Projecting A Burgeoning City

A view from the Williamsburg Bridge shows congested traffic in Manhattan on January 29, 1923.

When he died in 1943, Eugene de Salignac was entirely forgotten. He was born in Boston in 1861, a descendant of French nobility, and, after a failed marriage, started working for the City of New York as the official photographer for the Department of Bridges; a position he would hold from 1906 to 1934.

In that time, he witnessed the rise of modern New York City and recorded it on film for the ages. At the time of his death, de Salignac left behind more than 100 volumes of prints, corresponding logbooks and plate-glass negatives; the bulk of which were either stored in municipal storerooms or used arbitrarily for various documentaries. However, de Salignac himself remained largely forgotten and remained largely uncredited for his work…for his recently acclaimed art.

De Salignac’s pictures have been reproduced in books, newspapers, posters and films, including Ken BurnsBrooklyn Bridge; though largely uncredited, his work helped shape New York’s image. “He was a great chronicler of the city, in the tradition of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Stieglitz and Berenice Abbott,” says Mellins. “The fact that he was a city employee may have made it less likely that people would think of his work in an artistic context, but these images indicate that he really takes his place in the pantheon of great photographers of New York.”

This view of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking east, was taken on May 6, 1918.

Then in 1999, Michael Lorenzini, the senior photographer for the New York City Municipal Archives, was browsing through spools of microfilm when he noticed a shared, “distinct and sophisticated aesthetic” in many of the archival images which were also numbered. “It just kind of hit me: this is one guy; this is a great photographer,” Lorenzini says.  He searched through storeroom after storeroom, record after record, for anything that would identify the photographer behind the pictures. After mounting days and months comprised of grueling hours, Lorenzini finally discovered the municipal worker/photographer/artist he was looking for: De Salignac…for a century, one of the most forgotten of chroniclers.

Workers on the Williamsburg Bridge on March 20, 1918. The “W” was part of “WSS,” which stood for “War Savings Stamps.”

De Salignac’s time as a city worker coincided with New York’s transformation from a horse-and-buggy town into a modern-day metropolis, and his photographs of towering bridges, soaring buildings, trains, buses and boats chart the progress. “In this remarkable repository of his work, we really see the city becoming itself,” says Thomas Mellins, curator of special exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York. “During this period, New York became a paradigm for 20th-century urbanism, and that has to do with monumentality, transportation systems, working out glitches, skyscrapers, with technology—all of the things that emerge in these photos.”

An ironworker at work in the William Street (Manhattan) subway on November 19, 1928.

De Salignac finally gained the attention and respect he deserved. In 2007, he was honored at the Museum of the City of New York with a special exhibition dedicated to his life and work. New York Rises: Photographs by Eugene de Salignac, is a companion book to the exhibition published by Aperture with essays be Lorenzini and photography scholar Kevin Moore.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine