Where do I start with this photograph? The dapper shoes? The Gene Kelly stance? The delicate ease with which he’s holding that enormous camera? Or the fact that all of this is happening at some unthinkable height above the streets of New York? This handsome fellow is American photographer, Charles C. Ebbets, the very same Charles C. Ebbets who captured one of the most iconic images of all time, “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper” in 1932– although he wasn’t officially recognised as the photographer until 2003. For over 70 years, the famous 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”.
We’re all very familiar with “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper” by now; it has been imitated and recreated time and again by well-known artists and photographers, but I’ve been looking through Ebbets’ other less-reproduced work– picture after picture, documenting the daredevils of America’s skyline in construction– and it’s mesmerising. Captured in an era before Photoshop, I still find myself looking for clues of fakery or signs of a safety line or a net somewhere in the photographs. Of course, I find nothing.
Ebbets, pictured above, was a daredevil himself, and his biography tells of his earlier stints working as a stuntman in Hollywood, as well as an actor in the mid 1920s, playing the role of an African hunter known as “Wally Renny” in several motion pictures. He also had many other jobs including pilot, “wing-walker” (just accept that was a thing), auto racer, wrestler, and hunter. You can see photographs of Ebberts in his many other lives on a website established by his daughter, who has been archiving and restoring his vast collection of pictures.
But Charles was always a photographer. He bought his first camera when he was just 8 years-old and charged it to his mother’s account at the drugstore. By the age of 27, he was appointed the Photographic Director for the Rockefeller Center’s development. It was during this appointment, that Ebbets took his iconic “Lunch atop Skyscraper” on the 69th floor of the RCA building in the last several months of construction.
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, unless they were self-portraits, we do have several photographs of Charles himself taken that day by at least one other photographer. And who would blame them? The dapper Mr. Ebbets , pictured above and below, was ever so photogenic. 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 photograph 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 behind the machine. They billed their employer for the work. moved on and more often than not, their images were filed away, uncredited in the news archives.
To eventually prove that their father was the artist, the Ebbets family found 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. 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.
As you may know by now, I do enjoy the unexpected stories hiding behind the photographs we’ve seen a million times. Did you hear the one about the “American Girl in Italy”?