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September 16, 2014
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Documentary photograph courtesy of Sónta Films.

A sudden wind blows into his eye, and he blinks out sandy dirt from his gaze after a day wandering the streets looking for work. Like many other fathers, he returns home empty. Today, a dark shadow is cast at the door of his home and he recognises the movement of his young children, sitting atop their piled possessions and playing with the giant padlock on their door. 

He was luckier yesterday when his family wasn't homeless. The year is 1932, and the dishevelled and disowned city playing home is none other than the Big Apple. After the banking crisis, unemployment is past 20 per cent and still continuing to climb like a child's upward gaze at the last loaves of bread in the window display. Also high up in view are two new buildings, ironically magnificent in New York's skyline: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, open to the public as the world's tallest building in the middle of the Depression. 

Not too far away, the Rockefeller Centre is being built and iron beams dangle at dizzying heights. This seemingly inconsequential New York moment has since become an iconic symbol of all that the decade stood for thanks to a single photograph of eleven iron workers taking lunch on the beam of the GE Building, best known as Lunch Atop a Skyscraper.

Men at Lunch film poster

Documentary promotional poster courtesy of Sónta Films.

The year 2012 marks the 80th anniversary of this photograph - an occasion for the Toronto International Film Festival screening of Men at Lunch, a new documentary film directed by Irish-born Seán Ó Cualáin about two of the men pictured in the iconic photograph and the forthcoming biography of Charles C. Ebbets, the bona fide photographer, written by his daughter Tami Ebbets Hahn and writer/director Matthew Miele. This famous black-and-white photograph, which is part of the canon of iconic American photography of the 20th century, is now a common stock image. But so little is known about the men in the picture and the man behind the lens, who was often mistaken for being Lewis Hine. Ó Cualáin and Ebbets Hahn shed light on an image clouded with mystery.

"My father was a true adventurer: he took aerial photographer [sic] and was a pilot, a wing-walker, travelled the world on assignment, and was a great outdoorsman who did extensive wildlife shots, especially in South Florida where he lived and pioneered the first Associated Press for that region. When he passed away in 1978, he had a 50-plus-year career as a professional photographer," says Ebbets Hahn. Charles Ebbets, a self-taught photographer who started in the newsrooms of Alabama and Florida worked his way up the national presses by travelling for freelance work. In the early 1930s when the economy tanked, Ebbets met Hamilton Wright, who hired Ebbets at his publicity firm for his daredevil reputation for getting the shots that nobody else was capturing. 

"The Rockefeller Centre contacted Hamilton Wright because they needed someone to really generate some interest in this new building that was being completed. At this point it was post-Depression and the fall of 1932 and everyone was really hesitant to take on new business centres," explains Ebbets Hahn. "The ad agency figured out some things that could create some excitement and my dad took a whole series of pictures - one of the construction men laying down on the beam, taking a nap on the girder, there's one of them hitting golf balls, another of a man listening to the radio with his hands folded behind his head, sitting on the beam." Ebbets was twenty-seven at the time he took Lunch Atop a Skyscraper and the Rockefeller series, but was only contracted for fall and winter of 1932 to shoot the construction process. Published in the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932, the photo was a hit. After that, Ebbets was on his way to Egypt where his next assignment awaited him. 

Young and ambitious, this wanderlust photographer was also without storage, which proved complicated for identifying the images in the future. "In those days the negatives were made about 4"6 and made of glass. He had no place to store them, had no permanent home, had no office, no place to keep them. So some of the negatives were left in the Rockefeller archives and the newspaper offices for making prints," says Ebbets Hahn. Also, according to Ebbets Hahn, it wasn't standard procedure for press photographers to receive individual credit for their images until the '70s and 80s - instead, the press affiliation sufficed.

My mother was a pack rat and kept all my dad's photographs in boxes, and there on the fourth page of an old, massive leather-bound scrapbook of his earliest work was the newspaper clipping with the headline and the date still on it, as well as my father's Associated Press card.

Somehow, the negatives of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper were acquired by German physician Otto Bettmann, a picture cataloguer who arrived in New York in the mid-1930s during the rise of both photojournalism and Nazi Germany. Eventually, the Bettmann collection would be a trove of 20th century historical photographs. Then when Bill Gates bought Corbis, a large stock photography company, he went around the world and bought up many old newspaper collections, including ones from UPI, AP and the Bettmann collection. "The negative for Lunch Atop a Skyscraper was an immediate standout from the Bettmann collection, and Corbis sold this image in 1996 as the most widely distributed stock photograph in the world. But they never knew who had taken it," says Ebbets Hahn.

