The Story Behind the Brooklyn Bridge's Most Famous Photo

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

You know that ubiquitous photo of workers hanging off the Brooklyn Bridge's wires? The one plastered on every coffee cup, poster, and pint glass sold in NYC? It wasn't always so famous. In fact, its author was completely unknown until the late 1990s.

The formal name of the photo is Brooklyn Bridge showing painters on suspenders, and as Bowery Boys report, it was taken 100 years ago this month by Eugene de Salignac. De Salignac was an employee of the city—at the Department of Bridges—until 1934, a photographer who spent his life documenting the city's many public works projects in virtual anonymity. When he died in 1943, he was completely unknown, and so were the photos he took, many of which are world famous today.

The Story Behind the Brooklyn Bridge's Most Famous Photo

What changed? 60 years after his death, an employee at the NYC Municipal Archives stumbled upon some of de Salignac's work. As The Smithsonian reported in 2007, the worker realized that the archives had been sitting on a treasure trove of some 20,000 photos from de Salignac, all documenting perhaps the most important era of NYC development. He shot everything from the Manhattan Bridge, to the Queensboro Bridge, to the Manhattan Municipal Building, to of course, maintenance on the Brooklyn Bridge. The Museum of the City of New York and Aperture eventually staged an exhibition and book of his work, Ken Burns used his Brooklyn Bridge photo in one of his beloved documentary, and de Salignac has since become a posthumous sensation.

But back to that iconic Brooklyn Bridge photo, which turns 100 this month. According to Bowery Boys, the picture was certainly planned—not a candid, as you might assume. The workers were there that day to paint the bridge, which was then over three decades old:

It was, generally speaking, an unspectacular day for the 31-year-old bridge. It's believed that the original colour of the Brooklyn Bridge was 'Rawlins Red' although by this time, the vibrant colour might have been replaced with the less dramatic 'Brooklyn Bridge Tan.' Can you imagine what this image would have looked like in colour?

It's also fascinating to wonder that this famous photo—along with de Salignac's other 20,000 images—could have easily remained undiscovered. It's enough to make you wonder what else is down in the city's archives, just waiting to be found again. [Bowery Boys]

Lead image: Etsy.