The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph of 11 Construction Workers Lunching 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)

Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother"...

Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Terror of War"...

Richard Drew’s "The Falling Man"...

Throughout the years, a number of iconic photographs have tapped into the collective unconscious, shaping our view of historic events, sometimes to a degree that leads to social change.

These images are not dependent on knowing the subjects’ identities, though it’s always interesting when more context leaks out, often as the result of some serious sleuthing by reporters, archivists, or other interested parties.




1932’s "Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)" is one of the lighter-hearted photos to create such a lasting public impression.

Eleven workers are depicted enjoying their break, relaxing on a girder a dizzying 840-feet above New York City, unburdened by safety harnesses or other protective gear.

In the words of Rockefeller Center archivist Christina Roussel, who narrates the TIME Magazine 100 Photos episode above, they are the “unsung heroes of construction.”

The unusual designation may lead you to rack your brains for a sung hero of construction.

Grandpa’s cog-in-the-wheel contribution to the erection of an iconic landmark can be a source of anecdotal pride for families, but it rarely leads to greater renown.

Looming over this image is John D. Rockefeller, Jr, who masterminded a 22 acre complex of 14 commercial buildings in the Art Deco style. The project was a boost to the economy during the Great Depression, employing over 250,000 people—from truckers and quarrymen to glaziers and steelworkers and hundreds of other jobs in between. It created an enormous amount of goodwill and patriotic pride.

The Rockefeller organization capitalized on this positive reception, with a steady stream of staged publicity photos, including the daring eleven sharing a nosebleed seat on what was to become the 69th floor of the RCA Building (now known as 30 Rock.)

As film critic John Anderson, reviewing the documentary Men at Lunch in The New York Times, wrote:

The popularity of the picture, which has been colorized, satirized, burlesqued with the Muppets and turned into a life-size sculpture by Sergio Furnari, is partly about the casual recklessness of its subjects: The beam on which they sit seems suspended over an urban abyss, with the vastness of Central Park spread out behind them and nothing, seemingly below. But in fact a finished floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza was probably just a few feet away.

The documentary helped confirm the identities of several of the men.

Irish immigrants Maddy O’Shaughnessy and Sonny Glynn hold down either end, as verified by their sons.

William Eckner, third from left, and Joe Curtis, third from right, were named in a similarly spirited annotated photo taken around the same time.

The man seated to Curtis' right may or may not be John Charles Cook of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

The photographer’s identity is also debatable. It’s most often credited to Charles C. Ebbets but Tom Kelley and William Leftwich were also on hand that day, leather satchels of glass plates slung across their backs, as they, too, defied gravity, documenting the completion of architect Raymond Hood’s master plan.

Related Content:

How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Photographs Documenting the Great Depression

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Photographs Documenting the Great Depression

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Philosophy of Photography with Amir Zaki on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #61

Amir Zaki teaches at UC-Riverside and has had his work displayed in numerous galleries, in his recent book California Concrete: A Landscape of Skateparks, and profiled via a short film.

Amir joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to consider this common act that can stretch from the mundane to the sublime. How have our various purposes for photography changed with the advent of digital technology, the introduction of social media, and the ready access to video? What determines what we choose to take pictures of, and how does taking photography more seriously change the way we experience? We touch on iconic and idealized images, capturing the specific vs. the universal, witnessing vs. intervening via photography, and more.

See more of Amir's work at amirzaki.net.

A few of the articles we looked at to prepare included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Follow Amir on Instagram @amir_zaki_.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts

Behold the First Underwater Portrait in the History of Photography (Circa 1899)

The image above may at first look like a plate from a Jules Verne novel, or perhaps a still from one of Georges Méliès' more fantastical moving pictures. It does indeed come from fin de siècle France, a time and place in which Verne, Méliès, and many other imaginative creators lived and worked, but it is in fact a genuine underwater photograph — or rather, a genuine underwater portrait, and the first example of such a thing in photographic history. Taken in the 1890s (most likely 1899) by biologist and photography pioneer Louis Boutan, it depicts Boutan's Romanian colleague Emil Racovitza holding up a sign that reads "Photographie Sous Marine," or "Underwater Photography."

