Philippe Halsman‘s series ‘Jumps‘ – “Starting in the early 1950s I asked every famous or important person I photographed to jump for me. I was motivated by a genuine curiosity. After all, life has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps. I wanted to see famous people reveal in a jump their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity, and many other traits.”
Eugene de Salignac (1861–1943) – the municipal photographer who captured the transformation of New York
Eugene de Salignac was employed as the single official photographer by the New York City Department of Bridges/ Plants & Structures* from 1906 to 1934. During that period using a large-format camera he captured the transformation of New York from a town to a city. Shooting mainly its changing architecture, growing infrastructure and those who built it, he left quite an impressive archive of 12,500 8″ x 10″ gelatin-silver and cyanotype prints and 20,000 8″ x 10″ glass plate and acetate negatives. Not only his prolific work but also his unique vision worth a few words about him. As Michael Lorenzini mentioned ‘A lot of other photographers who worked for the city were pretty talented but did not produce such a large body of work or a distinct body of work.’
Mr. Lorenzini, the senior photographer for the New York City Municipal Archives, is actually the man who rediscovered the talent of Eugene de Salignac in 1999. He explains that as he was spooling through microfilm of the city’s vast Department of Bridges photography collection, he realized that many of the images shared a common sophisticated aesthetic. Besides, he noticed that there were consecutive numbers scratched into the negatives. And then he realized that they had all been shot by a single unknown photographer. But who was he?
Trying to find the answer, Mr Lorenzini started a research. It took him many months and uncounted hours of trolling through archives storerooms, the Social Security index, Census reports and city records on births, deaths and employment, and finally discovered the photographer: Eugene de Salignac.
Though Michael Lorenzini unearthed primary sources to reconstruct de Salignac’s biography, still a lot about him remains unknown.
The basic facts of his life are that he was born in Boston in 1861 into an eccentric family of exiled French nobility. He got married, had two children and, after separating from his wife in 1903, at the age of 42 he started working for the City of New York. It was his brother-in-law who found him the job as an assistant to the photographer for the Department of Bridges, Joseph Palmer. After 3 years of apprenticeship, Palmer suddenly died, and in October 1906, de Salignac assumed his duties until 1934. Though he turned 70, he was still climbing bridges and actively working, but was forced to retire in 1934 despite a petition to Mayor La Guardia. Eugene de Salignac died in 1943, at 82.
De Salignac was not a typical municipal photograph. His job was to provide a record of the changing New York: the construction of bridges, municipal building, subway, tunnels, trolley lines, buses, ferries, street scenes, construction laborers, office workers, panoramas and etc. And he did it, but more as an artist than as an ordinary municipal worker. Some of his most compelling images reveal that he had an eye for composition, form and light. A real piece of art is his iconic photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge painters.
Obviously with such a huge amount, it is not possible that all of his photographs possess the high quality of an art work, but still they are great images from historical point of view. Moreover, it seems that de Salignac liked his job and these newly-built constructions became a continual source of his inspiration. He captured these symbols of the industrial progress in their unusual beauty.
Now since his name has emerged, he deserves all the merits for his work. In his lifetime de Salignac’s work was little seen outside of New York City government, and his name was forgotten after his death in 1943. Not however his images. They have been used in books and films but since their author was unknown, it was no possible to give them the correct credit.
Among many of his photographic duties was also the task of taking portraits for licenses. He often shot two men at a time but it is not yet clear why.
*Bridges/Plant & Structures, 1901-1939. With consolidation of the Greater City of New York in 1898, all bridges over waterways were placed under jurisdiction of the newly-formed Department of Bridges. In 1916, Bridges merged with Public Works and became the Department of Plant & Structures with responsibility for streetcar lines, ferryboats, sewers, waste disposal facilities, homeless shelters, and bridges.
“At the beginning you must find the ideal location. Then you must be patient to find the right subject that arouses your interest, even if it’s just a cat . You must have the precise moment to catch the spirit, the essence, the soul of the person… If you don’t have the exact moment, you have to wait for the right feeling. It’s real creative work because you have to have the feeling inside.”
These words regarding his technique belong to the photographer Fan Ho and his works undoubtedly confirm them.
Fan Ho was born in Shanghai in 1937, but in 1949 his family immigrated to Hong Kong and that was the place where he started to discover the magic of the painting with light. Still in his youth, with his father’s Rolleiflex camera in hand, he began to explore the everyday life of the crowded metropolis and archive it with the help of the lenses. However, his goal was not just to document the bustle of the urban life. Like an invisible observer, he was looking out to capture the solitary moments we have with ourselves to unveil the beauty of the internal world. And by carefully mastering of the light, he succeeded to present the drama of the daily routine but through a serene and peaceful atmosphere.
In 1980, Fan Ho moved to San Jose, California, and tried his skills also as a film director, and even acted in several movies, but it is his photography that assigns him a place among the greatest masters.
Josef Hoflehner’s Jet Airliner series comprises of high key photographs of low-flying planes over the heads of sunbathers at Maho Beach on the Dutch/French island of St. Maarten / St. Martin in the Caribbean Sea. The beach is directly adjacent to the relatively short runway of the airport, therefore passenger jets roar as low as four meters above the holiday-makers.
