Men at Lunch, the film behind the image

Bettmann Collection/Corbis

As we reported recently, the Lunch atop a skyscraper image just celebrated its 80th birthday and the iconic photograph has brought about more fame for itself with a supporting documentary film, Men at lunch.

Men at lunch is a documentary which aimed to discover who the men on the beam in the iconic skyscraper image were. The film has already gained a lot of interest of its own, with people emailing the producers of the film to say that they believed their own grandfather was one of the men on the beam, and the Youtube video has received 120,000 hits.

Photography Monthly spoke to the film’s director, Sean O’Cualain, to find out more about the movie behind the image and the man behind the camera.

Why did you decide to do the project?
“Myself and my brother were in an Irish pub, doing another documentary, and we were just taking a break when we saw the photo hanging on the wall in the corner, and beside the photo was a note from the son of a local immigrant stating that his father and his uncle in law were on the beam. By the end of the night we had a name for the guy on the far right of the picture and we had a contact for his son. We spoke to him and convinced him that this was a documentary to be told.

“It just fell into our laps and we ran with it and kept running. It just happened to be a happy accident that came about,” Sean laughed.

How long did it take you to complete and what sort of research went into it?
“It took us three years to get the finances and we didn’t get a whole lot either. Irish budgets aren’t much, so it was difficult to make it because we were making it in New York of course.

“We just set out with the intent of, these are two Irish guys, right and left in the picture, and we’ll follow their family’s claim and we wanted to prove that they were the guys on the beam. We quickly realised that there were no work records on that build. So it became apparent that we couldn’t prove these guys were the men on the beam, we could only take the family’s stories and accounts.

“Then we got some photographic evidence, which were images from the families of their fathers at that time period when the beam photo was taken. We compared them and there is a remarkable similarity between the sons and the guys on the beam, so we took that to follow the story,” said Sean.

Sean and his team then visited the Rockafella archives and cross-referenced other photographs taken that day and also found out the correct day of the photograph, which turned out to be 20 September 1932. The photo was previously thougt to have been taken on the 29 September.

“While we were there we tried to find more names as there were some names given on the back of other photographs; there were about thirty photographs taken that day during the build. There were no names at all on the back of the most famous image but there were names on others taken that day from the Rockafella archive and we could identify and compare two guys on the beam with two sleeping on a girder. One was Joe Curtis, who is the third guy on the right in the vest, and Joseph Eckner is the third on the left, the big guy with the gloves. That’s the first time any names have been attributed to the men in the photograph.

“We also found out that there were two other photographers up on the beam that day with Charles Ebbets, one was Tomas Kelley and the other was William Leftwich. Charles Ebbets was the photographic director that day but there was no proof as to who took the famous photograph as there were three photographers up there,” said Sean.


Photo courtesy of Bettmann Collection/Corbis

What do you think the overall achievement of the project has been?
“First it was to find out whether the two men in the photograph were who we thought they might be and then it turned into a bit of detective work. At the end of the day it didn’t matter who they were because it was a lot more than the men themselves; they transcend all generations and races.

“Even new immigrants coming into New York, whose ethnic groups are not represented in the photo, felt that they had something in common as the men on the beam struggled to make ends meet. They had no choice and it was the only work they could find. New generations still identify with the photograph and irrespective of who those men are on the beam people will continue to have a connection with that part of American culture and identity,” Sean explained.

What’s been the best part of it?
“Bringing the two sons to the beam was a lovely thing to witness,” said Sean, “but also the realisation that it is still so much a part of the American identity.”

What difficulties did you encounter?
“Making it. Apart from the low budget we had to have everything in order over in New York. It generally went quite smoothly though on the day-to-day basis of filming. We hope to have a New York premiere in November and another in Britain by early next year,” said Sean.

What do you personally think of the original image?
“We went to Iron Mountain, which is owned by Corbis, and we were corresponding with their historian as to whether the picture was a fake or not. Ken Johnston believed they always had the original negative but it was never proved and then and there on camera Ken says that it is. That was a highlight to see that glass negative, finding out the photo was real and the film that was shown alongside it was very exciting,” laughed Sean.

Sean has been directing documentaries for Irish television TG4 RTE since 2001 from sports to music. His future work looks at a four-part series in Gaelic football.

We also spoke with Corbis archivist Ken Johnston. Hear what he had to say about proving the original was not a fake in our next podcast.

For more information on the film you can follow the project on Twitter @menatlunchfilm

See the trailer of Sean’s film below.



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