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Gentlemen Who Lunch
September 20, 2012 11:16 AM   Subscribe

It's one of the best-known photographs in US history, but the fearless steelworkers dining al fresco in "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper" have remained anonymous in the 80 years since it was taken. A new documentary. Men At Lunch, tells the story of the photo and identifies two of its subjects for the first time.
posted by Horace Rumpole (36 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
And these men – you feel you get a very strong sense of their characters through their expressions, clothes and poses. They are very much of their time – Jimmy Cagney could play a screen version of any of them. There’s also something about the values and contradictions of the American ‘30s in the image, that these are workers during the Great Depression, that they are building, not stopping.
I don't know about the guys in that picture, but at Hoover Dam it wasn't "character" or "values" that made them do the crazy stuff they did. It was precisely because it WAS the Great Depression and they had to do whatever the bosses said just to put food on the table.
posted by DU at 11:21 AM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


That photo ... my god ... I'm sitting perfectly still in my chair (which is on the GROUND) and I feel wobbly. I don't see how people do heights like that.
posted by jbickers at 11:23 AM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


From the first link: It’s visceral: I’ve had people tell me they have trouble looking at it out of fear of heights.

That's me. I know that I am safely seated in my four story office building (and even then, 10 feet from the window), but I get a tingle every time I look at that picture.
posted by AgentRocket at 11:23 AM on September 20, 2012


For the longest time I was convinced it was staged and fake. No same person would do that, right? Right?
posted by COD at 11:26 AM on September 20, 2012


For the longest time I was convinced it was staged and fake.

Well, it's clear from history that, yes, people walked around up there without any safety gear.

But it's always bugged me that in that particular photo there's that halo around the guys and the I-beam. The only explanation for it that I can think of is that they were aggressively dodged in the darkroom to burn in the hazy background. Makes sense.

Except that it's apparent that the halo is on the negative. Huh.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:43 AM on September 20, 2012


It was precisely because it WAS the Great Depression and they had to do whatever the bosses said just to put food on the table.

Not that you're wrong, exactly, but the internet is full of videos of young Russians doing things ten times as crazy just for shits and giggles. Some people just do not have any fear of heights.
posted by yoink at 11:44 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's also not actually clear from the angle that the photograph is taken from what is below those guys. That is, if they fall off that beam, do they plummet to a certain death on the ground below, or do they fall 15 feet onto the half-completed building below them? I don't think you can tell.
posted by yoink at 11:46 AM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love this photograph. I used to have it hanging above my desk in my home office. I often ate lunch in front of my computer. I'd look up and it would occur to me that these older men were much crazier than I will probably ever be. And that's ok.

Same goes for the hardworking nutjob tree trimmers up on the cliff ledges of Bolinas Beach. From out in the water you could hear them hooting and hollerin' while holding their positions at the tip tops of redwood trees. Wearing no shirts and waving their chainsaws.*

*Not a euphemism.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:52 AM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here in Newfoundland, at least some of the men in the photo are widely credited as Newfoundlanders. You often see the photo in gift shops.
posted by Brodiggitty at 11:55 AM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Okay, I've crossed streams on fallen logs about that narrow, so I guess if I were up there and absolutely HAD TO walk across that beam I could, though I would probably be too wobbly from the terror.

But I cannot imagine feeling comfortable walking out on that thing, stopping, turning, and sitting down, my center of gravity shifting several times. That's crazy.
posted by univac at 11:57 AM on September 20, 2012


COD: "No sane person would do that, right? Right?"
Imagine if they had had video cameras back then.
posted by brokkr at 12:07 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a Newfoundland, I, too, have been told that the photo was taken of Newfoundlanders who moved to the US to find construction work. I suppose there's not necessarily any truth to the story, but I suspect that someone out there knows the truth.
posted by newfers at 12:09 PM on September 20, 2012


(As a "Newfoundlander"). Duh.
posted by newfers at 12:09 PM on September 20, 2012


Newfie right? (I grew up in St Johns and a tiny place near Bonavista)
posted by edgeways at 12:16 PM on September 20, 2012


I was born in St.John's, lived in Conception Bay South for 23 years (Currently am a US citizen living in Athens, Ohio!). Sorry for derailing the post. Carry on!
posted by newfers at 12:19 PM on September 20, 2012


But I cannot imagine feeling comfortable walking out on that thing, stopping, turning, and sitting down, my center of gravity shifting several times. That's crazy.

Strangely, that's not even the part that gets me. It's that once they've done this, instead of sitting verrry carefully, they're passing lunch boxes around, presumably leaning back a little as they drink from cups, leaning over to light a smoke off their neighbor, and turning around to have a conversation.

All while being hemmed in knee to knee with the person next to them -- if that guy on the end wants to leave, he has to wait for the ten others to stand up and get out of his way. (Right? Right? Don't tell me he would attempt to step over the others as he ambled towards the main structure?)

I suppose they have to be that comfortable or else they wouldn't be able to accomplish any actual work while they're up there, but for some reason that's the part that I focus on. Just being able to walk the beams is not enough; you have to be good enough to do it with your hands full and without dropping anything. I mean, what if your shoelaces comes untied?
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:25 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know that sensation you get when you're driving along and there's a sudden sink in the road, and there's an almost but not quite a nauseous tickle along your lower abdomen? My wife had a friend that called that a 'sweet belly.'

