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.

Most of his collection now is held by the New York City Municipal Archives.

In 2007, they have published (publisher Aperture) the monograph ‘New York Rises: Photographs by Eugene de Salignac’ with authors Michael Lorenzini and Kevin Moore.

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.