Lunch Atop a Skyscraper: Behind The Iconic Image
After almost 90 years, countless reproductions and parodies, most of us recognize Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. The iconic photograph shows 11 ironworkers casually taking a lunch break, their legs dangling 840 feet (256 m) above Manhattan, New York.
Widely attributed to photographer Charles C. Ebbets, the palm-wetting image was taken on September 20, 1932, during the construction of the RCA building (currently known as the GE building) at Rockefeller Center. The black-and-white photo captures the workers enjoying food, discussion and cigarettes while balanced atop a narrow steel girder. The conspicuous lack of safety equipment provides insight to the risks people were willing to take in order to find work during the Great Depression era.
The photo was originally published in the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932, going on to become one of the most reproduced images of all time. Less-known but equally powerful is the accompanying image from that shoot, shown below:
In this photo taken after the well-known lunch scene, some of the workers are seen "napping" on the narrow beam, 70 stories above 41st Street. This second image is even more outrageous, but also sheds light on the circumstances regarding the photographs: though the scene and its hazards are very real, the images are believed to have been purposefully arranged.
The ironworkers, familiar with heights and bold as they were, would likely have chosen better sleeping arrangements, but these photos were taken during a lighthearted moment of a publicity event to promote the Rockefeller Center's soon-to-be finished skyscraper.
Given the timing and circumstances behind the images, the nonchalant attitudes in the midst of stomach-flipping altitudes is better understood.