Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: The True Story Behind The Iconic Photo

Credit: Corbis/Getty

It is one of the most iconic pictures in history - but the story behind it is not so well known.

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper shows a group of New York construction workers casually taking a lunch break while they sit on a beam hundreds of feet in the air.

The photograph, taken on September 20, 1932, became a symbol of fearlessness and humour and has since become a popular poster print, often parodied and copied but never bettered.

In fact Corbis Images - who own the rights to the photo - say that it is the biggest selling historical image in their collection, topping photographs of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King.

However, the story behind the picture - which was seemingly taken off the cuff while the workers enjoyed their sandwiches - is not as simple as it seems.

Many of us believe that this was just a random, impromptu moment, innocently captured on an autumn day with no thought behind how historic the image would become.

But it seems as though that was not the case at all - in fact, archivists say the shot was meticulously planned as part of a publicity stunt.


Iconic: The men were building the Rockefeller Center skyscraper in Manhattan (Rex)

The first misconception that people have is that the workers are sitting on a beam at the Empire State Building in Manhattan.

While the Midtown location is true, the men are actually perched 840ft above the ground during the construction of the Rockefeller Center.

And it is the building of this skyscraper that reveals the apparent truth behind the picture.

Archivists claim that the men - who are genuine workers and not models - were nevertheless deliberately posing for the “staged” shot by the Rockefeller Center to promote their new skyscraper.

Ken Johnston, chief historian for Corbis Images, told The Independent: “The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center.

“It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organised with a number of photographers.”

Corbis in fact own the rights to a similar picture of four workers lying down on the same beam on the same day - which some see as proof that the whole thing was a set-up rather than a simple happy accident.

And this is not the only claim that have people suspicious - according to Corbis, there were multiple photographers at the shoot, leading them to doubt that photographer Charles C Ebbets was definitely the man who took the picture.


Parodies: The image has been copied in numerous tributes (Rex)

But what about the stars of the picture - the men who show no fear in sitting down without safety ropes as they casually smoke and eat lunch?

While the true identities of every man in the shot is still a mystery, family members of some of them have come forward over the years to reveal who they were.

The construction workers are claimed to be predominately Irish immigrants - possibly from the small Irish town of Shanaglish - while others are said to be from Canadian and Swedish backgrounds.

The film ‘Men At Lunch’ revealed that the third man from the left is Joseph Eckner, then following on to the right is Michael Breheny, Albin Svensson and then Mohawk ironworker Peter Rice, from Kahnawake, Canada.

The man sitting fourth from the right is said to be Francis Michael Rafferty, who is next to his best friend, Stretch Donahue, sitting to his right.

These two men are said to be Irish immigrants who fled to New York to seek work during the dire economic circumstances of the Great Depression.

With one in four New Yorkers out of work, men were said to be more willing to take any work going - including dangerous jobs like building skyscrapers.


Tough work: Immigrants helped build skyscrapers during the Great Depression (Wikipedia)

The first man from the right is Slovak worker Gusti Popovič, who sent his wife a postcard in 1932 of the image, writing alongside: “Don´t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti.”

Gusti returned to Slovakia at the start of World War II but was killed by a grenade by the time the war ended.

He is buried in Vyšný Slavkov cemetery in the same grave as his wife.

The original glass plate negative for the picture is held in a storage facility in Pennsylvania and millions of reprints and copies have since been sold.

Seán Ó Cualáin, the Irish filmmaker behind documentary Men At Lunch, tried to explain its popularity.

He told “They could be anybody. We can all place ourselves on that beam.

“I think that is why the photograph works.”

A group of workers, descendants of immigrants and utterly alien in America are now and forever legends and true New York heroes.

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