An Iconic Image: 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper'

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that you've seen this image from 1932 of construction workers sitting on an iron beam, called "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper." I'd also wager that you hadn't thought much about the photographers that took the image.

In this video published by Time magazine in their series "100 Photos," which explores some of the world's most iconic images, we get to go behind the scenes and see what it was like to be an ironworker up on a skyscraper in New York in the 1930s and get a glimpse of what it was like to be a photographer alongside them. And the short version is this: these photographers had a lot more courage than you or me.

Their attitude, their casualness, the indifference to the risk that they're taking is what separates the photograph. You see the picture once, you never forget it.

Irishmen, Native Americans, and other immigrants from all over the world worked together as ironworkers to build up New York — literally — and the photographers that created images of them had to be right up there as well. No ropes, no safety nets, no climbing harnesses, no hard hats. Just giant, heavy, cumbersome cameras held by photographers with bags of glass plates strapped to their backs and nerves of steel. Can you imagine changing plates while balancing on an iron beam 800 feet above Manhattan with nothing to make sure you didn't slip and fall?

Sometimes, it's good to think back on how far our industry (and our safety) have come.

Click here for a more detailed look at the image.

Log in or register to post comments

17 Comments

Heiko Knoll's picture

The narrator´s voice is very good. I think in many cases the commentaries on spectacular imagery / a story is overhyped, distracting the viewer from the scene.

I used to work in refineries and this include going up on some tall towers carrying a pouch full of tools. But we had safety harnesses and tie-off points and were never really at risk of falling. I don't know how those guys did it. It terrifies me just imagining it.

Laz Toth's picture

Who would like to play "Spot the grammatical error!"? First question: what's wrong with this sentence?

"Irishmen, Native Americans, and other immigrants from all over the world worked together as ironworkers to build up New York"

Native Americans are not immigrants. Not sure that's a grammatical error or just an inaccurate statement.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Ugh, you are totally right. This was a quick 'repost' article and I didn't even catch that. Obviously Native Americans are not immigrants, they are victims of colonization. I was just listing some ethnic groups that the video stated worked on such projects. "Native Americans as well as immigrants from Ireland and other places around the world..." would have been a better structure.

I choked on my beer when I read that sentence. And Monday is Columbu... er, Indigenous Peoples' Day, too.

Kyle Medina's picture

This Times Series is amazing. I've watched all of them!

Geoff Thompson's picture

Just plain scary!

I'm glad we have drones for aerial shots like this now! lol

Geoff Thompson's picture

Yes but that wouldn't help the sitters. They talk about people being killed doing selfies. This was almost mass suicide.

True. Its sad to see what people will do for a like so social media.

Patrick Hall's picture

I've always wondered if these photos were as dangerous as they would suggest. Is there any chance the beams are actually hoisted 10-40 feet above a ledge on the building? The idea of these people hanging out over 1000' of nothing has never sat well with me.

Geoff Thompson's picture

Patrick I have often thought they were fake but I look at the work of Darius Kinsey from a similar era who did amazing photography in the logging camps of America and he had people in equally precarious positions on bridges etc.I think he himself was injured or seriously hurt in a fall from his tripod.And you look at the movies of old and the stunts they did hanging out of buildings and also on wings of aeroplanes. A different era.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

And note how the photographers were impeccably dressed! They dressed the same as if they were covering the grand opening of the building. This is just insane. She's right, those dudes must have had a death wish.

Storytelling over quality. A lovely photo

Spy Black's picture

I had once read this image was staged. Could be, but I don't think it would really make much of a difference, as we all know how these men worked every day. Interesting how you see an open bottle of hooch, and wonder how many of these guys were fairly sloshed on the job, yet somehow miraculously survived.

Martin Kull's picture

In a portrait session I did with blue collar workers at a Stockholm hospital the idea was to "give credit to a group that basically goes unaccredited" and I shot individual portraits of them. The idea of the final group portrait - to replicate lunch atop a skyscraper - actually came from one of them. The hospital is located on the heights of the south part of Stockholm with great views over the city. The group got dressed, brought props and we climbed to the rooftop of one of the hospital buildings where we shot this picture. It is now printed 4x2.5m as a wallpaper in their lunch room.