Visions of New York: anything is possible – the eye of Eugene De Salignac

Posted on 26 December 2009
By Andy Johnson
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To begin with, he didn’t even have a name. He wasn’t even a ‘he’ yet, ‘he’ was simply a collection of 20,000 glass plate negatives gathering dust in the basement of NYC’s Municipal Archives.

But the unique style and humour in Eugene de Salignac’s images emerged and it became clear that these photographs of New York’s renaissance were all captured by one man.

His great-granddaughter Michelle Preston, knew little about the man or the striking images he captured with his camera for the city’s municipal records.

She said: “No one in my family remembered much about my great-grandfather Eugene de Salignac. He was divorced from my great-grandmother soon after 1900, and lived the rest of his life alone, in New York City.

“My mother had a vague idea that he was a stockbroker; as a child, I never even saw a picture of him. So we were surprised when, a few years ago, we received a call from Michael Lorenzini, of the Municipal Archives of the City of New York.

“He had been examining a large collection of images—nearly twenty thousand glass negatives and a hundred and thirteen scrapbooks of prints—when he realized that they had all been shot by a single unknown photographer, Eugene de Salignac.”

This much we now know, Eugene de Salignac died on November, 1, 1943, aged 82. He had been retired for nine years.

De Salignac, it turned out, had worked for the Department of Bridges from 1903 to 1934, a major boom period od development which shaped the NYC we know today.

Vast reaches of infrastructure were laid down in those years, and his job was to provide a record: he shot the construction of the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges and the Municipal Building; subway tunnels, trolley lines, and ferries.

We know that he was a brilliant photographer, both aesthetically and technically. We know this becuase all of his negatives and more than 10,000 prints have survived.

His images have an odd beauty and, at times, a subversive wit. In September, 1914, he took a picture of painters dutifully at work on the Brooklyn Bridge; the department used it in an annual report.

Two weeks later, de Salignac returned, and, in what seems like a magnificent gesture of playing hooky, the painters climbed freehand, with no safety equipment in sight, spreading out on the wires as though they were circus performers, or the notes of a jazz riff playing above the skyline.

Michael Lorenzini has gathered many of de Salignac’s most compelling images in “New York Rises” (Aperture; $40); an accompanying exhibition opens May 4th at the Museum of the City of New York.