Painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, ca. 1910s

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Bridges have been around in the United States since the country’s inception, and even long before that. Up until the late 1800s did anybody see a bridge in the country with the magnitude of the Brooklyn Bridge, though. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge started up back in 1869, using a hybrid of both suspension designs and cable-stayed that would make it stand out from the other bridges at the time.

The anchorages that held the bridge up were rented out as vaults to help pay for the bridge, which were mostly used to store wine. The bridge itself was the mastermind of John Augustus Roebling, who had been working on the Brooklyn Bridge plans for more than a decade. After his plan was put into place, it took around 14 years to finish, with the Brooklyn Bridge officially opening on May 24, 1883.

When the bridge first opened, there were nearly 2,000 vehicles and more than 150,000 people that made their way to and from Brooklyn and Manhattan. It wasn’t just a convenience for many New Yorkers, but also an attraction for those around the globe. As vehicles became more common and more people started to visit and move to New York City, the nearly 6,000 foot long bridge would need some work throughout the years.

As the official photographer for the New York Department of Bridges from 1906 to 1934 Eugene de Salignac captured New York as it was transforming from a city packed with horses to one of towering sky scrappers and street cars. While documenting work on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge on September 22, 1914 Salignac took a photo of workers painting the bridge cables. This may have been the inspiration to return a month later, on October 7, 1914, when he took this posed image of workers, arranged almost musically, on the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge — 31 years after it first opened.

Painters on the Brooklyn Bridge suspender cables, on October 7, 1914. (Photo: Eugene de Salignac/ NYC Municipal Archives)

Eugene de Salignac is a bit of a mystery to historians. Born in 1861 he was 42-years-old, in 1903, when he got a job as assistant to the photographer for the Department of Bridges, Joseph Palmer. When Palmer unexpectedly died three years later Salignac took over his job. For decades he took pictures documenting New York’s transformation from horse and buggy streets to the modern urban jungle we know now. Over the course of his career, he shot over 20,000 images. Yet for decades they sat in the city archives collecting dust.

No one knew of his work until 1999 when the senior curator at the New York City Municipal Archives, Michael Lorenzini, was spooling through the city’s huge collection of microfilm. Lorenzini started to notice that most of the images in the collection had the same style. This hunch led him to discover a series of numbers on the negatives that led to an epiphany, “It just kind of hit me: this is one guy; this is a great photographer.”

Painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, 1914.

The scale of Eugene de Salignac’s work is massive with more and more pictures discovered all the time. Working until his retirement in 1932 he took thousands of images. New York has uploaded many of Salignac’s pictures on its Department of Records website.

In 1943 he passed away, at 82-years-old, without anyone knowing the immensely important legacy he left behind in the city archives.

Brooklyn Bridge painters at work high above the city, on December 3, 1915. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)

After he was “discovered” by Lorenzini in 1999 there have been a number of shows and in 2007 Aperture Publishers released a book called New York Rises: Photographs by Eugene de Salignac with essays by Michael Lorenzini and photography scholar Kevin Moore.

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