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CHARLES RIVERS PHOTOGRAPHS, 1929-63 (primarily 1929-1930) #360

(2 cubic feet: 1 FltBx, 1 (0.5) Flt Box, 1 DB, 1 ShB)

by: David E. Haberstich, December 2002

Biography

Photographer Charles Rivers created a certain amount of confusion about his origins, whether accidentally or intentionally. Born Constantinos Kapornaros (or Kostandinos Kapernaros) in the small town of Vahos in Mani, an isolated area in the southern Peloponnesian region of Greece, on May 20, 1904, he emigrated to the United States as a child of five or six with his parents. His school record showed that he was enrolled in 1911 at the age of seven. The family lived in Maine or New Hampshire, then Massachusetts, and later other locations in New York state. It is believed that his new name was derived from the Charles River in Boston. The change may have been occasioned by a need to conceal his deep involvement in left-wing political and union activities.

Mr. Rivers settled in New York City in 1950 and resided there until 1993. He sometimes identified his birthplace as Denver, Colorado, but this may have been a fabrication or simplification, based on the fact that Greek church baptismal records were kept in Denver. His sons James and Ronald believe that he never became an official American citizen. Late in life, in order to visit his birthplace, he was issued a passport, based on his school records, which stated that he was born in Denver.

Rivers photographed the construction of the Chrysler Building (1929) and the Empire State Building (1930) in New York City. He was inspired to take up photography by seeing the work of the influential documentary photographer Lewis Hine, whose famous images of working children helped win passage of protective child labor laws. Rivers and Hine both photographed the Empire State Building and the men building it, yet Rivers apparently was unaware until years later that his idol had been present. Employed as an iron worker, Rivers traded his pail of tools for a Zeiss Ikon camera during his lunch hour or when photographic opportunities arose. While the workers depicted in some of the photographs clearly are aware of the photographer’s presence, Rivers’s project presumably was conducted more or less surreptitiously. It is not known for certain if the paths of Rivers and Hine ever crossed, but his son Ron considers it unlikely: Hine photographed only the Empire State Building in connection with his "Men at Work" project, not the earlier Chrysler Building, and Rivers did not work on the Empire State Building for a very long period. His self-portrait on the Empire State Building, "The Bolter-Up," may have been intended as a memento during one of his last days on that job.

Rivers became unemployed in the Depression and consequently became involved in national efforts to create Social Security, unemployment insurance, and housing programs. These experiences apparently encouraged his active participation in politically leftist activities, as coverage about him in Soviet publications attests. A pacifist, in 1935 he was involved in demonstrations aimed at preventing World War II, and in the 1960s he took part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations and encouraged young people to continue such resistance.

In the 1950s Rivers worked in steel fabrication, in a chemistry lab as a technician, and briefly as a legislative aide for a New York state senator.

In 1986 Rivers submitted his 1930 self-portrait, posed on the Chrysler Building, to the International Year of Peace art contest sponsored by the New Times, published in Moscow; it was awarded a prize and diploma.

Mr. Rivers died in 1993, only two weeks after moving to Arlington, Texas to enter a nursing home near his sons’ homes.

Scope and Content

The collection contains: twenty-nine silver gelatin photoprints mounted on Foam-Core, Masonite, and cardboard, ranging in size from 5-1/2" x 9-1/4" to 10-11/16" x 13-13/16"; three 5" x 7" unmounted silver gelatin photoprints; a scrapbook which originally contained 56 silver gelatin photoprints, ranging in size from 2" x 3" to 7-1/2" x 9-1/2"; and silver gelatin film negatives (presumably acetate) for the prints. The scrapbook includes a New York Daily News clipping about Rivers: "Builds a Bridge to Students" by Anthony Burton (dated May 12, 1970 by Rivers) with a photograph showing him speaking to a crowd.

Most of the photographs depict the construction of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings--iron workers on the job and relaxing during breaks, and pictures of the buildings at various stages of completion. Other subjects are: a demonstration to prevent World War II (1935), a color photoprint of the Civil Rights March and Demonstration in Washington, D.C. (1963), and two magazine clippings from a Soviet publication, New Times, in which Rivers's prize-winning "Self Portrait" (1930) was reproduced.

