Men at Lunch: How an iconic photo of construction workers taking a break from building New York was made
posted Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 12:30 PM EDT
Everyone can identify New York City simply by its unique skyscraper filled skyline. The story of the construction of these skyscrapers, and one iconic photo in particular, is the basis for Men at Lunch, one of the films selected for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. (You can see the movie trailer at the bottom of this post.)
The photo, "Lunch atop a Skyscraper," shows 11 construction workers calmly eating lunch, while sitting next to each other on a long steel girder, framed by the city far below them. It is, in many ways, a scary image made scarier by the lack of any sort of safety gear.
The photo was taken by Charles C. Ebbets on September 29, 1932, during the construction of GE building at Rockefeller Center, and the workers seem remarkably at ease on their lofty steel perch.
Their ease is what makes this such an amazing photo, especially since several men fell to their deaths in the course of building Rockefeller Center. The movie, Men at Lunch, delves into the story of the photo and the loss of the original glass plate negative and finally its re-discovery.
I did a lot of construction photography in the 1970s and 1980s in Seattle and I remember how it felt to stand 50 or 60 stories above the city streets. It was more exhilaration than fear.
I would look around in awe at the city framed all around me by rectangles of girder and rebar. From this height people were almost invisible, automobiles and buses reduced to moving shapes in a spider web of streets.
It was one of the most exciting places to take photos and I could hardly take a bad shot. Everywhere I looked, there were workers framed against the sky or distant buildings and even with their safety gear; the shots conveyed just how dangerous and remarkable was the situation they worked in.
However, my experience was different from Ebbets’. I was shooting with small 35mm Leicas, while he had to haul around a large, heavy 5-x 7 glass plate camera, and a valise sized, case filled with fragile glass photographic plates and holders. This gear must have been extremely dangerous in the winds that often roar though a skyscraper frame.
Shooting from his catbird’s seat across a vast canyon of air, he literally had to get this image right with his first and only shot. He did it and the photo appeared a few days later in the New York Herald Tribune, Sunday photo supplement on October 2nd. Since then it has become an often copied but never equaled iconic image.
It is also a special image for me because I grew up New York, and remember my parents’ stories of the skyscrapers. They spoke of the Depression, a time when desperate men would take any job, no matter how dangerous and whether or not they knew how to do the work.
Men at Lunch promises to be a great photography story and I hope that it does well in Toronto and finds a distributor. Until then you can view the trailer below.