It’s one of the most famous photographs in the world: eleven men, dusty from work, slumped with an impossible ease over their lunch while perched atop a sky-high steel girder. “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” the iconic photo from the construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York City, was taken on September 20, 1932, 80 years ago today, and while the most valuable photo among the millions held by photo service Corbis, it’s one that long been shrouded in mystery.
Who are those men? Where did they come from? Who took that photo? Is that seriously where they took their lunch breaks, because that’s just insane?! These are the questions, which have for decades been unknown, that the documentary Men at Lunch aims to answer.
For filmmaker Seán Ó Cualáin, the story started in a pub in Ireland. While working on another documentary he and the crew stopped into Whelan’s pub for a pint. On the wall alongside the photo hung a note claiming that two of the men were from that small village of Shanaglish, who’d headed to America in the 1920s, like so many young Irishmen. Ó Cualáin decided to find verify that assertion, tracking down Pat Glynn, 75 and Patrick O’Shaughnessy, 77, who claimed to be their sons. Quickly, he realized that proving the veracity of their story was impossible.
“After about a month into the research, I realized you could never really claim those two men were there because you can’t extract the DNA from the picture, and there’s no documentation in the Rockefeller archive that put those guys on the beam,” says Ó Cualáin.
That caused the story to pivot from a detective story rooting out the identities of the men with the Irish connection–though it certainly does explore the identities of the workers–to the enduring fascination people have with that photo and the moment in time it represents.
Through one picture, Men at Lunch tells the story of early 20th century immigration in America; of how modern-day New York emerged in the throes of the Great Depression; of the fundamental importance of iron workers, both then and now, particularly as the descendants of the early Irish iron workers rebuild the World Trade Center; and how one simple snapshot has captured the imaginations of people the world over.
Men at Lunch recently had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will premiere in New York this November.