Most of these prints were made by Charles Rivers many years after the creation of the original negatives, probably ca.1970s-1980s. The collection is in generally good condition, except that many of the print surfaces are scratched.

Provenance and Reproduction Rights

The collection is a gift from Mr. Charles Rivers, 1989. In the Deed of Gift the donor transferred his copyrights to the Museum.

Collections and Exhibitions

Rivers’s photographic prints are also in the collections of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University; and the Museum of the City of New York. Some of his photographs were included in the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art exhibition, "Looking at America: Documentary Photographs of the 1930s and 1940s," December 1986.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden included Rivers’s self-portrait, "The Bolter Up," in its summer 2002 exhibition, "Metropolis in the Machine Age," in the form of a new print made from a digital copy of the Archives Center’s original negative.

Credits

This finding aid originally was prepared in 1991 with the assistance of intern Mary Jane Appel, whose diligence is greatly appreciated. The information, clarification, and advice subsequently provided by Helen Plummer of the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art and Mr. Rivers’s sons Ron and James, both living in Texas, have been invaluable. Julie Ezell assisted with proofreading and editing.

Container List 

Box

Folder or Item

Description (Notes and titles by Rivers are shown in quotation marks.)

1

1-22

The Chrysler Building, 1929

Silver gelatin photoprints, mounted on foam core, Masonite, and cardboard, except as noted.

1

1

"Jack tightening one of the clamps holding the derrick upright."

1

2

"Iron workers’ lunch hour"

1

3

"Steel beams hoist relay"

1

4

"Old John–the Bolter Up"

1

5

"The flag is unfurled when the 174 foot spire, the last hoist, is raised and bolted into place."

1

6

"A minor repair of the derrick"

1

7

"Iron workers constructing, not destroying the Chrysler building"

1

8

"The welders on the Chrysler building"

1

9

"...the workers could not start work on the Chrysler because a hurricane wind was ripping the planks loose..."

1

10

"Posed photo of the photographer"

1

11

"Looking down from the Chrysler Building on the Chanin Building at 42nd Street and Lexington Ave."

1

12

"Just kidding". Caption on verso: "While taking a photo of Fred, from North [Carolina], his friend[,] a Texan, asked him if he thought he was a big shot, and gestured as though to goose him, knowing that he was very tickelish [sic]. When I warned Slim to stop[,] otherwise Fred might back off the building, Slim’s reply was[,] "Who would miss him?", but he stopped [because] he knew that if he continued Fred would end up on Lexington Ave[.]–60 stories below–Chrysler Building–1929".

1

13

"78th story of the Chrysler Building under construction during lunch hour. I had to climb the derrick for this photo."

1

14

"Chrysler" [unmounted]

2

15-25

"Empire State Building, 1930"

2

15

"Self portrait" [unmounted]

2

16

"Connecting beams" [unmounted]

2

17

"Connecting a steel beam"

2

18

"Preparing to jump the derrick two stories up"

2

19

"Riveters on the Empire State Building – 6th Ave. El is in the background."

2

20

"Jumping on the derrick–moving the derrick to the next operational floor" [Masonite mount]

2

21

"The Bolter Up–Charles Rivers, Self portrait" [same image as no. 1]

2

22

"Ironworkers constructing the Empire State Building"

2

23

"New York City as viewed by the iron workers–looking north east from the Empire State Building"

2

24

"New York City as viewed by the iron workers on the Empire State Building looking south"

2

25

"New York City enveloped in fog, from the 50th floor of the Empire State Building"

2

26-29

Miscellaneous

2

26

"Longshoremen"

2

27

"Demonstration to prevent World War 2 and for the freedom of Ernest Thaelman and Mooney and Billings[,] two American trade unionist[s] who had [been] framed and sentenced to life in California." [1935]

2

28

"Shipyard workers shaping up for work–Red Hook, Brooklyn" [1936]

2

29

"Civil Rights March and Demonstration, Washington, D.C." [1963]

2

folder, 
no #

2 magazine clippings from a Soviet publication in which "Self Portrait" was published.

