The iconic photo depicting 11 workers casually eating their lunch 840 feet above ground was staged as a promotion for the newly constructed Rockefeller Center. The photo is mesmerizing, as it plays on the contrast between the ease in the men’s demeanors and the danger of sitting on a narrow beam 69 floors in the air.
The photo was staged as a part of publicity campaign promoting the newly constructed Rockefeller Center. What better way to attract attention than to create visuals of workers casually disregarding mortal danger at the dizzying heights of newly-built skyscrapers? The photoshoot took place on Sept 29, 1932 and the lunch photo was published in the New York Herald Tribune in October, several months before the opening of the RCA building. Even though the Lunch atop a Skyscraper photo was staged, the people in the image are actual workers. In order to pose for the photo they had to perform a routine act of the construction process: walk a six inch wide beam over 800 feet in the air without any form of protection.
The iconic image was not the only one taken that day. Other photos show the workers playing football, holding up American flags, or pretending to sleep on the steel beam. Three photographers were hired for the job: Charles C. Ebbets, William Leftwich, and Thomas Kelley. Since photographers often did not receive credit for their work until the 1950s, it wasn’t clear which one of them actually took the photo. Despite the fact that Charles C. Ebbets’ family found the negative for the photo and produced verified written records of Ebbets’ authorship, the photo remains attributed to “unknown.”
Examining these photos, most people don’t think of the photographers who took them. In reality, these fearless photographers scaled the same heights and stood on the same narrow beams as the workers in order to get the perfect shot. Charles C. Ebbets in particular was one dapper, elegant daredevil of the death-defying field of skyscraper photography. Before being appointed the Photographic Director for the Rockefeller Center’s development, he tried his hand at being a pilot, wing-walker, auto racer, wrestler, actor, and a stuntman.
All of these photos are nothing less than jaw-dropping, but it’s the Lunch photo specifically that became one of the most recognizable pieces of photography ever taken. It is among the 100 most influential photographs in the world, according to the Time Magazine.
The magic of the photo is its unique contrast of everyday activity and unimaginable danger. Lunch atop a Skyscraper — a group of workers sharing a cigarette, smiling, talking, and having lunch with a backdrop of the city hundreds of feet below — is an image one can never forget.