The Story Behind the Iconic ‘Lunch Atop a Skyscraper’ Photograph
These days, photos of people’s lunch are about half of the pics on Instagram. (The other half, I believe, are photos of dinner.) But back in 1932, a lunch photo was still able to take the world by storm. Granted, the meal itself wasn’t particularly exciting: just a group of guys eating out of white boxes. It’s the setting that is so iconic: sitting on a beam about 800 feet above the New York City skyline with Central Park behind them – and a potentially deadly drop below.
With modern construction regulations, enjoying a lunch under such hazardous conditions would probably be illegal. But as Christine Rousell – the archivist at the Rockefeller Center, the building these men were working on at the time – explains, that’s what makes the photo so engaging to this day: “Their attitude, I think their casualness, the indifference to the risk that they’re taking is what separates the photograph,” Rousell says in the above five minute video looking into the history of the famous snapshot as part of Time’s video series investigating the magazine’s “100 Photos: The Most Influential Images of All Time.”
Though we’re all familiar with the photo itself, referred to as “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” what makes this short YouTube clip especially fascinating is all of the additional visuals it provides: not just more death-defying pics but video footage as well. When you see these construction workers actually moving around so high above the sky, it all appears that much more precarious.
Interestingly, according to Rousell, not only have none of the eleven men featured in the photograph ever been sufficiently identified, we also aren’t sure who took it: Three photographers – Charles Ebbets, Thomas Kelley and William Leftwich – were all at Rockefeller Center that day, but no one knows which one actually was behind the camera for this particular shot. See, now this is a problem that could have been solved with Instagram.