3

Scrapbook, covered with green floral-patterned cloth, with plastic pages and adhesive mounting system, originally containing 56 silver gelatin photoprints. Some remain in the album (and may require the services of a conservator to remove them safely), but most have been removed and placed in protective sleeves. The album also contains the New York Daily News article clipping, "Building a Bridge to Students".

3

1

Xerographic copies (on acid-free Permalife paper), which document the original arrangement of prints within the scrapbook.

3

2

Small prints removed from scrapbook.

3

3

Large prints removed from scrapbook.

3

4

2 tear sheets from one or two copies of New Times, published in Moscow: One reproduces Rivers’ self-portrait on the Chrysler Building, indicates (in English) that he was a winner in the 1986 International Year of Peace Contest, and invites entries for its 1987 Man, Humanism, and Humanity contest. The other page reproduces the photograph in a larger size with a text in Spanish.

4

Items, envelopes:

73 silver gelatin photonegatives, roll film in various sizes, plus two 4" x 5" sheet film negatives. Titles are from Rivers’ labels on envelopes. All envelopes are signed. Many negatives are underexposed, and many are very unevenly trimmed, eliminating part of the image area. 1 negative is missing.

4

1C

"Self Portrait – Chrysler Building 1929" [empty envelope].

4

2C

"Ironworkers on the Chrysler Building – 1929." 3-1/4" x 2-1/4".

4

3C

"Steel Being Raised on the Chrysler–1929." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2".

4

4C

"High Wind / Chrysler –29." 3" x 2-1/2", top and bottom of neg. trimmed.

4

5C

"New York City as seen from the Chrysler–1929." 2-1/2" x 4".

4

6C

"Lexington Ave. & 42nd Street / Chrysler Building–1929." 3-1/4 x 2-1/4 in., somewhat underexposed.

4

7C

"Making adjustments on the top of the derrick. Chrysler Building 1929." 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 in., slightly silvering.

4

8C

"Jack–Slim–Charlie / Chrysler 29." 3-1/2 x 2-1/2 in., image trimmed off at bottom.

4

9C

"Lunch Hour–Chrysler Building 1929." 4 x 2-1/2 in.

4

10C

"Lunch Hour–60th floor of the Chrysler Building 1929." 3-1/4 x 2-1/2 in., image trimmed at top and bottom.

4

11C

"Lunch Hour on the Chrysler / 1929." 2-1/2 x 3-3/4 in., trimmed off at both left and right.

4

12C

"Jumping the derrick another 2 floors on the Chrysler 1929." 4 x 2-1/2 in., trimmed off at top and bottom.

4

13C

"Jumping the derrick another 2 stories up on the Chrysler Building 1929." 2-1/2 x 2-7/8 in., trimmed off.

4

14C

"Jumping the Derrick / Chrysler Building / 1929." 2-1/2 x 2-7/8 in., trimmed off.

4

15C

"Only Volunteers. One day the wind was so strong that it tore loose the planks that had been fastened to the beams to serve as a floor and hurled them down on Lexington Ave. and 42nd Street. / Chrysler Building / 1929." 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 in., trimmed off on both sides.

4

16C

"Repairing the derrick / Chrysler Building–1929." 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 in., silvering.

4

17C

"Kidding during Lunch Hour–Chrysler Building / 1929." 4-1/4 x 2-1/2 in., trimmed off at top and bottom.

4

18C

"Just Kidding on the edge of the 62nd [sic] floor of the Chrysler Building–1929." 3-1/4 x 2-1/4 in.

4

19C

"Relaxing for a brief moment on the Chrysler Building–1929." 3-1/4 x 2-1/4".

4

20C

"Relay–Chrysler 1929 / Steel being hoisted from one derrick to another. The shadow of the Chrysler Building in construction falls across[?] Lexington Ave. onto the Grey Bar [?] Building." 4-1/2" x 2-1/2", trimmed on all four sides.

4

21C

"The two ironworkers are bolting a tempering [extension] to the last floor, the 78 [sic] of the Chrysler. [Similar extensions] were bolted to the other three sides of the floor. This was necessary because there wasn’t enough space on the last floor to work. Planks were then laid out to create an adequate work area. After this was done, the derrick was raised and used, hoist both and rivet the 185 foot span to the structure 1929." 4" x 5" copy negative.

