10 Fascinating Facts About Lunch Atop A Skyscraper
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.