Men at Work: The Making of an Iconic Image

If you’re at all familiar with American history, it’s likely that you’ve heard of the Rockefeller family as well as their endeavors throughout the 20th century building some of the most iconic structures New York City has to offer. Perhaps even more well known than the Rockefeller’s themselves may be an iconic image taken at one of their many construction sites:

A black and white photograph dating back to 1932, the composition features eleven blue collar workers seated side by side along a steel beam secured hundreds of feet above the ground. Since it first appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, it has become one of the most recognized pictures in all of photographic history.

“Their attitude…their casualness, the indifference to the risk that they’re taking is what separates the photograph. You see the picture once, you never forget it.” — Christine Roussel, archivist at the Rockefeller Center

What many people don’t realize is that the photograph is not the product of pure happenstance. Rather, several photographers were sent up to the city’s new skyscrapers to capture workers as part of a publicity piece. In the Tribune’s outtakes from that faithful day, negatives feature Rockefeller employees posing and even joking around for their guests—a brief glimmer of the humanity of the men that made New York.

construction worker poses with flag

In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans sought hope for a better tomorrow. The ambitious and economically significant projects funded by the Rockefeller family provided 250,000 jobs for people seeking a fresh start. For those on the outside, the pride of the workers dedicating their energy to building toward the sky served as a symbol of optimism and positivity for a population struggling to get back on its feet. Very quickly, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper spread across the nation and excited men, women, and children for the changes destined to come.

Perhaps what made the image so powerful was its success in showing off New York City, and by extension, the United States as a whole. The impressive infrastructures of the bustling metropolis are clearly visible in the image’s background. However, the US itself is represented in the men featured within the frame as well. From all different races and religions, these workers came together, risked their lives, and poured all of their energy into creating the city we know and love.

work on a skyscraper

In an age where digital cameras and instant uploads to the internet are the norm, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been these sort of actions at such great heights. Strapped across the backs of each photographer on sight was a leather satchel containing glass plates. This is because the men would actually have to switch between delicate glass negatives during their death defying shoots. While it’s known that Charles Ebbets, Thomas Kelley, and William Leftwich were in attendance at the Rockefeller construction sight on the date Lunch Atop a Skyscraper was produced, the artist behind the actual iconic photograph has been lost in time.

Unfortunately, the photographer isn’t the only individual whose name has been lost. With no identification attached to the original images, the names of the workers pictured have been forgotten (though many people to this day claim to know the true identity of the men in question). Nevertheless, these brave and diligent men have attained immortality by securing a spot in American photographic history.

photographer framing worker

“I think that what’s important about the picture is that it places them in history as being important in the development of New York City and Rockefeller Center and gives a great deal of credit to a group that basically goes uncredited.”

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