4

22C

"Looking down the Chrysler–1929." 3-3/16" x 2-1/4", underexposed.

4

23C

"78th floor of the Chrysler Building–1929 / Had to climb up the derrick to take this shot." 3-3/8" x 2-1/4", with large portion of a corner trimmed off and a deep cut below it.

4

24C

"Making repairs on the derrick / Chrysler Building–1929." 4" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom.

4

25C

"Cold Day on the Chrysler / 1929"(men bundled up in coats). 3-7/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at top and bottom.

4

26C

"Steel Landing on the 70th floor of the Empire State Building / 1930." 3-3/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at bottom.

4

27C

"Posing for his picture / Chrysler Building 1929." 3-3/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at bottom, underexposed.

4

28C

"Chrysler–Raising Section of Tower–1929." 3-1/2" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at bottom, badly underexposed.

4

29C

"Old John–Bolter Up on the Chrysler–1929." Copy negative, 3-3/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at top and bottom.

4

30C

"Welder–Chrysler Building / 1929." 4-3/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at bottom, badly underexposed.

4

31C

"The Welder on the Chrysler Building–1929." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom, underexposed.

4

32C

"Charlie–Chrysler Building / 1929." 4-1/4" x 3-1/4", unevenly trimmed on all sides; negative has a transverse crease where it was once accidentally folded.

4

33C

"Iron workers on the floor of the Chrysler Building / 1930." 3-5/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed off on sides.

4

34C

"Photo During Lunch time / Chrysler–1929." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed on bottom.

4

35C

"1 section of the spire being hoisted to be assembled to a 174 foot spire and then bolted into place / Chrysler Building–1929." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom.

4

36C

Empty envelope: "Section of the spire–Chrysler Building–1929."

4

37C

"The spire finally raised and bolted into place–Chrysler Building–1929." 4-1/4" x 2-1/4".

4

38C

"Looking up to the Spire / Chrysler Building / 1929." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom.

4

39C

"Section of the Spire / Chrysler Building / 1929." 4-1/2" x 2-1/2", unevenly trimmed.

4

40C

"Returning to work after [dropping] in a Speak Easy during Lunch time / Chrysler–1929." 4 men posing in front of bank, 3-1/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed off at top and bottom.

4

41C

"Jack tightening bolts on guy lines of derrick / Chrysler–1929." Dramatic silhouette, approx. 4-1/4" x 3-1/2", unevenly trimmed on all sides.

4

42C

"Chrysler / 42nd & Lexington Ave." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2".

4

43C

"8 photos of New York City taken while working on the Chrysler Building–1929". 8 negatives, 4-1/4" x 2-1/2", except one trimmed down to 2-1/2 x 3-5/8".

4

1E-22E

Empire State Building

4

1E

"Connecting a beam into place on the Empire State Building–1930. Worker sitting on the beam is rotating ----- because the slightest error would plunge him to the street 64 stories below." 3-1/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed at bottom.

4

2E

"Floor on the 70th story of the Empire State Building–1930." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2".

4

3E

"Steel being hoisted on the Empire State Building–1930." 4-1/4" x 2-21/2", unevenly trimmed at top and bottom.

4

4E

"Iron workers on the Empire State Building–1930." 3-5/8 x 2-1/2 in., unevenly trimmed at top and bottom.

4

5E

"Iron Workers / Empire State / 1930." 3-1/8" x 2-1/4", unevenly trimmed at bottom.

4

6E

"Iron Workers / Empire State." 2-1/2" x 4-1/2", unevenly trimmed on one side; negative very thin and underexposed, but with dramatic silhouettes.

4

7E

"Ironworkers on the Empire State Building–1930." 2-1/2" x 4-1/2", unevenly trimmed on one side. Good exposure, but out of focus.

4

8E

"Ironworkers–during a brief / interlude–Empire State Building / 1930" (signed). 2-1/2" x 3-3/4", unevenly trimmed on both sides. Underexposed.

4

9E

"Hoisting the 174 foot spire to be / bolted into place on" [sic], 3-1/4" x 4-1/4", untrimmed.

