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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life." ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Friday, August 24, 2012

Photographer Profile ~ Charles C. Ebbets

Ebbets was born in August 18, 1905 in Gadsden, Alabama. He bought his first camera at the age of eight by charging it to his mother's account at a local drugstore.

Ebbets started his career during the 1920s in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a still photographer. He eventually became involved in early motion picture work, both in front of and behind the camera. In 1924, he had a brief stint as an actor, playing the role of an adventuresome African hunter known as "Wally Renny" in several motion pictures. In addition to his photographic endeavors, throughout the 20s he had many adventurous jobs including being a pilot, a wing-walker, an auto racer, a wrestler, and a hunter. He was also prizefighter Jack Dempsey's official staff photographer, a staff photographer for the Miami Daily News and a freelance photographer

Ebbets' two most famous photos were taken during the construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York in 1932. Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper depicts eleven men sitting on a girder eating lunch, their feet dangling from the beams hundreds of feet above the New York streets below was snapped on September 29, 1932, and appeared in the New York Herald Tribune shortly after. The photo was taken on the 69th floor in the last several months of construction. Men Asleep on a Girder is a picture of the same workers lying down on the beam taking a nap. Not until 2003 was Charles C. Ebbets officially recognized by the Bettman Archive as the photographer of Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper and dozens of other famous Bettman Archive photos which had previously been mis-marked or were marked as "photographer unknown"

His photographs were featured in the Miami Daily News, The New York Times, National Geographic, Outdoors Unlimited, Field & Stream, Popular Boating, U.S. Camera, Outdoor Life, Look Magazine, Popular Photography (the June 1938 issue featured a full spread about Ebbets and his work), and many others.

Portrait of Charles C. Ebbets atop a skyscraper in NYC

The photo, "Lunch atop a Skyscraper," shows 11 construction workers calmly eating lunch, while sitting next to each other on a long steel girder, framed by the city far below them. It is, in many ways, a scary image made scarier by the lack of any sort of safety gear.

The photo was taken by Charles C. Ebbets on September 29, 1932 from the 69th floor, during the construction of GE building at Rockefeller Center, and the workers seem remarkably at ease despite the dizzying height.
Their ease is what makes this such an amazing photo, especially since several men fell to their deaths in the course of building Rockefeller Center. 

Ebbetts hauled around a heavy 5-x 7 glass plate camera, and a large case filled with fragile glass photographic plates and holders. This gear must have been extremely dangerous to use in the winds that often roar though a skyscraper frame at that great height.  

 Comedy duo Laurel and Hardy's homage to Charles C. Ebbets?

 Charles C. Ebbets at work with assistant

Charles C. Ebbets with his trusty camera hanging out over NYC
Charles C. Ebbets looking stylish on the job high above NYC

Portrait of Ebbets by Thomas Kelley 

 Charles C. Ebbets iconic image has inspired many ad campaigns. 

The cast of CSI New York 

The cast of Friends

Charles C. Ebbets: The Untold Story of an icon of 


Charles C. Ebbets's 1932 photograph "Lunch atop a Skyscraper," taken of 11 men balanced on a girder during the construction of New York's RCA building, is instantly recognizable. What is less well known is that three of the men pictured are Native Americans of the Mohawk tribe. Jerry McDonald Thundercloud and Sky Fox know the history intimately, as their fathers and grandfathers took on the dangerous work building the outlines of Manhattan's iconic skyline when few other jobs were available to them. Traveling six hours from their home on the Akwesasne Reservation and staying away for weeks at a time, these men continue the proud tradition of Mohawk ironworkers as they struggle to preserve more deeply rooted traditions. Filmmaker Katja Esson spends time with these men and their families as they try to reconcile their lifestyle with their responsibilities to their families, to their ancestors, and to themselves.


  1. I am only 13 but I have seen" Lunch atop a Skyscraper" many times and it really inspired me to pursue photography. Inspired

    1. That is fantastic! I wish you much success in the wonderful field of photography!


  2. I am 15 years old, and have been interested in photography for a long time now. I have a digital SLR camera, but can only take mediocre photos because I'm never daring to take my camera and go explore. I'm taking a photography course in school, and we're supposed to research a few famous photographers. I've come across 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper' because it was my late-father's favorite photograph. Then I read more and more about Charles C. Ebbets; and his pictures have inspired me to be more daring, and to approach strangers just to get the perfect photo. Thank you so much for this whole piece :)

  3. Hey Catie,
    I'm so happy that this post inspired you to be more daring. Be fearless when following your creative voice. Keep shooting and never stop!


  4. Just be careful.....you don't have to "go to the top of the world" to FEEL like your "on top of the world" :-)