Iconic “Atop a Skyscraper” Photographs May Have Been Staged Publicity Stunts

Lunch atop a Skyscraper is one of the most recognizable photos of the 20th century. The 1932 photo shows 11 construction workers taking a lunch break on a girder 850 feet above New York City. A second photo from the same shoot shows four of the men sleeping on the beam. The images are iconic and epic, but may not be as candid as they seem.

New emerging information about the images is casting doubt on the fact that they’re simple snapshots showing ordinary workers on the job. Instead, the photos were reportedly staged as part of a promotional effort for the Rockefeller Center.

Photo licensing company Corbis acquired the glass negative of the images back in 1995. Since then the lunch photo has become the company’s most recognizable and best selling historical image, selling more copies than even Corbis’ photos of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr.

However, Corbis chief historian Ken Johnston has a bombshell revelation, which was first published by The Independent yesterday. He is quoted as saying,

The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center. It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organised with a number of photographers.

Just last month, we featured a new documentary film about photo and stated how photographer Charles C. Ebbets was discovered to be the photographer in 2003. That attribution, which was based on evidence that Ebbets had been present at the time of the photo, may no longer be valid.

The fact that a number of news agency photographers had been sent to cover the press event means that any one of them could have shot the iconic photo. Corbis’ official record now states that the photographer is unknown.

To make getting the facts of the shoot even more difficult, all efforts to identify the workers so far have been futile. [Update: It was just announced that two of the workers have been identified]

If the photographs were conclusively determined to be staged, would it cause them to lose some of their iconic status in your eyes?

(via CanonWatch)

Image credits: Photographs by Corbis

  • Kevin Miller

    It’d be disappointing if that meant that the workers didn’t really eat lunch and/or nap in such precarious conditions. But I wouldn’t care much if it was a staged version of something that was happening anyway. (I’m not sure which is the case.)

  • tonyhart

    I have these two images sitting in my office. I said JUST this (that they were staged) to my girlfriend not two weeks ago. The reason? The two photos are nearly identical in composition, but the action in the shots appears to be some time apart. If it was actually some time apart, it seems plausible that the angle of the shots would have changed more drastically. With the background framing being nearly identical it seemed to me that they must have been shot nearly back to back in a short space of time.

  • awessendorf

    I always figured they were staged and not candid. Frankly, it surprises me that everybody didn’t think this right along with me. They’re still great shots with real guys so it shouldn’t change the way anyone thinks about them.

  • Bruce AlleyCat

    That means there are several other possible prints out there since no single photographer took this shot.

  • Frank

    I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t see these as staged – it’s a bit obvious. However, if they were staged at height, that’s not so bad.

  • Sadie

    The workers have been identified now–and although the workers are obviously posing, the photos were taken at the top of the building as it appears. There’s an article at the Smithsonian site (from yesterday) that interviews the documentary film maker.

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for the link! Updated the post

  • Nobody

    I thought you were going to say they were fake or photoshopped, phew. It’s still crazy as h3ll that people actually did that with no safety harness. Who cares if it’s staged, it’s still nuts.

  • Julian Maytum

    Well said.

  • slvrscoobie

    But if they did eat lunch up there, so what if it was staged. Maybe it was a pre-arranged, but maybe the guys did just always take naps or eat up there. If they all came down in an elevator and ate on a more complete floor, then maybe that would lose some of its fame…

  • Connie

    I always suspected the pic was photoshopped.

  • Eric Parker

    of course they were staged – obvious since I first saw them
    but that doesn’t undermine their value

  • stanimir stoyanov

    Why is there so much halo around the guys?

  • Michael Zhang

    That’s how The Independent shared the photos. Not sure.

  • Jjjustinnn

    Exactly. It always felt obvious to me that they were staged but that didn’t take away any of the genuinity behind them. I never thought the photographer aimed at taking authentic photos of workers spending their lunch on a beam, but instead it was a different photo showing a different kind of people at a different perspective.
    Who cares if it was staged, it’s not Capa’s photos of Normandy!

  • Michael Dixon-Brooks

    Not surprised, but still awesome shots. I mean, who would nap like that?, roll over and it’s lights out!
    The halo type effect may be from dogding and burning in the darkroom.

  • Mudcrawler

    Most great photos of the past were staged. Come on, does anyone think the photograher just found these men sitting on the beam and shot the picture? Any photographer worth their salt sets up a photo to make it look good. Great candid photos are very rate.

  • AlexisZ

    Who cares whether they’re candid or not? They’re still incredible images!

  • John Kantor

    You think?

  • Cemal Ekin

    There are many “iconic” photographs that are staged, why should this be diminished in its stature because it might have been staged. It has managed to deliver a strong message for decades and will continue to do so

  • sofaone

    Never thought they were snapshots so no bubble burst there at all. What would shock me is if those were models and not actual iron workers. It’s gotta take some nerves even to stage those shots let alone work in that environment.

  • smolenski

    Awesome regardless.

  • pete n pete

    Still 100x better than any of the staged stuff we see today.

  • Jana Komankova

    did anyone think they were NOT staged? ORLY?

  • Brook

    I think it’s a great image, staged or not. The real bombshell is that, based on the angle of the view, the men were not on a beam that was suspended at great height above the street, but probably 15 feet at the most above the floor below.

  • terrainer

    These photos were published when the creators of Photoshop yet born)))

  • terrainer

    These pictures – a real photos with real guys, and these guys do not care anymore, who and what anyone thinks about them…

  • chris

    “If the photographs were conclusively determined to be staged, would it cause them to lose some of their iconic status in your eyes?” is a ridiculous question as the staging of things has absolutely NOTHING to do with it being iconic. Iconic is defined as “of, relating to, or of the nature of an icon,” and I would say Rockefeller and skyscrapers are indeed icons of the 20th Century.

  • chris

    and staging certainly does not diminish a photos cultural or historic significance

  • Thomas Casey

    I always assumed it was staged anyway, it looks staged. Still good though.

  • Stuart Niven

    All photos to a certain degree are staged. That is not the issue. The issue is were they staged high up a skyscraper or staged three feet off the ground? Is the photo real or fake? It is fake, look at the cable, it is loose around the pulley and is not straight. This means there is no tension on the cable, it isn’t doing anything. If it was real it would be tant. They took a photo of men on the beam just above the ground, hung a loose cable in front to make it look like it was in the air. Then they took a photo of the skyline. Both photos were on glass, so just put one photo glass in front of the other and presto! fake pic.