An iconic photograph taken in September 1932, 69 floors above 41st street of Manhattan, has fascinated viewers in all the years since it came into light, for its sense of cool, even daredevil self-possession, as eleven steel workers nonchalantly sit down to lunch on a girder.
The shot was taken during the construction of the Rockefeller Centre -30 Rock- and has come to be seen as an unwitting tribute to the New York construction worker of the era. It was first seen by the general public in the New York Herald Tribune, with the accompanying caption, "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper."
These steel-workers earned approximately ten dollars a week, high in the forest of scaffolding above the city, as New York spread itself upwards. And they considered it nice work when they could get it - if the man from Mayo or Galway or Sicily or Bavaria didn't show up for work, there were plenty of men down in the streets ready to take his place.
The bosses of such building projects had allowed that one in every ten on average would lose their lives, but many were disabled after accidents. “We don’t die, we get killed,” ran the workers' grim mantra.
Ghostly, silent images shown once again in Men at Lunch (Lón sa Spéir) show such men at work, as they labour away like bees in a hive. Other photographers, besides the unknown snapper of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper scaled the heights to take a host of further dramatic images which are shown in this fascinating new film. A young, lanky photographer in spats stands on a four-inch wide beam, photographing workers standing on the newly-forged skeletal structures. The city yawns away beneath.
Moving picture footage shows workmen standing and talking to each other on girders. A foreman or a gaffer waves his hands, explaining something, as though he were warding off danger. You may break into a slight sweat watching the men's cool demeanour, seemingly oblivious to the peril. They stand or sit above the great maw of the empty air, the newly-encroaching skyscrapers and the shadowy canyons in between.
The city was growing, there was a need for more living and working space. These immigrants were tough, one assumes, their demeanour is purposeful, cool. They don't look like guys who might lose their nerve, although no doubt some did - they did not live to tell the tale.
Those with nerve, on the other hand, be they German, Italian or Irish were earning money, and raising families in Depression-era New York. Their anxious passage into the country through Ellis Island was relatively recent, they were glad to get the work.
In the course of 68 minutes, Men at Lunch explores the scant facts known about the men taking out their midday repasts. The man on the far right holds an empty bottle and he looks at the camera with a kind of fool-hardy defensiveness. Meanwhile, his mates seem to be chatting easily to each other.
At the other end, the man on the far left lights his cigarette from the match proffered by the fellow beside him. In the course of film, we meet two men, both first cousins, who insist that these two long-deceased workers are their fathers, sitting at either end of the beam. Mattie O'Shaughnessy is believed to be the name of the man on the far right, and Sonny Glynn, the name of the man on the extreme left.
These men came from Rathaspaig, County Galway, and emigrated to New York in the 1920s. There are no official papers to prove definitively who they are, but after watching this film, you are swayed into believing that the sons are right, that these two men are indeed their fathers.
The film also features Dublin photographer Joe Woolhead who has spent the past few years photographing iron workers who are helping to rebuild the One World Trade Center at the former Twin Towers site. Woolhead talks perceptively about the photograph and the harsh realities of that time in Depression-era New York. The image clearly obsesses Woolhead. He has been trying to get a shot of similar dramatic moment, while admitting that it's a difficult task. We see a few of his colour shots in the movie, but he knows he has yet to capture an image that would impress as much as Lunch Atop A Skyscraper has done. Joe's striving for this objective makes for an interesting coda to this fine film.
Men at Lunch – Lón sa Spéir is funded by TG4, the Irish Film Board, and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The film opens tomorrow at Irish Film Institute, Dublin, Movies @ Swords, Dublin, Movies @ Dundrum, Dublin, Omniplex, Screen Cinema, Dublin, Omniplex Wexford, Omniplex Galway, MovieWorld, Gorey, Co. Wexford, MovieWorld, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. February 1 to 7.