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Catalog Data

Rivers, Charles, 1904-1993  Search this
Chrysler Building (New York, N.Y.) -- Pictorial works  Search this
Empire State Building -- Construction--1929-1930  Search this
Pathe News  Search this
Bates, Ruby  Search this
0.5 Cubic feet (4 boxes )
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
New York (N.Y.) -- 1920-1930
Washington (D.C.) -- 1960-1970
bulk 1929-1930
Scope and Contents:
The collection contains: twenty-nine silver gelatin photoprints mounted on Fome-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.
Biographical / Historical:
Charles Rivers created a certain amount of confusion about his origins, whether accidentally or intentionally. Born Constantinos Kapornaros[1] (or Kostandinos Kapernaros)[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] The change may have been occasioned by a need to conceal his deep involvement in left-wing political and union activities.[5] Mr. Rivers settled in New York City in 1950 and resided there until 1993.[6] He sometimes identified his birthplace as Denver, Colorado,[7] but this may have been a fabrication or simplification, based on the fact that Greek church baptismal records were kept in Denver.[8] 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[9] 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,[10] 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.[11] 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. 1. The page on Rivers in New York University=s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives web site ( --noted 5 June 2002), claims Rivers was born in 1905 and changed his name Ato resemble those of the Mohawk Indians working on the high steel of New York City=s skyscrapers and bridges". 2. This spelling is given in an e-mail from James Rivers to Helen Plummer, Aug. 19, 2002. 3. Ibid. 4. Telephone conversation between Ron Rivers and the author, 6 June 2002. Additional information was provided by Ron Rivers in electronic mail messages, 5 June and 12 June 2002. 5. James Rivers, op. cit. 6. Telephone conversation with Ron Rivers, 6 June 2002. 7. In a biographical statement for the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art (copy supplied by Helen Plummer), Charles Rivers called Denver his birthplace. The George Eastman House photographer database also included this apparently erroneous information, probably derived from the Amon Carter statement (telephone conversation with Helen Plummer, 3 June 2002). 8. Ron Rivers, telephone conversation, 6 June 2002. 9. Identified by Charles Rivers as the camera used in the skyscraper photographs: interview by Carol Sewell, "Photographer looked at U.S. from high view," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dec. 27, 1986. Rivers also used a Rolleiflex, according to Ron Rivers (see note above), but the folding Zeiss Ikon camera would have been a more convenient addition to a lunchbox than the bulkier Rolleiflex. The collection negatives are not in the Rolleiflex square format, moreover. 10. See Judith Mara Gutman, Lewis W. Hine and the American social conscience. New York: Walker, 1967. 11. Ron Rivers, telephone conversation, 6 June 2002.
Related Materials:
Materials at the Smithsonian Institution 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. The author discussed the new print from the Rivers negative and other photographs in this exhibition in an invited gallery lecture, "The Skyscraper Photographs of Lewis Hine and Charles Rivers," Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, June 6, 2002. Materials at Other Organizations Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas See Barbara McCandless and John Rohrbach, Singular moments: photographs from the Amon Carter Museum, with select entries by Helen Plummer. Reproduction of a Rivers photograph, with description and analysis, p. 30. Additional information has been generously supplied by Ms. Plummer, curatorial associate, and Barbara McCandless, curator of photography, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth Texas. Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University 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 collection is a gift from Mr. Charles Rivers, 1989.
Collection is open for research.
Archives Center claims copyright. Rights were conveyed to the Archives Center through a Deed of Gift signed by the donor.
Self-portraits, American  Search this
Iron and steel workers -- 1920-1930 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Construction workers -- 1900-1950 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Structural steel workers -- 1920-1930 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Labor unions  Search this
Civil rights demonstrations -- 1960-1970  Search this
Skyscrapers -- 1920-1930 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Civil rights  Search this
Peace movements -- 1960-1970  Search this
Peace movements -- 1930-1940  Search this
Scottsoro boys case  Search this
Fires  Search this
Scottsboro Trial, Scottsboro, Ala., 1931  Search this
Self-portraits  Search this
Photographs -- 1900-1950
Scrapbooks -- 20th century
Photographs -- Black-and-white photoprints -- Silver gelatin -- 1970-1990
Charles Rivers Photographs, 1929-1963, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
See more items in:
Charles Rivers Photographs
Archival Repository:
Archives Center, National Museum of American History