‘Lunch Atop a Skyscraper’

If you get chills reading about a photograph, you have to do a blog post about it. That’s the rule, right? If you’ve followed my blog long enough, I regularly do poetry analysis posts, but also, I like to look at paintings and photographs. They inspire me just as much as poetry does, even though I’m not an artist in those fields. But the point is, they make me feel something, and today, the classic, almost kitsch photograph at this point (even TIME magazine jokes that you’d be hard-pressed to walk through Times Square without seeing this photograph on a mug or a t-shirt), “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” taken in 1932.

If you haven’t seen this photograph, I would be shocked:

I know colorization is a thing, but wouldn’t it be weird to see this in color? I sort of like the black and white aspect of old photographs.

But did you know we don’t know who took the photograph (in the time since TIME did its 100 Most Influential Images of All Time, in 2003, the photograph was credited to Charles C. Ebbets, a photographer of the time; still, for nearly 75 years, nobody knew), anybody who is in the photograph, and what most blew my brain, that it was staged?! Nothing can be trusted! I always assumed when I’ve previously looked at this photograph that it was a spontaneous photograph. That a bunch of ballsy workers on a construction project “back in the day” gathered on a beam to, well, eat lunch and someone happened to take a legendary photograph. Nope, all staged to promote the new skyscraper, per TIME. All of the workers are legitimate, I believe, but the situation is staged. At the time, America really took pride in the towering skyscraper, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. More on that in a moment.

So, the photograph consists of 11 men “casually eating, chatting and sneaking a smoke as if they weren’t 840 feet above Manhattan with nothing but a thin beam keeping them aloft.” The building in question is the 69th floor of the Radio Corporation of America building in Rockefeller Center, which was later known as the GE Building, and now it’s known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or sometimes 30 Rock, like the TV show. One discrepancy I’m confused about: Wikipedia says the building is 66 floors, but TIME said the men are on the 69th floor. I don’t know?

“By thumbing its nose at both danger and the Depression, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper came to symbolize American resilience and ambition at a time when both were desperately needed.”


And that’s the thing. I previously wrote about another famous skyscraper that was also built in this time period and in the same city, no less: The Empire State Building, built less than two years prior. The buildings represent American ingenuity, business acumen, and sure, like TIME said, defiance and rebelliousness. Those crazy Americans, kinda thing. It’s a bit of vanity, to be sure, but also, it is all of those things. I’m almost as fascinated now having done a post about a photograph related to the Empire State Building and now the 30 Rock building, about skyscrapers themselves and our fascination with them beginning all the way back in 1884 with a nine-story high building in Chicago.

The photograph evokes all those reactions and thoughts, too. Reading about the defiance amid the Great Depression is what gave me chills. Americans are a crazy bunch, but pretty darn cool, huh? If you look at photographs of Times Square and New York City from “back in the day” and compare it to now, it’s mind blowing the sort of development that has happened. The same holds of other cities. Human beings did that. Pulling ourselves up out of the caves and then out of the farms to the cities, and then developing the cities up and up and up. It’s beautiful in that way.

What do you make of the photograph and some of the backstory of it?

Sep. 30, 1932, Manhattan, New York City, New York State, USA — Four construction workers take a nap, balanced on a steel girder hung 800 feet over Manhattan, during the construction of the RCA Building. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. (That’s the official caption. I’d never seen this image! It’s almost like seeing a different version of, “Tank Man.”

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