The gritty beauty of the time of the original melting pot and the mysterious origins of the most famous photo in the world.
You all know the picture. At least you know it if you have ever set foot in New York. It is the one with the eleven construction workers sitting on the steel beam having lunch high above Manhattan. The title is “lunch Atop a Skyscraper” and it was shot at about the 69th floor of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in September 20, 1932. That much we know.
However, that is where the fun starts, at least for filmmaker Seán Ó Cualáin. Because the identities of the photographer and those of the subjects have been lost in a fog of obscurity and false claims. The film examines the times and culture of New York City in the early 1900s and it probes into the mystery of the most famous photo in the history of New York.
These is little doubt the photo is real. The original glass negative has been part of the Corbis Collection since it was purchased, directly or indirectly, from United Press International in 1995.
Of the 20,000 images in the collection, this is number one, accounting for the sale of more publishing rights than images of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King. Therefore, the picture is awe inspiring on two levels, the first being its spectacular capturing of the greatest melting pot in the world, New York in the 1920’s and the second its complete obscurity, lost in an ocean of newspaper and magazine photographs that was expanding exponentially as photographic chemistry and equipment improved.
One of the best parts of the film is the entry into the roughhewn granite chambers of Pennsylvania’s Iron Mountain secure storage site. Here, the precious glass negative is extracted from its vault, pieced together and viewed along with the commentary from the archival historian.
Yes, pieced together. The glass negative was broken in 1996, shortly after it was purchased. The person who broke the negative also remains anonymous, but, presumably, no longer remained employed after the unfortunate mishandling. In any event, the negative looks bona fide. It has the correct frame marks, no clip marks that would indicate a copy or lab product and the subject are unmistakable.
Some of the remaining controversy seems to revolve around the allegation that the picture was staged, as opposed to spontaneous. The film backs no dog in that fight. However, it does wade, neck deep, into the mystery of the identities of the photographer and the subjects.
In 2001, the family of 1920’s photographer Charles C. Ebbets claimed he was the famous photog and supplied sufficient evidence to have the image credited to him by the holders of the Holy Grain, the Corbin curators.
Shortly after that two photographs were identified of other photographers on the site, high is the steel, on the same day as the day of the famous image. At that point, the identity of the photographer was once again thrown into dispute, where it remains to this day.
As for the identities of the subjects, the film does a great job into looking at the backgrounds of the men and claims to positively identify two of them.
The two men identified were from the farming country of Shanaglish and the film makers take us the incredibly quaint town and the perfectly Irish pub where we have a glass of Guinness with the locals and discuss their conviction that two of the men are, indeed, their native sons. Based on photos of the young men in their earlier years, they could very well be right.
Although the film does not take a stance on the issue, plenty of time is allowed for the family and townsfolk to make their case. This might have to do with the fact that the film was made in Ireland and financed by the country’s film board, but agreement to the contrary would appear to be futile. In fact, such argue could be downright dangerous in that particular pub in Shanaglish.
The fact is, the men did not go to work to make a photograph. They went to work because they had to make a living and there was no other work. In the 1920’s 50% of the steel manufactured in the USA went to buildings in New York.
Of the men who erected this steel, one was killed, and one was maimed, for every ten floors built. This added up to about 4% of the workforce killed or maimed every year. The saying was, “Steelworkers don’t die, we are killed.”
People and images, real or fake. You be the judge. However, there is no question about the no-nonsense heroism of the men and women who built New York.
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Directed by: Seán Ó Cualáin
Release Date: Screened at DOC NYC 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 70 minutes