Take a glance at the two Charles Ebbets photographs above. Both were taken on the same day in 1932 during the construction of Rockefeller Center in New York City, though chances are you’ve seen some iteration of the one featuring eleven dudes grubbing, but not the one of four of those eleven guys napping. But why? When I first saw the latter, entitled Sleeping above Manhattan, I immediately thought the image was simply more more striking in and of itself. Men that are tired and ballsy enough to take a snooze on a narrow steel beam some 800 feet above the ground? What a crazy and telling moment in time to capture. Not that the former, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, is not also a stunning picture, but why is Sleeping so distanced from the zeitgeist? Is the titular act of Sleeping simply misunderstood even while conveying the same themes as Lunch?
As eleven men dangle their legs nonchalantly over a steel girder of an enormous skyscraper with the sprawling urban metropolis and manicured park
of Manhattan island stretching behind them—and field an initial range of comments like, “They’re fucking crazy,” (actual quotation from my mother), “Whoa, that’s cool. How could they just do that, from those heights?” “Pfft, that’s fake”— transcendent ideals and themes of American culture leap through the black-and-white print and emerge to the foreground with them. We look past the exceptional composition and breathtaking background and notice that this is a scene and situation that many of us have never personally seen or experienced, one that showcases the types of men that built America with their hands and heritage. They seem to be enjoying lunch and each other, participating in beautiful camaraderie while resting for sustenance from sort of antique hard work that is not as common or totally necessary today. Lunch is an image that connects us to our past because it foils the level of urban establishment and technological advancement that we are so divulged in now. And because of all that, it’s an easily recognizable (it was recently named one of TIME’s 100 Greatest Images) and parodied cultural meme: I’ve seen versions of Lunch that humorously promote anything from TV shows (FRIENDS, CSI: New York) to Legos and Star Wars. My point: in some form or from some angle, you’ve seen this photograph; the image and thematic resonance of Lunch is deeply embedded in the American zeitgeist.
And you really can’t say that Sleeping doesn’t also carry those themes. Aesthetically, the audience connects to a similar moment in American history via a background and composition virtually identical to Lunch. It’s four of the same men, those same immigrants are really resting from a shift of hard work. They’re even using each other as human pillows (#camaraderie). But therein lies what is presumably so misunderstood and overlooked about the photograph: the men are sleeping. This comes across in arguably two ways: 1) as just stated, this is a candid moment of vital men taking a break in the same vein as Lunch, or 2) this is a picture of some passive, lazy men are clearly sleeping on the job.
Could we ever determine if this is a display of laziness or due relaxation? Nope, but I’m pretty sure we ‘Mericans believe in the first option, because that’s our culture and spirit (and, well, it’s just much more likely).
Still, the piece de resistance of Sleeping, regardless of what the workers’ true motivation was, is that they are sleeping (or, at least, appear to be) at that ridiculous of a height; it’s truly an impressive feat. Seriously, in a vestibular sense, it’s proven to be much more difficult to maintain your balance and stability with your eyes closed than with your eyes open…especially if relaxing and not actively eating, smoking, talking, or drinking out of a flask (looking at YOU, dude on the far right). One theta- or delta-wave-induced twitch during a fantastical American dream, and your bro is falling hundreds of meters down. More is on the line, but these men aren’t daunted at all; this is just a quick break before they continue to build up the land of opportunity for themselves and for all of us today.
And so, Sleeping above Manhattan might be lesser known than Lunch atop a Skyscraper, but its core action is categorically more extreme, more bold, more of how I think Americans today would reflect on work ethic, spirit, and badassery of the era both photographs exhibit. Someone needs to parody this soon.
(Oh god, did I use a hashtag in an essay? #what)
Matt Brown takes on the American dream from a different angle: a road trip across the states.
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