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10 Fascinating Facts About Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

11 men eating lunch on a beam over Midtown

Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

The Great Depression inspired some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century by perfectly capturing the heartache and suffering of a nation out of work. Images of breadlines, derelict housing, and desperate mothers informed the cultural consciousness by bringing the Depression to newsstands across the United States. But Lunch Atop a Skyscraper was different.

The sight of 11 Rockefeller Center construction workers casually eating lunch across a beam hanging 850 feet in the air was a hopeful look at life in the '30s. It showed the world that New York City—and America as a whole—was still building, still progressing, and, most importantly, still working.

It’s been nearly 85 years since the image was printed in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 2, 1932, and it's been one of the most well-recognized pieces of photography ever since. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Lunch Atop a Skyscraper.

1. THERE ARE STILL DOUBTS ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S IDENTITY.

The image of these workers, dangling high above Midtown, may be etched in our memories (and on apartment walls, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets) forever, but no one really knows who was responsible for taking the picture. One name that keeps coming up is Charles C. Ebbets, who actually received credit for it for a while. But other photographers were up there that day, too, including William Leftwich and Thomas Kelley, and so the Rockefeller archive and Corbis removed any official credit and attributed the photo to “unknown.”

According to Ken Johnston, who was the Historical Director of Photography at Corbis Images, until the 1950s it wasn’t out of the norm for photographers to not receive credit for their photos.

2. IT WAS PURELY FOR PUBLICITY.

Although the image was meant to give a casual look into what a worker’s life was like high above the city streets, it was purely for publicity purposes. No, 11 men eating lunch on a beam hanging 69 floors in the air was not an everyday sight, and the whole thing came together to publicize the construction of Rockefeller Center.

"The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center,” Johnston told the UK's Independent. “It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organised with a number of photographers."

Taking place during the Depression, when 15 million people were looking for work, the image of an expanding city and the workforce behind it was a rare bright spot for the public to hang on to.

3. THERE WERE MORE DEATH-DEFYING PHOTOS TAKEN THAT DAY.

There was more than just this single shot taken that day. In addition to photos featuring different poses for the 11 men on the beam, there’s also a rarely seen picture of four of the men stretched out across it, taking a well-deserved nap.

That photo was owned by the International News Photos archive, which was a competitor of Acme Newspictures archive, the original owner of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. The identity of the photographer for this lesser-known picture is unknown as well.

4. THE ORIGINAL NEGATIVE IS STORED IN A CAVE IN PENNSYLVANIA.

To keep the original glass plate negative of the photo secured, it was placed in a massive underground vault just outside of Pittsburgh in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Called Iron Mountain, the secure and confidential facility spans 1.8 million square feet, where priceless artwork, photos, film negatives, pieces of music, and government documents from all around the world are stored.

The entire mine is temperature controlled to help maintain the aging documents, as a team works to digitally and physically preserve the millions of pieces inside the vaults. Part of the climate controlling comes from an underground lake that is used to pump 50-degree water throughout the mine to maintain a steady temperature.

5. AND IT’S A LITTLE BEAT-UP.

That being said, the original Lunch Atop a Skyscraper negative has seen better days. At some point, probably after Corbis acquired it, the glass negative was dropped, leaving it cracked and shattered.

You don’t have to worry about the long-term future of the photo, though, as Johnston points out: “Prior to its being broken they had made a number of high-quality prints of the image from which copy negatives were made, to make printing it easier. So there were lots of good copies around to work with.”

6. A DOCUMENTARY HELPED ESTABLISH TWO OF THE MEN’S IDENTITIES.

Much like the man behind the lens, the 11 workers in front of the camera have been a mystery to historians as well. We know they were real construction workers, but records were spotty at the time and there was only anecdotal evidence of their identities. But when director Seán Ó Cualáin began digging into the subject for a documentary called Men at Lunch, he found some of the answers people had been looking for.

"We were literally starting from scratch, and without the assistance and enthusiasm of Rockefeller's Center’s archivist, Christine Roussel, we would have been in big trouble,” Ó Cualáin said in an interview with Rockefeller Center.

