs, say — in effect — let me share this with you.

Lepkoff liked the intimacy of direct contact that came from photography. “It helped to be a woman,” she said. Like other League photographers, she tried to cultivate reciprocity between herself and neighborhood residents. Lepkoff saw the Lower East Side as an insider, and she focused on quotidian interactions that were at once familiar and surprisingly graceful. She found herself resonating with street life that organized itself in a shifting matrix of sightlines and body language.

Lepkoff’s Lower East Side is a vibrant place, not a slum, not a poverty-stricken area. Her neighborhood is not even particularly an immigrant enclave with pushcarts and Yiddish storefronts. They do not dominate on the streets of her Lower East Side. Rather, her photographs show us “Signs of Life,” as a current exhibit at Howard Greenberg Gallery is titled. They invite us to look at the streets of the Lower East Side as Jewish American photographers saw them, neither through a haze of nostalgia nor as a staging ground for a saga of immigrant mobility but rather as a site of exchange and interaction. 

---Deborah Dash Moore is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Co-author of “Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images” (Columbia University Press, 2001), she is writing a book with MacDonald Moore on Jewish American photographers.