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Charles C. Ebbets and His Famous 'Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper' Photo

Below is one of the most iconic images of all time, “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper.” It was taken by Charles C. Ebbets in 1932 – although he wasn’t officially recognised as the photographer until 2003. For over 70 years, the iconic image taken during the construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York, along with many of his other skyscraper photographs, had been mis-credited by the Bettman archives as “photographer unknown”.

The photo initially appeared in the New York Herald Tribune shortly after it was taken, but it didn’t achieve its iconic status until much later. Back then, photographers weren’t considered artists, they were just the operators of a machine. They billed their employer for the work and moved on. More often than not, the images they took were filed away, uncredited in the archives.

So why did it take so long for him to be credited for it? It has been claimed that multiple photographers collaborated on the shoot, which is likely true because, we do see several photographs of Charles himself taken that day by at least one other photographer. However, ever since “Lunch atop Skyscraper” was ‘rediscovered’ in the last two decades and began to circulate worldwide, no other photographer nor any photographer’s estate has ever claimed authorship of it.

The children of Ebbets eventually prove that their father was the artist by presenting original invoices billing for his work done at the Rockefeller Centre, copies of the newspaper article found in his personal scrapbook and his original glass negatives that day on the beam adjacent to the 11 workmen (photo below). They are now stored in a refrigerated cave in western Pennsylvania, encased in cool limestone bedrock to prevent it from rotting and decaying any further.

This is Charles C. Ebbets with his dapper shoes and his Gene Kelly stance. Notice the delicate ease with which he’s holding that enormous camera... all of this is happening at some unthinkable height above the streets of New York.

Ebbets was a true-blood daredevil. His biography tells of his earlier stints working as a stuntman in Hollywood, as well as an actor in the mid 1920s. He also had many other jobs including pilot, “wing-walker”, auto racer, wrestler, and hunter. You can see more photos of Ebbets on this website established by his daughter, who has been archiving and restoring his photographic works.

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