For New Yorkers, September 20, 1932 was just another day. Unbeknownst to them, a photo would be taken that afternoon that would become one of the most iconic emblems of their city, an image that, 87 years later, still demands the public's attention, was selected by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential photographs ever taken, and is the most globally successful picture ever owned by Corbis Images.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper depicts 11 men eating lunch, smoking and gabbing while sitting on an iron beam 840 feet above the streets. The ironworkers were in the final months of construction of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Their casual, nonchalant stance juxtaposed with the nerve jangling location of their lunch break, the ongoing turmoil of the Great Depression, and the development of an exciting new complex in the heart of NYC all combined to make it an image that represented guts, hope and progress in America as a whole. As TIME states, "By thumbing its nose at both danger and the Depression, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper came to symbolize American resilience and ambition at a time when both were desperately needed."
The photo, taken on the 69th floor of the then-RCA building, appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932. The men in the photo were genuine, but "The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center."
The identities of the men and of the photographer who captured them were a mystery for much of the last 87 years. Although there is now near-certainty as to who took the photo and to the identities of three of the men, doubts still persist, which only add to the mythos of the picture and its enduring popularity.
Multiple photographers were present on the day the stunt took place. The three photographers frequently linked to the legendary image were Charles C. Ebbets, Thomas Kelley and William Leftwich. It's Ebbets, however, who has emerged the most likely candidate to have taken the photo. His estate produced a ream of documentary evidence supporting his authorship, including photos from his office in 1932 showing the picture on a bulletin board display of his work, a negative of him on the building on the day, and invoices to Rockefeller Center for the period encompassing the photo. These and other documents "have been independently verified by professional researchers, intellectual property attorneys and private investigators." No evidence has ever been presented that William Leftwich, Thomas Kelley or anyone else took the photo, so it appears that the question of its creator is settled, although doubts were again raised as recently as 2012.
Even more complex and difficult to solve is identifying the 11 men. Countless individuals have asserted absolute certainty in recognizing family members. Some of the men were claimed to be Native American or Swedish. But the most definitive answers were obtained by Irish documentary maker Seán Ó Cualáin, who researched the subject for his film, Men at Lunch. With the assistance of the Rockefeller Center, he examined archival photos and is confident that he's correctly identified two of the men: Joseph Eckner (the third from the left) and Joe Curtis (third from the right).
A third worker, the first man from the right, was identified separately as Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič, a Slovak who sent his wife a postcard in 1932 with the photo and the message, "Don't you worry, my dear Mariška, as you can see I'm still with bottle. Your Gusti."
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper will undoubtedly continue to captivate the public as it approaches its 100th anniversary. Speaking in 2012, Ken Johnston, Historical Director of Photography at Corbis Images, gave his opinion on the picture's significance. "There’s the incongruity between the action – lunch – and the place – 800 feet in the air – and that these guys are so casual about it. It’s visceral: I’ve had people tell me they have trouble looking at it out of fear of heights.
"There’s also something about the values and contradictions of the American ‘30s in the image, that these are workers during the Great Depression, that they are building, not stopping."