In 2002, writer Bill Bryson wrote a book about William Shakespeare and what we get most out of that book is that we don’t know very much about the world famous English poet for certain. But as Bryson proves, an obscure creator of famous work can also be fascinating.
In 2013, Irish Seán Ó Cualáin directed a documentary about one photo, being the image of eleven steelworkers having lunch sitting on a crossbeam of what was to become the Rockefeller Center in New York City. This setting of Lunch atop a Skyscraper is often mimicked in mockup shoots, and there is even a guy driving around a replica on a truck through the streets of Manhattan. Men at Lunch is a 70 minute documentary about this one photo, and here are the top 5 things I got out of it.
1. We don’t know the names of the eleven men
Research produced two names, which were found because on the same day this picture was taken, october 2, 1932, other photo’s were taken as part of a series of staged images to promote the development. One of these images shows three men taking a nap on the beam. The names of these man are on the back of the print, and two of them can easily be identified on the famous picture itself.
2. We don’t know for sure who took the photo
Promotional photographs like these were commissioned all the time, and in this case we know of at least three photographers who were on site. Which one of them took this picture is everyone’s guess, even though some Web-sites do list a photographer’s name.
3. Photographers are crazier than construction workers
In those days, health & safety wasn’t a priority as it is these days, so we see guys doing all kind of things on steel beams with zero protection. Per year, one out of fifty construction would be involved in a fatal injury. But contrary to the photographers, at least the construction workers were doing this every day and used their eyes to look around, instead of looking through a lense. To complete a superintendent’s nightmare, the photographer pictured below looks like he still wears the same shoes he wore to a ballroom dance the night before.
4. The negative is broken
In 1995 the image licensing company Corbis acquired the negatives of this photo which are now stored at a high-security underground Film Preservation Facility in western Pennsylvania. Somehow that didn’t prevent the presumed original glass plate from being shattered one year later, but this being an original with many copies that’s not too much of a problem for posterity. It’s also their most requested image.
5. The full title is “Lunchtime 800 feet up at the Rockefeller Center, New York”
Inside the Rockefeller Center is a beautiful archive on the Rockefeller Center, which naturally contains a print of the photo. On the back of an original print, the title reads as Lunchtime 800 feet up at Rockefeller Center, New York. But I agree that Lunch atop a Skyscraper and Men at Lunch are much more snappy.
Because much about the photo is unknown, most of the documentary is about the way this image captures the american spirit, but it also focusses on the Irish investment in it. Two cousins, originally from the village of Shanaglish in the west of Ireland, claim to recognize their fathers, who are the ones sitting on both ends. I’m not one to argue someone doesn’t recognize his own father, but early on, the documentary already points out that there are many people who claim they are are somehow related to one of the workers. Trying to be part of the image just shows how great of a capture it is.
The documentary does have a new perspective of the image though, albeit literally. It shows a 3D model of the RCA Buildings under construction, which allows to look at the lunching men from different angles.