Protecting an iconic image

September 20, 2012

In conversation with Corbis Images’ Ken Johnston

Courtesy of Corbis images

It’s 80 years since this iconic image was taken during the construction of New York’s Rockefeller Center at the height of the Great Depression.

Below, Historical Director of Photography at Corbis Images Ken Johnston answers questions about the photograph.

When/how did you come across the photo? What state was it in?

It comes from the Acme Newspictures archive which Corbis acquired in 1995 as part of the Bettmann Archive. The negative is glass and at some point long ago was broken into 5 pieces. These things are delicate and breaks happen.

The old Bettmann darkroom workers never much cared for printing from this negative as it required a lot of manipulation to get the image onto paper, dodging and burning and such. Prior to its being broken they had made a number of high-quality prints of the image from which copy negatives were made, to make printing it easier. So there were lots of good copies around to work with.

How did you track down who took the photos?

The Men on the Beam image was uncredited when Corbis acquired it. It was not the norm for news companies to credit photographers until well into the 1950s. Around 2001 or so we began crediting the image to Charles Ebbets based on evidence presented by his family. However, it has recently come to light that there were in fact many photographers on the building that day and we cannot be certain who shot it. So as of now, the image is again without a credit. It now seems likely that Acme in fact had its own staff photographer up there. It’s interesting to note that we also have a “sister” image to this one that depicts 4 of the men pretending to be asleep on the same beam. It comes from the International News Photo archive, a competing agency with Acme. It would seem likely that they too had their own photographer up there.

What measures did you take to preserve and reproduce the photo?

The original negative is now stored in our temperature and humidity controlled preservation facility in Pennsylvania. When we received the image it was stored in an acidic Manila paper envelope which we replaced with an archival sleeve in a special box. The image has been scanned to a high resolution, but our goal is to preserve the original object, the negative, as well – despite it being broken.

What is the significance of the image 80 years on?

I think a number of things make it perennially popular. There’s the incongruity between the action – lunch – and the place – 800 feet in the air – and that these guys are so casual about it. It’s visceral: I’ve had people tell me they have trouble looking at it out of fear of heights. And these men – you feel you get a very strong sense of their characters through their expressions, clothes and poses. They are very much of their time – Jimmy Cagney could play a screen version of any of them. There’s also something about the values and contradictions of the American ‘30s in the image, that these are workers during the Great Depression, that they are building, not stopping.


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So much more than just nostalgia. As a fiddling fotographer and old winter darkroom guy, using hypo and stop bath and getting my fingers wet in developer solution that I mixed myself, this photo succinctly describes a period in human development.

Posted by FrankPrime | Report as abusive

These guys were cool before that use of the word existed.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

These were some tough guys. Not many around like them today. They remind me of my uncle, a man of those times, born in 1897.

Posted by rts18202 | Report as abusive

I’m getting vertigo just by looking at the second picture…

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive

Are they actually sleeping on that girder? My heart skipped a beat just thinking about it.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive


Stories and interviews released on the 80th anniversary of Charles C. Ebbets’, photograph of men eating lunch during the construction of the Rockefeller Center on September 20, 1932 are not based upon any new facts and are entirely misleading. All of the information in the possession of Corbis’ employee, Ken Johnston were not provided to news medias and he did not advise them all reasons behind his earlier “professional” opinion as a photo historian that the evidence of the Ebbets family, which included receipts for payment, photographic negatives, letters, and corresponding newspaper photographs, all of which were reviewed in the light of his “body of work,” conclusively established Charles C. Ebbets as the person who took the famous photo.

In the above article, he refers to evidence “presented by the family” in 2001 that led to him crediting Ebbets. It was Johnston who asked to come to the home of Ebbets’ daughter, in order to review all of the documentation that supported Ebbets taking the picture. At that time, Johnston reviewed other photos taken during Ebbets’ work at Rockefeller Center, and he reviewed an untouched scrapbook from the period that included not only an original news article containing the famous image, but also many other images taken while Ebbets was working for the Rockefellers promoting the construction of the Center. Johnston examined professional work orders and receipts on my father’s own letterhead. At the time the photo was taken it is unquestioned that Ebbets was working as the “photographic director” for the Rockefeller Center. The article suggests that this photo was a staged promotion for Rockefeller Center. This is entirely accurate, as Ebbets was hired to do promotional work. Among the evidence presented to Johnson was a letter of recommendation from Mr. Merle Crowell who was the Director of Public Relations for the Rockefeller Center commending him for his work as the official photographer for the construction’s promotional campaign. Corbis was shown the original glass negative of Ebbets on the beam where the photo was taken holding his camera, and originals of other images (such as the ones below) from his body of which are consistent with an a “fingerprint” of Ebbets style and the genius behind the famous photograph.

