The black and white image is striking, eleven men casually seated atop a steel girder, their feet dangling hundreds of feet above the New York City streets, sharing banter and lunch with the kind of unflappable calm that defies logic. This image, known as “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” isn’t just a photograph; it’s a piece of history frozen in time, a narrative of an era, and a testament to the human spirit. But what is the story behind this iconic photograph, who are the men in the picture, and how did this audacious stunt come to be? Let’s unfold the layers behind this enduring image.
The photograph was taken during the construction of the Rockefeller Center, specifically, the RCA Building (later renamed as the GE Building, and now known as the Comcast Building), on the 69th floor, on September 20, 1932. It’s important to understand the historical context to grasp the photo’s significance fully. 1932 was a year mired in the Great Depression, a period of profound socio-economic hardship. The construction of the Rockefeller Center was one of the largest building projects of that time, a bold vision, and provided much-needed employment to over 40,000 workers. It was more than a complex of buildings; it was a beacon of hope and a sign of resilience.
The men in the photograph were real construction workers, part of a team that was racing against time to build what remains today one of the most significant American architectural feats. These men, often immigrants fighting for a better life, were accustomed to the dizzying heights and the inherent risks of “high steel” construction. But they were not mere laborers; they were symbols of American resilience and ambition, embodying the very essence of courage, strength, and the pursuit of the “American Dream.”
The Men Behind the Image
Identifying the men in the photograph has been the subject of much discussion and investigation, but despite various claims, their identities remain largely unverified. Several families have come forward over the years, suggesting their relatives were among the eleven men, but conclusive proof has often been elusive due to the lack of proper employment records from that time.
Two men, purportedly in the photograph, are Joseph Eckner and Joe Curtis, third and fourth from the right, respectively. The man sitting fourth from the left, holding a bottle, is reported to be Gustáv (Gus) Popovič, a Slovakian worker who sent a copy of the photo to his hometown. His identity was a discovery from the research conducted by two Irish filmmakers for the documentary, “Men at Lunch,” in 2012. Another worker, farthest on the right, is allegedly Francis Michael Rafferty, with his lifelong friend, Stretch Donahue, sitting to his left. These narratives, handed down by families, paint a picture of the diverse backgrounds that these men represented, a mix that mirrored the melting pot that was New York City.
The Eye Behind the Lens
The photographer’s identity adds another layer of complexity to the story. For many years, Charles C. Ebbets was credited as the man behind the lens. Known for his work documenting the construction of the Rockefeller Center, Ebbets had the skill, the eye for detail, and the sheer guts to capture life on the high beams. However, it’s now believed that the photograph could have been the work of one of the three photographers who were on-site that day: Charles C. Ebbets, Thomas Kelley, or William Leftwich.
Ebbets’ approach to photography was immersive; he was known to go to extraordinary lengths to capture the perfect shot, which often meant putting himself in danger. This iconic photograph is a testament to that dedication. It reflects not just the bravery of the men in the picture but also of the man behind the camera. He wasn’t just taking a photograph; he was telling a story, capturing a moment of camaraderie, vulnerability, and the quiet defiance of the human spirit amidst the steel confines rising from the ground.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” isn’t just about the death-defying stunt that these men pulled off; it’s about the normalcy they demonstrate in the face of it. These workers are not posing heroically nor seem bothered by the perilous height. Instead, they’re taking a break, engaged in conversation, sharing food, and enjoying a respite from their grueling schedules. This ordinariness is what makes the photograph extraordinary.
The image also encapsulates the industrial progress that defined the era. The Rockefeller Center wasn’t just another project; it was a symbol of aspiration and a testament to human endeavor. The men in the photograph were laying the foundations of a site that would go on to be synonymous with art, media, and luxury. They were, quite literally, shaping the modern skyline of New York City.