Obviously he had adopted the Meurer’s conception and was inspired by the artistic structure and architectural elegance of the plants. He was intrigued with every component of the plant – flowers, buds, seed capsules, roots, tendrils, pods, twigs.
“The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form,” he said.
But reviewing the diverse art movements at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th the use of botanical motifs was not something innovative. Actually they were very popular, especially in the Art Nouveau designs.
The uniqueness is in the original way he captured them: magnification, sharp focus, balanced arrangement, neutral background, high contrast and diffused lightening with only slightest grey shadows beneath the objects.
With his homemade camera he could reach a magnification up to 30x times of the genuine size; an amplification common for what is called now macro photography. This along with the sharp focus reveal extraordinary details of a plant natural structure and shape and provides a visual access to its beauty and lucidity. The trend in photography that time was for elaborate backgrounds, but Blossfeldt’s compositions distinguished with centered plants against a plain monochromatic ground. The viewer should not have to be destructed in his investigation of the object. Showing the finest features of a plant in an isolated contest emphasize their inwardness and expose the individuality and the character of each of them.
After the success of his 1st book in 1928, Blossfeldt was persuaded by Nierendorf to collect another 120 of his photos and in 1932 was published his 2nd book – Wundergarten der Natur (Magic Garden of Nature), again making a phenomenal impact as the previous one and winning him a recognition as one of the key photographers of the 20th century.
Returning to that student exhibition we started… Through the eyes of the past years what else we could add to ‘captivating, outstanding, breathtaking’ when describing the Blossfeldt’s works? Surely a lot, but only one stands out – ‘classical’. Though almost a century has been passed, these graphic black and white photos continue to excite and impress the public. They remain unique and at the same time modern as if they were created nowadays. And apart of their artistic value, they haven’t lost their main purpose and still could be used as teaching materials. Something that probably for Blossfeldt would be the greatest reward.
Karl Blossfeld’s photographs nowadays are published in many photo books.
Imagine you are an art dealer and as you are viewing a student exhibition, suddenly you face to these photographs…
‘Captivating, outstanding, breathtaking!’ That was probably what Karl Nierendorf, an art dealer and owner of a gallery in Berlin, thought that moment almost a century ago, in 1926. He was so impressed by what he saw, that immediately arranged with the artist who had created them, an exhibition at his own gallery. And two years later, in 1928, a book followed. It was called Unformen der Kunst (Archetypes of Art), composed of 120 photos and turned out a bestseller. The book was highly praised both by the art critics and the public and still is considered as one of the most influential books of photography ever.
But who was that artist who all of a sudden amazed the world with his unique vision?
His name is Karl Blossfeldt, a German teacher of art and a self-thought photographer, who that time was going into his 60s. Of course, he did not become a famous overnight but a long professional experience stood behind him. And here is the story …
Karl Blossfeldt was born on the 13th of June 1865, in Schielo, Harz Mountains, in central Germany. In 1881, at the age of 16, until 1884, he was sent as an apprentice to Magdesprung to study the craft in the local ironworks and foundry. Afterwards, until 1890, he studied art at the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of arts and crafts) in Berlin.
And it is from 1890 when his perception about his artistic expression started to form.
That year Blossfeldt was hired by Professor Moritz Meurer (1839-1916) to assist him in assembling a collection of botanical illustrations to be used as teaching materials in guiding the designers in their production of innovative motifs.
Professor Moritz Meurer was a recognized botanist and a decorative artist. His concept was that only through the study of the forms of nature, particularly of the plants, the artist can acquire the understanding of the design. In 1889 the Prussian Board of Trade assigned him a project about the improvement of the technical drawings in the state schools. Because the visual images were an integral part of documenting the diversity of plants, Meurer employed nine different artists to assist him in the production of the illustrations. They travelled within Germany and also to Italy and Greece collecting specimens. One of them was Karl Blossfeldt who photographed the local plants with a camera he had built himself. These photographs were published later in Meurer’s books and were used by the latter for the drawing classes he taught in Rome.
In 1898 Blossfeldt was offered a teaching post as an assistant professor of drawing and modeling at the very same Kunstgewerbeschule in Berlin he had graduated. Highly influenced by the Meurer’s vision, Blossfeldt continued to employ it until his retirement in 1930. For all those years he created an impressive archive of plant photographs. These images were made as nothing more than a teaching tool for educating his students about the design elements that could be found in the nature.
On the 9th of December, 1932, Karl Blossfeldt passed away.
Elliott Erwitt‘s eyes catch immediately the quirky sense of humor in ironic situations that occurred in our everyday life. The ludicrous moments often we are not being able even to recognize, he shows them to us and makes us laugh.
Elliott Erwitt was born in 1928 in Paris but since the mid 40s he resides in New York. In 1953 he joined Magnum Photos following an invitation from Robert Capa.
Why Mr Erwitt’s works are so wildly appreciated? Probably because as he describes himself he is still and will remain always “an amateur photographer”, clarifying though that the word “amateur” means “to love”.