As a result of Johnston’s conclusions, Corbis capitalized on these facts by paying for members of the Ebbets family to travel to New York for the unveiling of the fact that Ebbets was the photographer and that this fact would showcase their celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Bettmann Archives collection. The reason he states to news media for his change of mind is the “recent discovery” of other photographers being present at the time. These statements are misleading in that this is not a recent discovery and the conclusions he draws from this fact are not based upon common sense or investigative science.

In addition, Johnston lead Corbis to take Ebbets credit off the photos based upon his erroneous opinion that this famous photo, as well as a “sister” image, were likely taken by other photographers because they were published in competing newspapers. The media should be aware of the fact that Corbis and Johnston had open lines of communication with the Ebbets family that were available at all times. Johnston never contacted the family at any time before this sudden declaration or a change of his opinion. He never asked if there was any further evidence to refute his own forced conclusions. If he had done further investigation he would have learned that the Ebbets family has proof that Ebbets not only worked for the Rockefeller Center at the time, but he also worked for the Associated Press, and freelanced for The New York Herald Tribune, The New York Sun, and others. He would have found out that the family had documentation showing that he submitted images to multiple newspapers and news wire services on a regular basis.

In the evidence collected showing that Ebbets was the photographer of this famous work, there is another photograph shot at the same time depicting a lone worker in silhouette that Ebbets supplied for publication in the New York Times that week. As a photo historian, Johnston knows that it was not at all unusual for a photographer to sell his work to multiple outlets, especially during the post-depression days when any sale of a photo meant food on the table.

According to the news media, Johnston is stating that the decision he lead Corbis to make in removing Charles C. Ebbets as the photographer who is credited with the photograph is the fact that there were two other photographers present at the time. This is not new information, but is something that has been known to Johnston for quite some time. Johnston knew that other photographers could have taken the photo and it was this fact that caused him to come to the home of Ebbets’ daughter to review the rest of Ebbets work. He immediately discerned that the work of Charles C. Ebbets was different for any of the other photographers that “may” have taken the photo.

One of the other photographers was an 18 year old young man who was still learning the trade (who likely knew Ebbets from his own work at the AP offices in NY), and the other man was a photographer who worked in New York throughout 1940s-1950s. There is however, no evidence whatsoever that either of these men took the famous photo. In the past 15 years, during its worldwide circulation, neither they, nor any of their family members has ever come forward to claim any association with the photograph. In fact, all of the evidence has always pointed to Charles C. Ebbets as the author. Mr. Johnston neglected to tell any of the news agencies that were provided this recent news release that Corbis’ own private investigators from the prestigious firm of Marksmen Investigations, a world leader in intellectual property claim investigations and used by 75 of the Fortune 500 companies, investigated everyone ever associated with the image, including the estates of the Hamilton Wright family and the Lewis Hine foundation, and found no evidence of anyone but Ebbets as the author.

The “news release” was provided as an “80th Anniversary of the Photo” promotional release by Corbis, which at the same time peppered several blogs with interviews surrounding their change of opinion on the matter, and even changed the name of the image to “Lunch in the Sky” on its website. Changing the name doesn’t change the truth. This issue is not about any new discovery of other photographers being present, but instead it is about the money that has been generated by the iconic photograph and the fact that it will continue to generate a vast sum of money for Corbis. It should also be noted that no news agency or information service of any kind contacted the Ebbets family at any time prior to releasing the Johnson interviews or news release. The work of Charles C. Ebbets, inclusive of the Men on a Beam photograph and the photo of Ebbets the day he took the photograph is easily accessible through their widely-viewed internet site, Ebbets
One has to ask, why didn’t anyone contact the Ebbets family for comment?

Other Ebbets images which show his work at the Rockefeller Center that day, as well as his trademark style of grouping subjects for promotional and news stories. As the saying goes, “these pictures are worth a thousand words,” and should in large part dispel the reversal of an opinion by Ken Johnston, an employee of Corbis.

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