Everyone knows the famous photograph of construction workers eating lunch on a girder hundreds of feet above the Manhattan skyline—but what about the photographer who took the picture?
A Daredevil At Heart
Charles Ebbets bought his first camera at age 8, charging it to his family account at the drugstore. Though photography would become his life’s greatest work, Ebbets grew up to be an adventurer who wore many hats.
He filmed early motion pictures and even acted in some of them. He was a pilot, a daredevil, a wingwalker, a racecar driver, and a hunter—but throughout all of his escapades, he took photographs.
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Putting Your Life On The Line
It took this strange combination of stuntman and photographer to capture the iconic image of workers eating lunch on a girder, 850 feet up the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
But anyone who thought the photographer took the photo from safety would be mistaken. Ebbets, along with junior photographers Thomas Kelley (pictured here) and William Leftwich, had to brave the heights themselves—all while wrangling their 1930s-era cameras. I guess the wingwalking came in handy!
The Sunshine State
Soon after taking the photo, Ebbets moved back to Florida, where he’d started his career. He devoted himself to growing tourism in the state, taking extensive photographs of Florida’s natural beauty.
He also became extremely close with the local Seminole, counting several of their leaders as his personal friends. This gave him unprecedented access to Seminole culture, which he used to document their lives.
In 1938, the Seminole allowed him to become the first white man ever to see the sacred Green Corn Dance, even letting him document the event with his camera.
While he created one of New York City’s most iconic photographs, Ebbets was a Florida man true and true. He lived in the Sunshine State, documenting life there, until his death of cancer in 1978.