Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Thin Edge of Nothingness

by Drew Martin
I just watched a riveting documentary called Men At Lunch about the iron workers who are immortalized in the photo known as "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" (pictured here, top)

The location of the image is at the 69th floor of 30 Rock (30 Rockefeller Plaza, also known as The Slab, formally named the GE Building, and previously known as the RCA Building).

It was a staged photograph of the site's actual iron workers as part of a larger promotional photoshoot for the Rockefeller Center in order to drum up excitement about the highrise project, and to lure corporate tenants.

The picture was taken on September 20, 1932. Although the actual photographer of this particular shot is not clear, it has been credited to Charles Ebbets who was directing the shoot. Also shooting with him that day were the photographers William Leftwich (pictured here, second from bottom) and Thomas Kelley (pictured here, bottom).

The image first appeared in the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932 and is now owned by Corbis. The corporation bought it from the United Press International news agency in 1995. It is the most valuable picture in their collection, and as the director of historical photography points out, it is an oddity in that most of the images that sell well are of specific personalities: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor, and so on.

At the time the picture was taken, a quarter of the New York workforce was unemployed, and the nation was 13 years into prohibition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the governor of New York and less than a year away from becoming the President. The photo of the fearless workers preempted his We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

The filmmaker Ric Burns, who is well known for his documentary New York, speaks throughout this film. He says what makes Lunch atop a Skyscraper great is the number of questions it asks. He adds that a key element for him is the cable in the foreground, which he refers to as an umbilical cord.

It is a remarkable picture, and much of the documentary is about trying to identify the iron workers. While the image engages anyone who takes a look at it, many people have claimed relations to the men. It is a representative picture of an America that is toughing out the Depression, and as a land of opportunity for the wave of immigrants that came to New York City at that time. People want to be part of that to such an extent that they believe they have a personal connection.

The film was produced by the Irish Film Board and so there is a sentimental tone to it regarding the Irish immigrants. The workers on opposite sides of the beam are supposedly brothers from a village in Ireland, and the documentary interviews their senior citizen sons.

More fascinating to me than the workers in the shot are the photographers who were unaccustomed to working at those heights but spent the day straddling the beams in two-tone winged tips and wool suits along with their bulky cameras and extremely fragile glass plates, on which the pictures were exposed.

Click here to watch the trailer for Men At Lunch.