Protecting an iconic image
In conversation with Corbis Images’ Ken Johnston
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.