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Stories from DEP is a collection of feature articles
published in DEP's internal newsletter, Weekly Pipeline.
This article was originally published April 10, 2012.

Picture This: Capturing DEP History in Photographs

“In the conduct of so large an
engineering undertaking, thousands of photographs
for information and record will be required.”

—Annual Report of the Board of Water Supply, 1906

From the outset of its creation, the Board of Water Supply understood that meticulous documentation would be needed to build, operate and manage the immense water supply system under its charge, both during and after construction. The Board produced and maintained copious records of different types—design drawings, boring logs, reports and correspondence are only a small sampling of the diversity. They also took full advantage of the relatively new medium of photography, which had been developed in the mid-19th century.

During the 19th century, photography was utilized for many purposes: personal portraits, landscape scenes, to document military events like the Civil War, and as a force for change by social reform photographers. However it was also used for the building of infrastructure.

Realizing the value of the photographic record, the Board needed to be sure that the work was done “systematically and the plates and films properly preserved.” As part of this investment, $2,278.16 was books and maps during the first year and a half of the Board’s existence. These funds were used to establish a photographic laboratory for making prints and filing negatives (which at the time were 8x10 inches and made of glass). In addition, equipment was purchased in order to photograph working drawings and create small, blue-print versions for engineers to carry in the field. They also needed someone to operate this equipment and on July 19, 1906 the Board appointed Harry Coutant as full-time photographer, at a salary of $1,200 per year. As official photographer, Mr. Coutant was responsible for routinely documenting construction, but field departments were also given cameras and developing equipment in order to provide additional coverage over the vast construction area.

The identity of the individual who replaced Mr. Coutant when he resigned in November 1908 is unknown, but on April 29, 1909 he was joined by William Bresnan, who would become a mainstay of the Photography Unit for forty years. Born in 1877, Mr. Bresnan started working with photography at the young age of 15. He was employed by a large commercial photography company for several years and then opened his own business, his primary client being the Fuller Construction Company in New York City. By 1915 he was the sole photographer at the Board of Water Supply and his “treks along the line of the tunnel, taking the thousands of photographs that make up the pictorial history of the Board’s activities, gave him a knowledge...of the work possessed by few others in B.W.S. employ.” According to his obituary, many of Mr. Bresnan’s photographs were regarded as “photographic masterpieces.” An image of the Ashokan Reservoir Headworks taken in 1917 was particularly popular and reproduced in all manner of publications. Construction is a dangerous undertaking, even for photographers, and Bresnan had a number of accidents on the job. The most serious was when he nearly lost his eyesight while taking a photo from a raft in a section of the Catskill Aqueduct known as the Garrison tunnel—the flashlight powder flared up in his face and he was badly burned.

While there were two employees with the title of Photographer at the time of Mr. Bresnan’s death in June 1949, by 1951 there were no employees with that civil service title. However the Photography Unit continued to exist and played an important role by developing and reproducing prints, making lantern slides, reductions and enlargements for presentations, and photographing construction operations of the Delaware system. In fact, the Board’s Photographic Unit was designated the official engineering photographers for the Public Works’ Emergency Division of the Office of Civil Defense.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Photo Unit continued to document the construction of the Delaware water system and in-city work such as the Richmond Project. In 1968, current DEP Photographer Carl Ambrose took the two-day civil service test for Photographer, which included a practical section that required photographing various subjects (architectural, portraiture, etc.) and then developing the film. Carl passed the test and joined the Board’s Photo Unit in 1969, then under the direction of Everard Marius. Along with Frank Tartaglia, the third member of the unit. They each went out to a different job site accompanied by engineers who provided information about each photograph, including the location, description of the work activity being shown and technical information. This information was carefully logged and formed the basis of detailed captions which would become an important part of the construction record.

Back at the lab, the photographers developed their own film and made contact sheets in order to select the best shots to develop prints. At the time Carl was hired the Photo Unit was using press cameras which used 4x5 inch negatives, but during the early 1970s he suggested the Photo Unit make the switch to 35mm film, which was easier to carry on construction sites and did not affect the overall quality of the prints being developed. Unfortunately, during the city fiscal crisis of 1975-76 the Photo Unit was reduced once again to two photographers. Despite the decrease in staff, Carl and Everard Marius continued to photograph the monumental construction of City Water Tunnel No. 3. In 1978, the Board of Water Supply was merged into the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which had been formed in 1977, and the Board of Water Supply photographers were joined by their DEP Bureau of Water Supply counterparts.

The time and effort put into the creation, documentation and maintenance of the Board of Water Supply’s photographic legacy has been well-rewarded. The DEP Archive holds more than 25,000 photographs that were taken by the Board (and later DEP) during its existence, ranging from large-format glass plate negatives to photographic prints to 35mm color transparencies. These photographs continue to be valuable to DEP - not only as significant historical artifacts - but also critical sources of information for fulfilling its mission.

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