Such an outlandish concept could hardly have crossed many minds back then, and fewer still would have dreamt up practical ways to realize it. To start with the most basic of challenges, there is, as David Byrne sung, water at the bottom of the ocean — but not a whole lot of light, especially compared to the burdensome requirements of late 19th-century cameras. This necessitated the development of what Petapixel's Laurence Bartone calls a "crazy underwater flash photography rig," one powerful enough that it "could easily double as a bomb. The creation involved an alcohol lamp on an oxygen-filled barrel. A rubber bulb would then blow a puff of magnesium powder over the flame, creating a flash."

Photography enthusiasts will understand the magnitude of Boutan's achievement (made with the help of his brother Auguste and a laboratory technician named Joseph David). Some have gone so far as to recreate it, an effort you can see in the Barcelona Underwater Festival video just above. Not only are there fish and other sea creatures swimming everywhere, a feature of the environment not visible in Boutan's original shot, but the re-enactors face the pressure of curious passersby, young and old, who walk through a nearby transparent underwater tunnel, not a consideration for Boutan and his collaborators. That groundbreaking success in underwater portraiture came 54 years after a Philadelphia chemist named Robert Cornelius first turned his camera on himself. Has photographic history recorded how long it took humanity after Boutan's famous picture to snap the first underwater selfie?

via Diane Doniol-Valcroze on Twitter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A New Interactive Map Shows All Four Million Buildings That Existed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

New Yorkers have borne witness to a noticeable uptick in the number of shiny, new buildings going up in the city over the last few years, crowding the waterfront, rising from the ashes of community gardens and older, infinitely more modest structures.

Their developers have taken care to top load them with luxury amenities—rooftop cabanas, 24-hour fitness clubs, marble countertops, screening rooms.




But one thing they can’t provide is the sense of lived history that imbues every old building with a true sense of character, mystique, and oft-grubby charm.

I fear that the occupants of these newer buildings won’t have nearly as much fun as the rest of us searching for our current addresses on the NYC Municipal Archives’ interactive map, above.

Every dot represents a Works Progress Administration photograph of a New York City building, snapped between 1939 and 1941 as a means of standardizing the way in which property values were assessed and recorded.

There are 4,282,000 dots, spread out between five boroughs.

Does that sound densely packed?

You should see it today… there's been a lot of vertical build.

This unassuming fuel oil plant near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal has given way to a 430-unit building boasting a yoga room, spin studios, and valet services for those in need of dry-cleaning, laundry, apartment cleaning, or dog walking…though sadly, no on-premises motor oil. We find that omission somewhat surprising for such a full-service residential development on the banks of a Superfund site, whose clean up is estimated to tip the scales at $500 million.

We also wonder what the occupants of the above buildings would have made of the glassy 25-story complex that opened on their coordinates earlier this year. Is it just us, or does it seem a bit disingenuous of its developers to trumpet that its location is “the epitome of New York City’s authenticity, with over a century of rich history, where the world’s sartorial and culinary trends are born”?

(You can find us a few blocks away muttering into our chopped liver at Russ and Daughters, a venerable food shop that looks much the same today as it did in 1940, though you'll have to confirm with a bit of research on your own if you don't want to take our word for it, the WPA "dot" revealing little more than a man with a stick and several moving vehicles.)

Our final stop is one of many architectural ghosts to haunt the Hudson Yards colossus, the self-described “epicenter of Manhattan’s New West Side… a beacon for creative professionals, a hub for fashion, design, communications and art.” In addition to a much reviled $200 million shawarma-shaped “3-dimensional public space” and state of the art wine fridges, amenities now include diagnostic and antibody testing “performed by top medical professionals.”

It’s telling that in the summer of 2020, prospective tenants were offered incentives including two months' free rent and a $2,000 gift card.

Proof, perhaps, that New York will continue as it always has—a city in constant flux. The prevalence of modern high rise buildings in dystopian fiction gives us pause....

