de Salignac, Eugene

American (1861-1943)

Eugene de Salignac was an artist trapped in the body of a civil servant and – as such – his photographs only received exhibition nearly 6o years after his death. Divorced from his wife in 1900 and living alone until he died, de Salignac was employed by the Department of Bridges in New York City from 1903-1934, specifically to chronicle the construction of the city’s infrastructure: bridges, subway tunnels, trolley lines and ferries. The results – nearly 20,000 negatives and 113 scrapbooks – document New York’s metamorphosis into an urban metropolis and serve as an important record of how urban centers are planned, re-worked and brought into existence.

What distinguishes de Salignac’s images is the formal excellence applied to what might have been mundane shots. Little is known of his life, but in all likelihood, he was untrained, which makes his intuitive feel for composition, geometry, line and light remarkable. Witness, for example, his 1914 shot of workers constructing the Brooklyn Bridge; the interplay of human figures and strong lines, the cables, attests to a master composer, orchestrating disparate elements to create a unified and beautiful whole.