Have you ever wondered about the story behind the famous photograph of construction workers eating lunch on a steel beam above Manhattan? Is the photo real or fake? Who are the men pictured? Who photographed it? Why was it taken? Did they eat lunch like that every day? Well, we have some answers for you.
In 1932, the New York Herald-Tribune published the now famous portrait of 11 men on a lunch break from their laborious construction work. Thought by some to be a fake, the original glass plate negative was discovered, proving its authenticity. Some have mistakenly thought the photograph was taken atop the Empire State Building, but it was actually taken on the GE Building (at that time known as the RCA Building), which is part of the Rockefeller Center.
As far as the subjects of the photograph, they were immigrant iron workers who, all but two, have remained anonymous to this day. A 2012 documentary, “Men at Lunch,” by Seán Ó Cualáin revealed that two of the men were Joseph Eckner and Joe Curtis. A claim has been made by Pat Glynn regarding the identity of two others, but there is no definitive proof at this time. If he is to be believed, then two of the remaining nine workers were his father, Sonny Glynn, and his uncle, Matty O’Shaughnessy. The identity of the photographer has been just as difficult to pin down. Lewis Hine was thought to be the photographer for some time, but then that theory was rejected. It was later determined that Charles C. Ebbets was the one behind the lens, only to discover that there were actually several photographers present at the time. As a result, there is no way of knowing for sure if Ebbets, who was present, is the one who took that specific shot. So, the photographer, just like nine of the 11 workers, officially remains anonymous.
Despite the tantalizing idea that these brave men ate their lunch on an I-beam 850 feet above Manhattan’s busy streets every day, that’s simply not true. The photograph isn’t even a candid shot of a once lunch event. It was really all a publicity stunt by the Rockefeller Center to advertise their new RCA building, which was almost finished. The men did really sit on the beam and chow down, but it wasn’t their idea, and certainly not a regular occurrence. Not much else is known about this iconic photograph, but now you know the little bit of the story behind it.
Related: Decades of Living and Breathing Photography – Fred Rosenberg
For more about photography, photographers, and photographs, check out our blog.