Through a series of events that Ebbets Hahn details in her biography, the family confirms to Corbis that Charles C. Ebbets is the photographer behind Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. "My mother was a pack rat and kept all my dad's photographs in boxes, and there on the fourth page of an old, massive leather-bound scrapbook of his earliest work was the newspaper clipping with the headline and the date still on it, as well as my father's Associated Press card," recalls Ebbets Hahn. "We knew in the later years that he always took self-portraits whenever he was doing an unusual assignment, and at the bottom of a box - I can't believe it's not broken - was the old glass negative of him up on the beam." The working title for the biography is The Photographer, and is set to be published as an e-book at the end of 2012, followed by a print edition stated to be available in spring 2013. 

Charles C. Ebbets was a photographer on a mission that "never looked back on his work, but was always looking for the next thing," as his daughter describes. Yet his involvement and impression of New York during the Depression was as temporary as the contract he took up with Hamilton Wright at the Rockefeller Centre. Nonetheless, Ó Cualáin, director of Men at Lunch, became familiar with the grid and grind of New York in the Depression era through the eyes of two Irish-American immigrant families, Glynn and O'Shaughnessy. 

By 1932, the shores of New York City were a swelling tide of immigrants fleeing an imminent war, famine in the countryside and bringing with them families, languages, skills and hope of a brighter future in America. "When the Irish came to New York, one thing they knew better than anyone else is how to survive," says  Ó Cualáin. "They were coming from their language and land which were all taken from them, so they were an oppressed people from the moment that they arrived. Now, they experienced a freedom in New York that they never had, but that freedom doesn't feed your family, though it's a start. The Irish took whatever work they could find, and that's what Sonny Glynn and Matthew O'Shaughnessy did working on the beams."

Sonny Glynn

Sonny Glynn.

Photo courtesy of Sónta Films.

Sonny Glynn was identified as the man in the photograph sitting on the far right of the beam holding a bottle, and Matthew (Matty) O'Shaughnessy, his brother-in-law, on the far left. In 2006, Ó Cualáin came upon this "happy accident" discovery when having lunch at a pub. The photograph was signed by these two men, leading to a conversation with the pub owner that provided contacts for the two families in Boston, where Ó Cualáin and his production team started research for the documentary in December 2010 and filmed in the summer of 2011. 

Men at Lunch details the stories of these two families by speaking with Glynn and O'Shaughnessy's sons. Ó Cualáin insists that the down-and-out, hard-lucked face of these iron workers aren't all it seems. "Sonny and Matty took work in construction because the skyscraper in New York was the biggest gig in town. They went to work [at the Rockefeller Centre] in the early 1920s, then the bottom fell out, the crash happened and ironically, they've become the lucky ones. Yeah, they did have it tough - you look at their faces and you can see a tough life and physical hardship - but those guys had a job," says  Ó Cualáin. "They were paid $10/day whether they lived or died - $10 to feed their families." Not unaware to the social plight of the Depression on the city's inhabitants, photographic campaigns were favoured during President Roosevelt's term to instil a sense of stability and calm in the storm. Specifically, campaigns such as Farm Security Administration (FSA) documented the lives of people who were resettled onto farms because there was no work in the city. 

Mattie O'Shaughnessy

Mattie O'Shaughnessy

Photo courtesy of Sónta Films.

During this time, the Photo League banded, stirred by the belief that photography counted as a valuable social document of modern American life, which is where images sponsored by the Farm Security Administration of the shining city, determined workhorse and honest farmer fill our consciences, such as Dorothea Lange in Migrant Mother, Bernice Abbott and her documentary project, Changing New York and Lewis Hine in Powerhouse Mechanic, among others. In hindsight of this crag in American photojournalism, it would have been easy to have mistaken Lunch Atop a Skyscraper as part of this photojournalistic propaganda movement and the eleven men as just another hard-pressed immigrant worker. 

"The Empire State Building photos are taken by Lewis Hine, and he put a lot of emphasis on using the camera as a documentary tool. And instead of taking photos typical of the one who financed it, he captures the worker who was physically building it up in the sky. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper comes from the same gene pool of photography, and Rockefeller PR wanted to sell business with it," remarks Ó Cualáin. "But you have to also think about in the 1930s, how iron workers had a very special place for New Yorkers. These are men and women who were working on the bread line. They were at the depth of the Depression, and at the same time the people who owned the building had to portray a certain sense that things will be okay. And in the right hands, the photograph does say that: we'll get out of it." 

Ó Cualáin argues that although his film stories two Irish-American experiences, the film is not exclusively about the Irish immigrant in New York. "New York is a great gathering of immigrants and it keeps changing with every generation - it may not be the Irish now; they come from different countries and they are offering their skills that continues to build up this city, and the city feeds and shelters them. And other immigrants will come, and I know that photograph will still be the heart of New York's character - the immigrants who come and build up New York." In some ways, the timelessness of this image is as vast as the reach of a common stock photo. 


Men at Lunch will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th.


 

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