Conceivably one of the most copied, iconic depression era images, as well as one of the single most popular stock photo images in the Corbis “Bettman collection” (Parente 2003), “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” neither brought fame nor fortune to the photographer that captured that moment in time that still brings an uneasy sense of acrophobic fear to it’s viewers. Charles Clyde Ebbets, born August 18th, 1905 in Alabama, never knew the popularity that this emblematic representation of the daredevil American steel worker, in the midst of the skyscraper-building boom of depression era New York, would eventually attain.
“Lunch atop a Skyscraper” as it has now become known, was originally created in 1932 as part of the “Rockefeller Center” building documentation that Ebbets was hired to conduct. Ebbets who seasonally traveled the east coast working on photographic assignments during the early 1930’s had gained a reputation among editors, as somewhat of a daredevil photographer, as well as someone that had the ability to get pictures that no one else was able to (Stinnett 2010). He was aptly retained by Hamilton Wright Features Syndicate as the photographic editor in charge of documenting the construction of the Rockefeller Center construction site, both for archival and publicity purposes. The original image was first published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1932, followed by an article the next day documenting the daredevil photographer’s exploits in capturing the image; devoid the use of any safety devices at over 800 feet above the streets of New York.
Countless Ebbets images have been published world wide, but as was often the case, once the image had been used they were seldom seen again and forgotten. Such was the case with “Lunch atop a Skyscraper”. After it’s initial publication, Ebbets’ most famous image was stored and eventually acquired by the “Bettman Collection” which then was acquired by the Corbis Stock Photo Agency. “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” became Corbis’ highest selling stock image ever, yet the photographer was listed as “unknown”. It wasn’t until Corbis decided to create a coffee table book utilizing “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” as the cover image, that a search was conducted to find the original photographer. In 2003, the family of Charles Clyde Ebbets came forward with conclusive proof that he, in fact was that daring photographer that immortalized 11 fearless men on the skeleton of the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Center.
“Lunch atop a Skyscraper” has often been confused with the work that Lewis Hine had done on the Empire State building, but unlike Hine, Ebbets work leans towards a more, “publicity” oriented nature. The men are portrayed in extremely dangerous situations that are further emphasized by the juxtaposition of the elements to their dangerous surroundings. The “danger element” however appears intentionally, almost absurdly, minimalized in the attitude of the subjects. It becomes clear with review of other...