Explore the Street View of 1940s New York here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ballerina Misty Copeland Recreates the Poses of Edgar Degas’ Ballet Dancers

“I am a man of motion,” tragic modernist ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky wrote in his famous Diary, “I am feeling through flesh…. I am God in a body.” Nijinsky suffered the unfortunate onset of schizophrenia after his career ended, but in his lucid moments, he writes of the greatest pain of his illness—to never dance again. A degree of his obsessive devotion seems intrinsic to ballet.

Misty Copeland, who titled her autobiography Life in Motion, thinks so. “All dancers are control freaks a bit,” she says. “We just want to be in control of ourselves and our bodies. That’s just what the ballet structure, I think, kind of puts inside of you. If I’m put in a situation where I am not really sure what’s going to happen, it can be overwhelming. I get a bit anxious.” As Nijinsky did, Copeland is also “forcing people to look at ballet through a more contemporary lens,” writes Stephen Mooallem in Harper’s Bazaar.

Copeland has been candid about her struggles on the way to becoming the first African American woman named a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, including coping with depression, a leg-injury, body-image issues, and childhood poverty. She is also “in the midst of the most illuminating pas de deux with pop culture for a classical dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov went toe-to-toe with Gregory Hines in White Nights” (a reference that may be lost on younger readers, but trust me, this was huge).




Like another modernist artist, Edgar Degas, Copeland has revolutionized the image of the ballet dancer. Degas’ ballet paintings, “which the artist began creating in the late 1860s and continued making until the years before his death, in 1917, were infused with a very modern sensibility. Instead of idealized visions of delicate creatures pirouetting onstage, he offered images of young girls congregating, practicing, laboring, dancing, training….” He showed the unglamorous life and work behind the costumed pageantry, that is.

Photographers Ken Browar and Deborah Ory envisioned Copeland as several of Degas’ dancers, posing her in couture dresses in recreations of some of his famous paintings and sculptures. The photographs are part of their NYC Dance Project, in partnership with Harper’s Bazaar. As Kottke points out, conflating the histories of Copeland and Degas’ dancers raises some questions. Degas had contempt for women, especially his Parisian subjects, who danced in a sordid world in which “sex work" between teenage dancers and older men "was a part of a ballerina’s reality,” writes author Julia Fiore (as it was too in Nijinsky’s day).

This context may unsettle our viewing, but the images also show Copeland in full control of Degas’ scenes, though that's not the way it felt, she says. “It was interesting to be on shoot and to not have the freedom to just create like in normally do with my body. Trying to re-create what Degas did was really difficult.” Instead, she embodied his figures as herself. “I see a great affinity between Degas’s dancers and Misty,” says Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “She has knocked aside a long-standing music-box stereotype of the ballerina and replaced it with a thoroughly modern, multicultural image of presence and power.”

See more of Copeland’s Degas recreations at Harper’s Bazaar.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Istanbul Captured in Beautiful Color Images from 1890: The Hagia Sophia, Topkaki Palace’s Imperial Gate & More

Even those who know nothing else about Istanbul know that it used to be called Constantinople. The official renaming happened in 1930, meaning that the photographs you see here, all of which date from around 1890, were taken, strictly speaking, not in Istanbul but Constantinople. But under any name, and despite all the other changes that have occurred over the past 130 years, the Turkish metropolis on the Bosphorus remains recognizable as the gateway between East and West it has been throughout recorded history. This is thanks in part to its oldest landmarks, above all the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum known as Hagia Sophia, pictured above.

In the 1890s Hagia Sophia was still a mosque, and as we recently posted here, it has just this year become one again. But as a historically rich structure even by the standards of such a historically rich city, it will no doubt remain Istanbul's prime tourist attraction in the 2020s, much as it must have been in the 19th century.




For those who couldn't make the trip in those days — or who could make the trip and wanted to bring home souvenirs that could convey as richly as possible what they'd seen on their travels — there were Photocrom prints. Though not technically a color photography process, Photocrom could produce fairly convincing images by applying color to black-and-white pictures.