Through the use of dozens of archival photos in Rockefeller’s possession, Roussel and Ó Cualáin were able to positively identify two men: Joseph Eckner (the third from the left) and Joe Curtis (third from the right). The names of the other nine men, however, are still unknown.

7. MORE THAN 40,000 PEOPLE WORKED ON THE BUILDING, AND NO WORK RECORDS EXIST.

Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary got started because of a note from a man named Pat Glynn that he and his brother saw in a Shanaglish, Galway, Ireland pub. It was attached to a copy of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper and in it, Glynn claimed that his father and uncle-in-law, both from south Galway, were two of the men on the beam that day.

"The biggest surprise was that despite the photo’s worldwide appeal, no one had tried to find out who the men or photographer were until us," Ó Cualáin said. And a documentary was spawned.

Ó Cualáin tracked Glynn down, along with his cousin Patrick O'Shaughnessy, who claims his father is in the picture, to get more answers. Despite saying that "The physical likenesses are striking,” Ó Cualáin says that no official work records are left from the project, so positive identification is incredibly difficult.

Rockefeller Center’s website reports that more than 40,000 people were hired for the building’s construction, and says that “it’s somewhat surprising that no records exist.” With no work records, and with only scant evidence to go on, a majority of the men may remain a mystery.

8. ONE OF THE WORKERS MIGHT BE OF MOHAWK DESCENT.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Rockefeller Center was built on the backs of immigrants, including men from Ireland, Italy, and Germany. But one of the unsung groups to lend their talents to the job was Mohawk Indians, who were located in northern New York and southern Canada following their support of the British during the Revolutionary War.

The Mohawks honed their ironworking skills on Canadian constriction projects, and they later traveled to New York where work on the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, and Rockefeller Center opened up. Though many Mohawks eventually settled in the city, most notably in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, according to Rockefeller, “To work these jobs, the majority of men would leave their families in Canada and drive 12 hours down to the city on Sunday, and then journey back at the end of the week.”

Though none of this is confirmed, it’s believed that one of the men in the picture—near the center, with the cap on and cigarette in his mouth—is Peter Rice, an ironworker of Mohawk descent. Other Mohawk names have come up as possibilities for the other men, but nothing conclusive.

9. SOME HISTORIANS DOUBT JUST HOW DANGEROUS THE PHOTO WAS.

If you really want to demystify the photo, you can buy into one New York Times writer's belief that the picture was more than just a posed publicity stunt—it was also not nearly as risky as it looked. One article poses the theory that below the men, just out of view from the camera, was a perfectly safe, finished floor for the men to lower themselves onto (or, you know, land on, in case of any horrific accident). But like so many things about the image, the truth has been lost to history.

10. IT WAS CORBIS’S BEST-SELLING IMAGE.

Corbis owned the rights to the glass negative to Lunch Atop a Skyscraper from 1995 to 2016, until the company sold its images archive to Visual China Group, which has a distribution deal with Getty. In that time, it was the best-selling historical image in Corbis’s portfolio, averaging around 100 purchases a month for 10 years. And for a company that owned images of 20th century icons like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr., that’s an impressive feat.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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David Nadlinger
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science
This Photo of a Single Atom Won a Science Photography Top Prize
David Nadlinger
David Nadlinger

While you've been busy finding just the right Instagram filter for your cat, a University of Oxford graduate student has been occupied with visualizing a single atom and capturing it in a still frame. And the remarkable feat recently earned an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council photography award. Why? It was taken with a conventional camera, and the atom can be seen with the naked eye.

Take a look:

A close-up of a single atom in an ion trap
David Nadlinger

That tiny dot in between the two parallel metal electrodes is a strontium atom suspended by electric fields in an ion trap. It’s visible because the photographer, Ph.D. candidate David Nadlinger, projected blue violet light into a vacuum chamber. The atom absorbed and reflected the light, allowing Nadlinger to snap a photo in the split instant the atom was viewable. The space between the two points is just 0.08 of an inch.

Nadlinger dubbed the image "Single Atom in an Ion Trap" and took the Council’s top award. In a statement, he expressed enthusiasm that other people are now able to see what his work in quantum computing looks like.

[h/t Newsweek]

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