I see that picture, and I get continuous sweet belly until I close the tab. I'm in awe of people who can look at the picture without getting cold sweats, forget being able to do what I'm seeing in the picture.
posted by Mooski at 12:30 PM on September 20, 2012


It is the second photo, the napping one, that gets me. I hate that feeling when lying in bed of falling. Could you image if they had that while napping up there?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:30 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq,

The article says that the darkroom workers of the original archivist hated working with the original, and typically used copy negatives of good quality prints. This suggests to me that the photo of the negative was probably heavily burned in Photoshop to keep the workers from looking washed out.

I have a lot of experience getting decent prints out of some seriously crappy negatives. If the negative looked like it does in that photo, it would be easy to make decent prints without burning and dodging. My guess is that the dark elements in the foreground have way less density on the negative compared with a relatively dense and low-contrast background. Without burning and dodging, you can get decent tonality on the foreground only if you sacrifice the background, which destroys the impact of the image.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:32 PM on September 20, 2012


I guess I've never had a problem with this image being both staged and real. You're sent out to capture images of amazing construction and somewhere along the way, someone wants the guys to get together for a shot. I think these men were very comfortable with heights and safety regulations were a little more ad-hoc than they are today. However, I can see this image happening today, too. I think those guys really believe in themselves and they have pride in their work. They are delighted to show off for the camera.

For a photographer, this beam and this angle and this background of the city would be irresistible. I don't know what, if anything, is under those guys. Probably more than you think. However, it just seems less likely to me that this image would be set up in a studio or something. That's how some goofball marketing geniuses might come up with this image today but I think this is real.
posted by amanda at 12:42 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have no doubt that it's real, but I could imagine it being posed instead of just a candid shot. "Hey guys, everybody on that beam over there for a picture, and pretend that it's a normal lunch and no big deal." The sleeping one is most certainly posed.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:48 PM on September 20, 2012


I wonder if there were any native Americans working on that site, and if they were explicitly excluded from these shots? When you live in Montreal you hear endlessly about how prominent a role the Kahnawake Mohawks have played in the construction of NYC's skyscrapers--going back to the early C20th (supposedly they played a very large part in the construction of the Empire State Building), largely because of a myth that insensitivity to heights was an inherent racial characteristic.

It would be an interest twist to the heartwarming "NYC melting pot" story that the documentary seems to want to tell if there are a bunch of native Americans just out of the frame of this shot.
posted by yoink at 12:49 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poor Immigrants: We built that.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:59 PM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Can't even look at that photo. OMG....
posted by pearlybob at 1:15 PM on September 20, 2012


However, I can see this image happening today, too.

Yeah, it seems like you can still see this. I'm sure they are using more safety belts and the like, but you can still see steelworkers at work in cities like New York, and they're still capering about up there just this way.

Great post, can't wait to see this film.
posted by Miko at 2:02 PM on September 20, 2012


Poor Immigrants: We built that.

Actually, a good proportion of the high steel workers in NYC were/are Mohawk.
posted by docgonzo at 2:02 PM on September 20, 2012


I have always loved this photo. Thanks for sharing more about it and its history!
posted by skye.dancer at 4:09 PM on September 20, 2012


They're actually Ironworkers... steelworkers tend to be the people working in the steel mills and lots of other places. I'm an ironworker apprentice and we still do stuff like this today but I haven't worked on a skyscraper yet, I'm currently at a steel mill doing structural repair work. Unfortunately for us it's not nearly as glamorous as being on a raising gang for a skyscraper.

I'd guess that there is mostly constructed floors a few storeys underneath them in this shot, (here's the empire state building under construction). Sadly enough a lot of men died back in the day when safety regulations weren't a thing... people still die on construction sites today despite all the safety gear we wear now.
posted by glip at 4:24 PM on September 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


They're actually Ironworkers... steelworkers tend to be the people working in the steel mills and lots of other places.

That is good to know, thanks.
posted by Miko at 7:11 PM on September 20, 2012


[expletive deleted]: I don't think they had photoshop in the timeframe the Reuters article is referring to. The author was just mentioning that there was a lot of older material to work from when curating the work, including earlier prints and negatives produced from the original glass plate.

Did anyone notice the dude on the far right holding what looks like an empty bottle in the shape of a fifth of booze?
posted by michswiss at 7:46 PM on September 20, 2012


Well, it looks like a pint and not a fifth, but back before there was plastic, that's what people's water bottle looked like. That or a metal canteen.
posted by Miko at 7:58 PM on September 20, 2012


Also never noticed they all have box lunches, not pack-from-home, but takeout.
posted by Miko at 7:59 PM on September 20, 2012


A friend of mine worked at a big historical photo archive. A german tv crew was visiting to do a news/documentary piece about the historical archive. During an interview with one of the head people at the archive, the tv crew asked if they could see a particularly interesting or well-known piece in the archive. The archivist brought out his favorite piece, the glass negative original of this picture. I think you can imagine what's going to happen. Archivist is talking, gesturing to the negative, talking...gesturing....whhhooooopps....and the glass neg flies out of his hand and shatters into thousands of pieces on the ground. The camera guy, with an accent that likely would have made this situation funny in a silly comedy, said something to the effect of "That is not good...."

Now, the original was in really bad shape. More recently made copy negatives made from the original were a much better source for producing copies of the image. The original was so faded and deteriorated as to be almost worthless for making this picture, I'm told. But still...
posted by msbrauer at 6:09 AM on September 21, 2012


I don't know what, if anything, is under those guys. Probably more than you think.

Manhattan?
posted by chavenet at 7:56 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


(tangential) This restaurant in Valparaiso Indiana has used that photograph as their theme and have a sculptural reproduction of it on the roof.
posted by Golem XIV at 9:12 AM on September 21, 2012


Oh god, that glass plate story...yikes.
posted by Miko at 9:24 AM on September 21, 2012


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