There used to be a copy of “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” hanging in my college cafeteria and my school friends and I would wonder at it. We marveled at how casually brash and daring the Depression-era iron workers were to be sitting atop a beam suspended stories and stories above the buildings below. To bright-eyed youths like ourselves, the photograph captured the spirit of a time unknown to us, when skyscrapers were still a fairly new phenomena and the nameless faces of the workers who built them crawled from every crevice of the city to scrabble for any opportunity that paid. We joined the crowd of those who gave the photograph its iconic status as we observed a whimsical moment in the lives of these Depression-era men that still prevailed despite hard times.
This morning, however, I had to call my previous perceptions into question when I read in The New York Times of a new documentary titled “Men at Lunch.” The documentary sets out to unpacking the details–and mysteries–of this famous photograph. The article reveals a few facts which gives truth to a few misconceptions surrounding “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper:
The popularity of the picture, which has been colorized, satirized, burlesqued with the Muppets and turned into a life-size sculpture by Sergio Furnari, is partly about the casual recklessness of its subjects: The beam on which they sit seems suspended over an urban abyss, with the vastness of Central Park spread out behind them and nothing, seemingly below. But in fact a finished floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza was probably just a few feet away. And it was certainly not casual. As the Rockefeller collection shows, it was among many such posed photos taken and distributed to the news media with the intention of promoting Depression-era real estate (albeit by photographers who were “absolutely mad,” said the archivist, Christine Roussel).
What is the takeaway? I’ve decided to hold on to that same sense of wonder I felt the first time I saw the photograph. Despite knowing now that the photograph was not, in fact, a candid snapshot, I’ll maintain believing that real, unstaged instances like this one actually existed during the Depression. In truth, I’m excited to watch “Men at Lunch” and learn more about these once nameless men.
DOC NYC‘s senior programmer, Mystelle Brabbee calls the documentary a “love letter.”
“We mostly hear about the famous architects and financiers, but this one iconic photograph shows the spirit of how Rockefeller Center was built — the fulfillment of the promise of Manhattan,” she said. “Beauty, service, dignity and humor dangling 56 stories above the midstream rush of the metropolis, all summarized in this moment.”