A municipal photographer’s city on the move

He was just an anonymous staff photographer for New York’s Department of Bridges, a 40something descendant of a French noble family who moved to New York from New England and found a job chronicling the changing infrastructure of the 20th century city.

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The man did his job diligently, leaving behind 20,000 photographs taken between 1906 to 1934. After his death in 1943, his work and identity remained unheralded—until the late 1990s.

[Above: painters on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1914; Below, opening day of the Queensboro Bridge, 1909]

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“In 1999, Michael Lorenzini, the senior photographer for the New York City Municipal Archives, was spooling through microfilm of the city’s vast Department of Bridges photography collection when he realized that many of the images shared a distinct and sophisticated aesthetic,” writes Carolyn Kleiner Butler in the September 2007 issue of Smithsonian.

“They also had numbers scratched into the negatives. ‘It just kind of hit me: this is one guy; this is a great photographer,’ Lorenzini says.”

[Below: Newsies on Delancey Street, 1906]

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After pouring over records, the man’s name emerged: Eugene de Salignac. Little is known about his back story or if he had any formal training. No one even knows what he looked like.

But his images of New York’s bridges, roadways, subways and the workers who maintained them reveal a playfulness and artistic eye. They capture the hardware of the city with a sense of tenderness and beauty.

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[Above: under the Brooklyn Bridge, 1918]

De Salignac has been steadily getting his due as an artist. The Museum of the City of New York exhibited his images in a 2007 show. His work was also collected in New York Rises: Photographs by Eugene de Salignac.

More examples of his work can be found in the vast, fascinating collection of the Municipal Archives.

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7 Responses to “A municipal photographer’s city on the move”

  1. thomas mccarty Says:

    a very gifted photographer. excellent article.

  2. Laura4NYC Says:

    what a great photographer!

  3. Rich T Says:

    Judging by the hair styles on the guys, the trolley pic was from the 60s. Especially look at straddling guy and the guy with the woman to the right of him.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yikes, thanks for the catch. I’ve replaced it.

  5. Alexei Says:

    I purchased the book on Eugene de Salignac, New York Rises, and it was so worth it. For anybody who appreciates quality vintage photos of locations and people in New York Citym this book is a treasure. He may not have gotten the recognition he deserved as a photographer, but it’s good to know there’s an excellent book documenting his good work.

  6. petey Says:

    that last picture is fabulous.

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