The Famous 'Lunch Atop A Skyscraper' Picture's Photographer Is Still A Bit Of A Mystery

There is no science to creating a memorable image. Sure, composition helps and so does historical significance. Sometimes, a photographer is simply in the right place at the right time, as in the famous photo "V-J Day in Times Square" which depicts a sailor kissing a white-clad passerby. There are those who might say that such photos are impossible to stage, that they simply happen organically and capture the spirit of the age.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

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They would be wrong in at least one case. One of the most famous photos of the 20th century is "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper." It depicts a group of construction workers having their lunch while perched precariously atop an iron girder, high above the city of New York on September 20th, 1932, during the final weeks of construction on the RCA building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It seems to capture a spirit of boundless progress and fearless American energy. For most people around the world at the time, the concept of a skyscraper was exotic and new, and to see these men seem so unconcerned must have beggared belief. However, the original plan was not to capture a portrait of American optimism but rather to simply drum up some publicity.

In 1932, America needed whatever optimism it could get. The Depression had arrived in full force, and it was slowly becoming clear that this was no typical economic downturn. Thousands of banks had closed and nearly 20% of the US population was unemployed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in one of the greatest landslides ever seen. It was only a year later that FDR would give his famous "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" speech, a speech which was not a grandiose platitude but rather an urgent message that Americans needed to hear at a tough time. The fact that "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper" became so recognizable is largely due to the circumstances under which it was taken. Here was a message of hope and progress in a dark and terrifying age.

For many years, it was believed that the photo was casually snapped during a lunch break and that the photographer was some unknown company man. However, recent discoveries have disproved nearly every part of that misconception. The men were real construction workers, but the photo was anything but casual. In fact, it was taken as part of a publicity stunt to project an image of strength for the Rockefeller Company. It's true that the photographer was likely a company man, but there were at least three photographers working that day, and the man who took the photo was far from anonymous.

The Photographer

The man who likely took the picture itself was named Charles Ebbets. He was a freelance photographer and a true renaissance man who had worked as a stunt performer, actor, pilot, wrestler, and hunter. At the time he took the picture, photographers were not understood to be artists but rather technicians who simply operated a machine, and so it's not surprising that he went uncredited for so many years. It was only when his family uncovered an invoice for his services from the Rockefeller Corporation that he was accepted as the original photographer. Even so, there has been some doubt since there were clearly multiple photographers present, as attested by the photos of Charles Ebbets himself, perched on a girder, taking pictures.

However, it should be noted that there has been some controversy over whether Ebbets himself took the famous photo. There is no doubt that he was there as a photographer, but there were at least three other photographers present and there is simply no way of proving for sure who took the photo (despite the fact that no other photographer has ever come forward to claim credit or royalties for the image).

The Men

As for the men on the beam, they have been a mystery since the photograph was first published in the New York Herald-Tribune. Numerous attempts have been made to track them down, but the records are inaccurate and no identities have been firmly established. The issue is firmly complicated because so many New Yorkers claim some relation to them. According to Ken Johnston, the director of historical photography for the company that owns the image, "So many people say, 'That was my uncle,' but no one has ever said anything definitive about who these guys are."

The image graces dozens of bars and restaurants throughout New York. The original glass negative was cracked in 1996, and it has weathered subsequent damage as well. Further research into the photo continues to reveal more about the men in the photograph and the men behind the camera.

These revelations have done nothing to blunt the interest in and enthusiasm for the image. It remains one of the highest-selling photographs licensed by Corbis Images, a licensing giant that owns the rights to some of the most recognizable pictures ever produced. It was also the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary, "Men At Lunch," which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Publicity stunt or not, the photograph clearly tapped into something essential about the age of American progress and the American ability to progress in the face of impossible odds.
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