In the early 1900s, municipal worker Eugene de Salignac took a slew of incredible photos of Manhattan as the city was reborn as a modern metropolis. Yet de Salignac's name (although not his photos) had been forgotten by history until New York City Municipal Archives senior photographer Michael Lorenzini put on a detective's hat to identify the mystery man behind the images. Now, an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York and a book, New York Rises: Photographs by Eugene de Salignac, is celebrating these marvelous photos of urban construction and infrastructure. Seen here, De Salignac's 1914 photo of Brooklyn Bridge painters.
It just kind of hit me: this is one guy; this is a great photographer," Lorenzini says. But who was he?
It took many months and uncounted hours of trolling through archives storerooms, the Social Security index, Census reports and city records on births, deaths and employment to find the answer: the photographer was Eugene de Salignac, a municipal worker who took 20,000 photographs of modern Manhattan in the making. "It felt like a real discovery," Lorenzini says…
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."