Hence Photocrom's use in capturing vistas from the great European cities, including Rome, Venice, and Paris, all previously featured here on Open Culture. Photocrom prints, explains the Library of Congress' web site, "are ink-based images produced through 'the direct photographic transfer of an original negative onto litho and chromographic printing plates,'" a technology that allowed for the mass production of images that could then be widely distributed. Thanks to the ventures of licensees like the Detroit Publishing Company, those on the other side of the world could behold a city like Istanbul — or rather Constantinople — through what looked "deceptively like color photographs."

The subjects of these prints, all of which you can view and download at the Library of Congress' online archive, include not just Hagia Sophia but the fountain of Sultan Ahmed, Topkaki Palace's imperial gate, and the Galata Bridge (for which Leonardo da Vinci himself once submitted a design). Other pictures depict the city's street life with views of the Eminönü bazaar as well as barbers and cooks plying their trade in the open air. The colors and contrasts of the Photocrom process gives all of them a sense of reality more vivid, in a way, than reality itself — but as those who've been there know, the reality of Istanbul is vivid enough for anybody.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Thomas Jefferson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson Poses for a Presidential Portrait

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…  —Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States of America

He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it. —Shannon LaNier, co-author of Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family

Many of the American participants in photographer Drew Gardner's ongoing Descendants project agreed to temporarily alter their usual appearance to heighten the historic resemblance to their famous ancestors, adopting Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lace cap and sausage curls or Frederick Douglass’ swept back mane.

Actor and television presenter Shannon LaNier submitted to an uncomfortable, period-appropriate neckwrap, tugged into place with the help of some discreetly placed paperclips, but skipped the wig that would have brought him into closer visible alignment with an 1800 portrait of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson.




“I didn’t want to become Jefferson,” states LaNier, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Sally Hemings, was written out of the narrative for most of our country’s history.

An enslaved half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, Hemings was around sixteen when she bore Jefferson’s first child, as per the memoir of her son, Madison, from whom LaNier is also directly descended.

She has been portrayed onscreen by actors Carmen Ejogo and Thandie Newton (and Maya Rudolph in an icky Saturday Night Live skit.)

But there are no photographs or painted portraits of her, nor any surviving letters or diary entries. Just two accounts in which she is described as attractive and light-skinned, and some political cartoons that paint an unflattering picture.

The mystery of her appearance might make for an interesting composite portrait should the Smithsonian, who commissioned Gardner’s series, seek to entice all of LaNier’s female and female-identifying cousins from the Hemings line to pose.

While LaNier was aware of his connection to Jefferson from earliest childhood, his peers scoffed and his mother had to take the matter up with the principal after a teacher told him to sit down and stop lying. As he recalled in an interview:

When they didn’t believe me, it became one of those things you stop sharing because, you know, people would make fun of you and then they’d say, “Yeah, and I’m related to Abraham Lincoln.”

His family pool expanded when Jefferson’s great-great-great-great-grandson, journalist Lucian King Truscott IVwhose fifth great-grandmother was Martha Jeffersonissued an open invitation to Hemings’ descendants to be his guests at a 1999 family reunion at Monticello.

It would be another 20 years before the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Monticello tour guides stopped framing Hemings’ intimate connection to Jefferson as mere tattle.

Now visitors can find an exhibit dedicated to her life, both online and in the recently reopened house-museum.

Truscott lauded the move in an essay on Salon, published the same week that a yearbook photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in blackface posing next to a figure in KKK robes began to circulate:

Monticello is committing an act of equality by telling the story of slave life there, and by extension, slave life in America. When my cousins in the Hemings family stand up and proudly say, we are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, they are committing an act of equality…. The photograph you see here is a picture of who we are as Americans. One day, a photograph of two cousins, one black and one white, will not be seen as unusual. One day, acts of equality will outweigh acts of racism. Until that day, however, Shannon and I will keep fighting for what’s right. And one day, we will win.

Watch a video of Jefferson descendant Shannon Lanier’s session with photographer Drew Gardner here.

See more photos from Gardner’s Descendents project here.

Read historian Annette Gordon-Reed's New York Times op-ed on the complicated Hemings-Jefferson connection here.

via Petapixel

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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