1932: A most famous photograph

As part of our Treasure Family Photos initiative, to preserve old family photos and to encourage people to learn more about their family history from them, we’ve seen some beautiful family photos and learnt about their history. There are also many other famous photos with a great history behind them. One of the world’s most iconic photos is of a group of men sitting on a 69th floor construction beam high above Manhattan.

This iconic 1932 photo of construction workers having lunch on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Center is the subject of MEN AT LUNCH, a film by Sean O Cualain.

This iconic 1932 photo of construction workers having lunch on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Center is the subject of MEN AT LUNCH, a film by Sean O Cualain.

MyHeritage was delighted to be able to interview (via email) Seán Ó Cualáin – director of the documentary Men at Lunch – on his project.

Sean, when and how did you first see the photo?

My brother (Eamonn – the documentary’s producer) and I were researching another documentary in 2009 when we went into Whelan’s pub in Galway, Ireland on our lunch break. We saw the famous photo on the wall and a note from Pat Glynn, the son of a local emigrant who claimed his father and uncle-in-law were on the beam.

By the time we had left the pub, owner Michael Whelan had given us Pat’s number, so it was simply a chance discovery. Within a few days, we had spoken to Pat and his cousin Patrick O’Shaughnessy, who both claimed that their fathers are two of the men having lunch.

We had originally intended for the film to investigate the claim of the O’Shaughnessy and Glynn families, but we found out that no records of the construction survived, that no information on the men, or the photographer existed.

Sonny Glynn, an Irish construction worker photographed in "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" as seen in MEN AT LUNCH, a film by Sean O Cualain. A First Run Features release

Sonny Glynn, an Irish construction worker photographed in "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" as seen in MEN AT LUNCH, a film by Sean O Cualain. A First Run Features release

How did you track down the photographer?

Before our documentary was screened the photograph was attributed to Charles Ebbets, the Rockefeller Center’s Photographic Director during its construction.

In the course of our research, during the documentary, we uncovered other images of other photographers taking photographs on the beams on the exact same day the famous “Lunch atop a skyscraper” was taken.

We do not have a picture of the photographer Charles Ebbets, to whom that picture was attributed from that day, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t take the picture.

However, after the screening of our film, the authorship of the photograph was changed to “unknown.”

Unfortunately, the entire story of what happened on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Building on that balmy September day in 1932 may never be known.

Where and how did you find the glass negative?

Ever since the photograph first appeared in the Sunday Supplement of the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932, many assumed it was a fake.

Unfortunately this doubt about its authenticity has always taken from the true brilliance of the image.

Quite early in our research, we contacted Ken Johnston from the Historical Collection in Corbis about the image’s authenticity as Corbis licenses the image to users.

Some 360 miles west of New York City, in rural Pennsylvania is Iron Mountain – one of the most secure locations on earth and home to the Corbis Collection. Here lay a certain glass negative that Corbis had always assumed – but never actually confirmed – to be the authentic master exposure of Lunch Atop A Skyscraper.

During the filming of our documentary, Ken Johnston confirms that the glass negative is the master- ending over 80 years of claims that the image is a trick photograph.

Is it true that the photo was a PR stunt for the new building?

Yes, the photo was a PR stunt, the famous image comes from a collection of images taken during construction of the Rockefeller Building.

It is a staged photograph – the photographer assembled the men on the beam, he was trying to get a great shot to create publicity for the center and to eventually sell office space.

Remember that this was during the darkest depths of the Depression, so it had to be an image to capture the public’s imagination, and also perhaps hint that the worst of the depression was over.

During our research, we also uncovered a never-before-seen image of the same 11 men directly acknowledging the camera.

This image suggests that the timing of New York’s most celebrated image was no accident. It was a set-up shot, but that doesn’t detract from the power of the image or from the authenticity of the image. The men in the picture are construction workers who went to the 69th floor that day to work – not to sit for a photographer.

Skyscraper construction was a very, very dangerous. Looking at the photograph, we see that none of the men are wearing safety harnesses. In the planning of these skyscrapers like the Empire State, developers factored in one dead worker for every 10 floors.

Can you comment on the relationship between history and the photographs that record it as history happens?

A photograph can only capture a moment in time, but sometimes that captured moment can come to represent a bigger event, be it a war, a tragedy, a moment of triumph or despair.

This image is simply of 11 immigrants having lunch, but it’s more than that, much more than that.

Because we know it’s in the middle of the Depression, because of the apparent height and the casual appearance of the men, the image has been elevated into a inspirational piece of art, where we identify with the ordinariness of the men and their apparent struggle to create a better life for themselves.

On the other hand, the photo also however reveals the limits of still photography. While it does reveal much for us, we know nothing of the 11 unknown subjects beyond the expressions on their faces.

We realised the film’s story had to change. It was now to become the untold story of the most famous image in the world, the mystery of the 11 men on the beam and the great immigrant struggle.

For more information on the story behind the photo, go to the documentary website. The documentary will begin its U.S. release on September 20, 2013. For screening times and venues click here.


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  • Jim B.

    August 27, 2013

    I have seen that documentary ( movie ) and it is so awesome. These men would toss hot rivets through the air and catch them in buckets on a beam up that high.. Just pure American

  • Paul O’Driscoll

    August 27, 2013

    These Ironworkers, (Fish Gang), are from Conception Harbour, Newfoundland, Canada.

