For about a decade I thought this image was a shot of construction workers enjoying a lunch-time nibble on the Empire State Building. Only last year was I told the building wasn’t the site of King Kong’s last hurrah but 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or 30 Rock for short (now recently renamed the Comcast Building).
Weirdly, Sir Alex Ferguson brought me here. In a TV interview with Fabien Barthez, Fergie explained to his old goalkeeper the importance of the photograph (it adorned his office wall), that it encapsulated with its 11 men dangling on the 840-foot girder classic themes of sacrifice and teamwork, and of realising the impossible. A cultured chap for a football manager, one would of course expect this kind of art on his wall, and not Vinnie Jones crunching Gazza’s testicles.
Widely credited to Charles C. Ebbets, the snap has a staged, advertising feel to it, but is nonetheless quietly subversive in its details. This is the Prohibition era, yet the bloke on the far right is hogging a bottle of whiskey (fuck the system!). Researchers have identified him as Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič, a lumberjack and carpenter from Slovakia, who would at the end of WWII be killed by a grenade. He even sent his wife this photograph, on which he wrote, ‘Don’t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti.’
Immigrants building the future, eh. Many photographs are considered great merely on the basis of their functional quality (a photo is a photo is a photo), others also have an accompanying historical value which enriches them, surface components opening up human dramas outwith the artefact.