Lunch atop a Skyscraper

Lunch atop a Skyscraper


It’s very likely that you’ve seen this image, and seeing it once is remembering it forever.

 Lunch atop a Skyscraper is a black-and-white photograph, taken on 20 September 1932, of 11 iron workers sitting on a steel beam and eating lunch on the 69th floor of the RCA Building, 260 metres (850 feet) above the ground during the construction of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York City. It was arranged as a publicity stunt, part of a campaign promoting the skyscraper.

The image has become an icon of 20th century photography, and has been long interpreted as an embodiment of the great American immigration story of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a tribute to those courageous men from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, etc. who effectively built New York.

The pay was decent for an iron worker in those hard-to-find-work Depression years: US$1.50 per hour (equivalent to US$32 in 2024), but the downside requirement was a willingness to die a grisly death. 2% of iron workers would perish in workplace accidents every year, and a further 2% would suffer a permanent disability. No wonder that the Iron Workers Local 361 trade union motto was “We do not die; we are killed.” [Ed: Glad not to be at that brainstorming session.]

The identity of the photographer remains unclear. Evidence emerged indicating it may have been taken by Charles C. Ebbets, but it was later found that two other photographers had been present and shooting on that day as well: Thomas Kelly and William Leftwich – both also dare devils, judging from the images.

As regards the 11 iron workers, many claims have been made regarding their identities, though only a few have been definitively established. In 2003 the New York Post ran a campaign to identify the men. Respondents citing photographs, union records and family stories, ended up credibly providing 45 names for the 11 men photographed! Everybody it seems wanted to lay claim to a piece of this gutsy ancestral history.

The 2012 documentary Men at Lunch by the Irish filmmaker Seán Ó Cualáin, confirms the identities of two of the men: Joseph Eckner, third from the left, and Joe Curtis, third from the right, by cross-referencing with other pictures taken the same day, in which they were named on the back of the prints. The film also explored the possibility that the man on the far left was Matty O’Shaugnessy and the man on the far right holding the bottle was his cousin Sonny Glynn, also from Shanaglish in County Galway. However, another source identified the man on the far right as being a Slovak worker Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič. The photograph was apparently found in his estate, with the note "Don't you worry, my dear Mariška, as you can see I'm still with bottle.” written on the back. Truth-telling or a boast?

We'll never really be sure who these men were – and it actually doesn't matter. They represent something more significant than themselves.

TIME magazine included the image it in its 2016 list of the 100 most influential. Discussing the significance of the image in 2012,  Ken Johnston, the Historical Director of Photography at Corbis Images said:

“There's the incongruity between the action – lunch – and the place – 800 feet in the air – and that these guys are so casual about it. It's visceral: I've had people tell me they have trouble looking at it out of fear of heights. And these men – you feel you get a very strong sense of their characters through their expressions, clothes and poses.

The photograph has also inspired a ride called the Beam, which opened on the former RCA Building's 69th floor terrace in December 2023, wherein the recreated beam is lifted 4 metres (12 feet) above the observation deck platform. Once visitors are strapped in, the structure rotates 180 degrees, offering astounding views of Central Park and the NYC skyline. [Ed: No thanks.]

VideoLunch atop a Skyscraper: The Story Behind The 1932 Photo | 100 Photos, TIME, 2017


1. Lunch atop a Skyscraper, photo taken on 20 September 1932 and published in the New York Herald-Tribune on 2 October 1932.
2. The RCA Building in December 1933 during the construction of Rockefeller Center
3. Rockefeller Center with 30 Rockefeller Plaza in the middle. Credit: Tishman Speyer.
4. Photograph taken as part of the same publicity shoot as the more famous image
5. Logo for Iron Workers Local 361
6. Original negative glass plate for Lunch atop a Skyscraper
7. Photographer William Leftwich shooting on 20 September 1932
8. Photographer Thomas Kelly also shooting on 20 September 1932
9. New York Post, 2003
10. FilmMen At Lunch (Iconic Photograph Documentary) | Real Stories, 2012
11. Marvel & DC Superheroes Lunch Atop A Skyscraper
12. Beam ride, RCA Building, December 2023
13. 30 Rock is an American TV series created by Tina Fey that originally aired on NBC from 2006 to 2013. It was set within 30 Rockefeller Plaza.


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