A NUMBER of the images will be familiar, for they have illustrated very many book jackets, advertisements, posters and movie backdrops over the years. However, until recently the work of de Salignac had been promoted anonymously, an unsung hero, a cog in the municipal machine. Now, thanks to Michael Lorenzini and the photographer's own habit of keeping meticulous, neg by neg records, Eugene de Salignac has been brought to life and his terrific achievement rightly credited to a solo career.
Whilst researching another project, Lorenzini noticed the continuous high quality of the images in the departmental archives, previously assumed to be the work of any number of past employees. Realising the handwriting in the log books also indicated a single author, he finally proved that the 30-year reign in the photographic department was that of a single city servant - Eugene de Salignac - who had died in November of 1943. But despite the uncovering of his basic employment data, de Salignac remained illusive, even in the memories of his descendants, whom Lorenzini had dutifully tracked down.
It is the period throughout which de Salignac worked that provides the fascination for today's audience. When he assumed his duties, around 1906, parts of Manhattan still had dirt roads; the automobile was in its infancy; and the great construction projects like the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges were still on the drawing board. By the time he retired, the ebullient, cocksure City of New York was in the depths of the Depression and de Selignac's lens was dutifully recording the breadlines and soup kitchens. The incidental capture of workers, in and around the construction sites he documented, now have all the poignancy of Mathew Brady's depictions of military life during the Civil War. And yet, inexplicably, from the date of de Salignac's retirement on 31st May, 1934, no one in his family remembers seeing him ever take another picture, holiday snap or even hold a camera. Maybe it had just been a job for him all along?
Michael Lorenzini notes another irony of de Salignac's curiously anonymous life: the day his obituary appeared in the New York Times, 4th November 1943, there was also a grand announcement - the Museum of Modern Art had opened its new photographic centre with an exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott and others, confirming photography, finally, as a valid fine art medium.
Every day for thirty years, Eugene de Salignac had set out to document a city changing from a chaotic, 19th century urban sprawl, into a modern metropolis. His engineering brief was clear cut, but he brought to his task a technical mastery and an individual eye for composition and drama that elevated him far above the merely competent. The resulting pictures have all the clarity and depth of an Ansel Adams landscape study. With excellent essays by Michael Lorenzini and Kevin Moore, this is a dream book for any New Yorker, or for those with a true passion for that vibrant city.