Much of our history, particularly over the past century, has been told in photographs. Even if we're only vaguely familiar with the event being depicted, an iconic image just strikes a chord with us, probably because it doesn't require any reading.
Consequently, history allows us to construct a story around those images that, over time, becomes the official account of what happened. The thing is, those stories are sometimes either taken out of context or are pure and utter bullshit -- and occasionally leave out the most fascinating story ever recorded about an insane celebrity driving to the White House with a gun in a glass box.
The "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper" Picture Was Staged For An Ad Campaign
Charles C. Ebbets
New York, 1932. Eleven iron workers are taking a lunchtime break 850 feet in the air, without a single safety harness, on the bare girders of a skyscraper under construction. It was a testament to the American work ethic, the tough-as-nails attitude of the people of the city, and the idea that the United States was trying to build itself out of the ditch where the Great Depression had left it. The subtext, of course, being that eating lunch on a tiny steel beam in the clouds was the kind of work these men were forced to do, unless they wanted to doom their families to a full-on The Grapes of Wrath type of life.
Charles C. Ebbets
But, at least workplaces had reasonable rules about drinking on the job.
It's a powerful image, both because of its surreal "oh shit, those dudes are about to die" air and the mystery surrounding it: No one seems to know who took the photo or who the 11 men were. As such, many have suspected it's some kind of darkroom trick, like an early century Photoshop intended to convey New York badassitude.
But, In Reality ...
Well, we have good news and bad news. The good news is the photograph is genuine. Those are real dudes sitting on a real girder that was higher than Zeus' rec room. The bad news is, the photo wasn't part of a LIFE magazine series on the blue-collar workers of the Great Depression, or even a very specific group of performance artists. No, the photo is part of a publicity campaign to advertise the construction of the RCA Building, known today as the GE Building.
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
You might know it as the 30 Rock building.