  • Jacqueline Madden Fields

    August 28, 2013

    Up until a short time ago, this photograph, was just a picture of my Father at work on skyscraper, in New York city, during the great depression. My Mother had other pictures of my Father at work. There was one, with Daddy going up in a basket onto the Empire State Building when it was under construction. I saw these photographs for most of my life, never attributing much importance to them, they were just family photos, kept in frames on the table. My Father died when I was 10&1/2, in 1960, and Mom put the photos away, and I sort of lost track of them. I had no idea that this one photo would become the most famous photograph in the world, and was completely taken aback, to hear this. My Father is the man in the center of this photograph, number six, from either end of the men on the beam. The one with the cigarette in his mouth.His name was John Patrick Madden.

  • Cathy Mattheus South Africa

    August 28, 2013

    Wow this is real interesting reading was up to Top pf the Rocks in March 2013 and it was a wonderful experience to have been there
    I also had my photo taken with this historical photo as the background thanks for information

  • Mary Lou Fairbairn-Watts

    August 29, 2013

    What a lovely birthday gift. I was born (in Wellington, Texas) on the day this photograph was taken. I had seen the photo before, but without the history. Perhaps this addition will only have meaning for me, but in the 1950s I became a photojournalist and aviation columnist for the Lubbock (TX) Avalanche-Journal. Then-Managing Editor Charlie Watson informed me that I had a record two photographs printed more than any others by Associated Press newspapers within one quarter, and he gave me wire copy as proof. The first photo was of a young boy with sparkling brown eyes as he heard his first sound — through a hearing aid fitted by a member of Disabled American Veterans. David, age 7, had been found living in a chicken coop with his alcoholic father. His aunt had sought out the hearing aid for him, but she was finding it daunting to care for him and her own children while picking cotton. She asked if the newspaper might help. It did, first by getting David into a local private orphanage. Our publisher and a couple of local businessmen made up a committee (those were simpler times) and arranged for me to fly with David and another 7-year-old who needed an escort to return to the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. Flying near San Antonio we ran into a thunderstorm, with great cumulous clouds. I was afraid the boys would be terrified, but they had already learned to set off the strobe light on my camera. Similar lightning and vibrations from thunder made their delight complete. However, when school officials in Austin learned that David was crippled they said they could not keep him because their dormatories were upstairs and there was no elevator. But they did give David a series of tests — that gave me a series of delightful photographs. David also got a big laugh out of surprising a doctor with the strobe flash, proving what the doctor had already told me — that anyone with a sense of humor is bright. We returned to Lubbock where I wrote two stories each day about David while he advanced through a succession of temporary homes. And the local citizenry showered him with gifts (including three tricycles and three offers of adoption). An ideal couple was selected to adopt him.
    I felt a bit guilty about my second photo that was printed most often that quarter. It was of a Texas Tech freshman looking into a hand mirror to admire her crew cut that matched that of her boyfriend. I was afraid editors all over the country had chosen it because her dad was managing editor of the Dallas Morning News.

  • glennrobert

    September 5, 2013

    I live in a retirement home in Barstow ca. We have that picture of the men eating on the wall in the building I live in. The picture is three dimensional with a feeling of depth.

  • Frank Erdmann

    September 7, 2013

    before my grandfather passed away in the late 1980s,he told my dad that he was in that picture along with his friend ben.he had said he was third from left [Francis Erdmann] and his friend [Ben Dowdin] was second from the left.

  • Albo

    September 10, 2013

    That photo sits in a San Jose bagel joint (Main Street Bagels) as a remnant of the New Yorker’s who started it, and retained to this day by the Cambodian family who continues to churn out the best bagels in the area.

  • John Gushue Bacon Cove

    September 16, 2013

    It is well known that men on the beam are from NYC ironworker local where most high climbers were either Newfounderlanders or Indians. The “fish gang” from Conception Harbour, Newfoundland is reputed to be the men on the beam along with one Indian. A google search will reveal how a Costello from Conception Harbour brought fearless climbers to NYC to create the “fish gang”.

  • Don

    September 18, 2013

    The negative is reversed. The sign on the Essex House is backward.

  • Randall Alan

    September 21, 2013

    Hard working, productive, contributers… How far we have fallen.

  • Smarty

    September 22, 2013

    it is not reversed, essex house sign has always faced central park.

    Captivating image.

  • Cardin Corbit

    September 22, 2013

    To Don,
    It is not a reverse negative. You are looking at the back side of the sig

  • Rob M

    September 22, 2013

    Don, it is not reversed. You’re looking at back of Essex House sign which faces south. Look at Zeigfield theater sign near bottom of pick. It’s correct.

  • Ivan Reiff

    September 25, 2013

    Does the gentleman on the far right have a whiskey bottle in hand? lol different time..

  • A. J. Rittgers

    September 28, 2013

    I know that is a very famous photo, but for me the one of the soldiers raising the flag on the mountain in WWII is more famous, and those men did much more…

  • Sindy Lou

    October 8, 2013

    Oh No! Makes me need to change my pants! This is a wonderful picture though. I love these old pics.,shows how our USA was put together. Look at Hoover dam pics. rail roads, Golden Gate bridge. Wonderful work!! Scared Of Hights, THAT is me!!

    HOW did these fellows stand back up on this beam???

  • Kimberly Adams

    September 20, 2018

    My grandfather was the fourth from the left side. We have some original photos.