Posted 10 years ago
It is an icon of 20th century photography and one of the world’s best selling images. The improbable tableau of eleven men on a lunch break seated on a beam 800 feet above the city of Manhattan. Taken in the worst year of the great depression, the photo captures a world without safety nets where workers calmly courted danger to survive. But look again at the image. There’s a whimsy to this domestic scene and an almost defiant insouciance to its subjects. The photograph communicates not so much a social condition to be exposed, but an attitude to be celebrated. In these eleven men at rest, but always at work, we see camaraderie, determination and daring- the very qualities needed to rebuild a broken nation. They represent the epitome of the American experience.
For over 70 years, the author of one of the most iconic images of American Photography has remained a mystery. Millions know his work, yet few knew the name of the man behind the lens: Charlie Ebbets.
This photo is a print from the original glass negative of my father, Charles C. Ebbets on the day he took the image of 11 steelworkers above Manhattan which has become an icon of American photography. For the past 12 years, I have been cataloging and archiving over 16,000 photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, personal notes and professional memorabilia that led to the identification of my father, Charles C. Ebbets, as the author of the famous "Men on A Beam" photo that is recognized the world over as an icon in American photography, yet often still identified as "anonymous". For nearly 30 years following his death, the bits and pieces that made up his photographic legacy sat undisturbed, slowly decaying in boxes hidden in the recesses of his widow's home. Scattered among the countless prints and negatives were the detritus of a life: clippings, correspondence, work orders, receipts-even his snakebite kit and a Colt revolver from his many trips from the Florida Everglades backcountry to the jungles of South America. Stitched together, they told the story of an outsize personality and artistic mind with an insatiable appetite for derring-do.
Charlie was a pioneering photographer, outdoorsman and adventurer who explored unmapped regions, raced cars, piloted airplanes, walked on wings, wrestled professionally, hunted big game and befriended men from Presidents to Indian chiefs who shared his passions.This was a man who had started the Miami Press Photographers Association, been one of the Associated Press' earliest official photographers for the South, done pioneering aerial and publicity work, shot thousands of never before seen images of the Florida Everglades and its Seminole Indian inhabitants, won awards throughout the southeast for his work, had his work held in the prestigious Bettmann Photo Archives, and founded the City of Miami Publicity Bureau...Yet he died in relative obscurity. Why?
In order to answer this question and re-introduce his work to the world, I have written a book that will tell the amazing facts behind not only the Men on A Beam image of the 11 steelworkers, but also the stories surrounding Charlie's outsized character and his pioneering work as a photographer. Currently there is also a documentary about his life and work in production. You can view a very special video with a montage of his work at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2125811147/charles-c-ebbets-the-untold-story-of-an-icon-of-ph or on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wghWxbm7oH8. His biography will be entitled "Charles C. Ebbets: The Untold Story Behind an Icon of Photography".