There are few New York City photos as familiar or evocative as the one that inspired this documentary, shot in 1932 during construction of the RCA Building (aka 30 Rock) in Rockefeller Center. As soon as I heard that Irish television had produced a program about the photo I sought it out. (Men at Lunch opened last weekend in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles today at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.)

Men at Lunch on Beam-680
Courtesy of First Run Features

Director Seán Ó Cualáin and writer Niall Murphy don’t have to strain to establish the photograph’s iconic status with everyone from erudite authors to modern-day ironworkers on the streets of Manhattan. Experts provide context and meaning, while men on the street (literally) talk about how closely they relate to these “ordinary” fellows in an extraordinary setting.

Part of the intrigue surrounding this photo is its provenance: no one knows for certain who shot it, although the original 8x10 print in the Rockefeller Center Archives is dated September 20, 1932.

The other unsolved mystery is the identity of the eleven men. They were almost certainly immigrants who were happy to be employed at the depths of the Great Depression. Only one of them is looking directly at the camera. Many people claim to be related to the men on the beam, including two Irish cousins who present fairly persuasive evidence.

Men at Lunch runs just over an hour, and it is time well spent. The film is a rich and resonant piece of work, well worth seeking out.