Men at Lunch – Ireland — Seán Ó Cualáin

I can’t imagine there are many of you who have not seen this photograph. Eleven men eating lunch on a steel girder 800 feet above Manhattan. It is one of the most iconic photos ever taken and one of my favourites. These eleven men were high steel workers near the top of the Rockefeller Center (30 Rock) in 1932 at the height (so to speak) of the depression. The intriguing aspect of the photo is that no one knows who took it or who the men are although many claim to be related. This puzzle attracted the Irish director who wanted to learn who they were and how the photo came to be. The result is a fascinating film about the history of New York during the depression, the extreme danger of the work these men did and the history of immigration to America. This is a very Irish film from the director to the Gaelic speaking historians who needed sub-titles, to the contemporary Irish photographer who is taking photos of the high steel workers currently building the replacements for the twin towers, to at least two of the men in the photo who come from the little village of Shanaglish in County Galway in Ireland. In the course of the research he is able to prove that the men at the far left and right of the picture are in fact from this little village but the others remain a mystery although they are representative of the great European immigrations that make New York what it is today.

He is also able to debunk the theory that the photo is faked, with a chance to see the now shattered glass plate negative from which the prints have been taken clearly not photoshopped like they could even do that then. There are also many other similar shots of both workers and photographers standing untethered on six inch beams 800 to 1200 feet about the ground. Many men died doing this work although it paid well and at the time roughly one third of New Yorkers were out of work due to the depression so they felt lucky to be making upwards of $10 a day for their efforts. The unofficial motto of the union was: We don’t die, we are killed.

A fascinating film and if you have any curiosity about this photograph at all you will do well to track this down and spend 90 minutes completely engrossed. I promise.

Men at Lunch

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