4

10E

"Riveteers [sic] on the Empire State Building / 6th Ave. Elevated and Macy’s in the / background–1930." 2-1/2" x 3+", trimmed unevenly at top.

4

11E

"Empire State Riveteers [sic] – / 1930." 2" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom, well exposed but focus soft.

4

12E

"Self Po[r]trait / The Bolter Up–58th Floor / Empire State Building / 1930." 3-1/2" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top, well exposed, reasonably sharp.

13E

"Ironworkers Connecting a Beam..." 4-1/8" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom, good exposure, reasonably sharp.

4

14E

"Brief Relaxation..." 4-1/4" x 2-1/2", trimmed at top and bottom, sharp focus, deep shadows.

4

15E

"Steel Handling..." 3-1/2" x 2˝", unevenly trimmed at top and bottom, machinery primarily in silhouette, sharp focus.

4

16E

"View of New York City–looking north from the Empire / State Building–1930" [typed]. 2-1/2" x 4-1/8", trimmed at sides. Chrysler Building is prominent at left; good exposure, but somewhat soft focus.

4

17E

"New York City–looking south–from the Empire State–1930" [typed]. 2-1/2" x 4-1/8", trimmed at sides, out of focus.

4

18E

"East River and Long Island as viewed from the Empire State Building–1930" (typed). 2-1/2 x 4-1/4 in., trimmed on right side. Very hazy, out of focus.

4

19E

"New York City / as seen by an ironworker / 1929-1930." 3-1/4" x 2-1/4", image intact, underexposed, out of focus.

4

20E

"New York City as seen from the Empire State Building– / 1930" (typed). 2-1/2" x 4-1/4", trimmed at right, somewhat soft focus.

4

21E

"New York City in a Fog / Taken from the Empire State Bldg / 1930." 2-1/2" x 4-1/4", unevenly trimmed on both sides. Slightly soft focus enhances effect.

4

22E-16X

Other Subjects, 1930s

4

22E

"The Artist and His Critic / Ralph Fasanella / & / Ronald Rivers" (in pencil, possibly a different hand). 2-1/4" x 2-1/4", trimmed at top.

4

1X

"Pathe Fire – 2 / Harlem–N.Y. City / 10 died." 2-1/2" x 4-1/4", image intact. Underexposed, reasonably sharp. Sign on building: "Pathe talking comedies make the whole world laugh." Fire truck visible.

4

2X

"Fire that claimed the lives / of ten people – Pathe News – Harlem." 2-1/2" x 4-1/4", unevenly trimmed on right side. Slightly fuzzy image (camera movement) shows building with smoke, ladder, hoses, etc.

4

3X

"Shipyard workers – shape up for / a job–1933." 2-1/2" x 3-3/4", unevenly trimmed on left side. Reasonably sharp, well exposed.

4

4x

"Ruby Bates & Alice White / Ruby Bates recanted her testim- / ony [sic] re: Scottsboro Boys Case." 2-1/2" x 1-3/4", unevenly trimmed on both sides. Image out of focus and seems to have a partial superimposition of a pattern.

4

5X

"Longshore [sic] – 1935 / New York City." 2-1/4" x 2-1/4", image untrimmed. Interesting birds-eye view of workers, well exposed, in focus, fairly high contrast.

4

6X

"Anti-Fascist & anti-war March / New York City 1935." 2-1/2" x 3-1/2", unevenly trimmed on right. Signs visible: "Defend the Soviet Union" and "Free Tom Mooney." Good exposure, adequate focus.

4

7X

"The Janitor – 1936." 2-1/4" x 2-1/4", image untrimmed. Film is green, exposure and focus adequate.

4

8X

Uncaptioned, unsigned, unstamped envelope. Image apparently shows a construction site. 2-1/2" x 4-1/4", unevenly trimmed on right side. Underexposed.

4

9X

"Anti-Fascist Demonstration / New York City – 1934." 5" x 4" copy negative, untrimmed. Crowd and prominent sign: "Industrial Unionism Spells Greater Working Class Power." Adequate exposure and focus.

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Revised: February 25, 2003