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Charles Rivers Photographs

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
Online Media:

Alexander Alland, Sr., Photoprints

Ostroff, Eugene, d. 1999 (NMAH Curator)  Search this
Salo, Matt, Dr.  Search this
Haberstich, David E., 1941-  Search this
Ahlborn, Richard E., 1933-2015  Search this
Alland, Alexander, Sr. (Alexander Landschaft), 1902-1989  Search this
China Daily News -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
China Daily News -- Photographs  Search this
United States. Works Progress Administration  Search this
Davis, Earl  Search this
Kaslov, Steve, ca. 1888-1949 (King of the Red Bandanna Romany Gypsies )  Search this
0.25 Cubic feet (4 boxes)
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
Oral history
Audio cassettes
Virgin Islands -- 1930-1940
New York (N.Y.) -- 1930-1940
Bowery (New York, N.Y.) -- 1930-1940
Chinatown (New York, N.Y.) -- 1930-1940
St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) -- 1930-1940
1985 - 1986
1930 - 1943
Scope and Contents:
This collection contains 273 silver gelatin photoprints (Series 1), most of which apparently were made during the 1930s and early 1940s, contemporaneously with the original negatives. All are 8" x 10" or slightly smaller, unmounted except for flush mounted linen on the backs of some prints. The photographs were made primarily in two locations, New York City and the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands pictures were made as part of a special documentary project in 1939, as described above, whereas the New York photographs stem from Mr. Alland's largely self assigned documentation of various ethnic and religious groups in New York from approximately 1932 to 1943. The projects include photographs of the "Red Bandanna" Romany Gypsy group in the Bowery, a black Jewish congregation, Mohawk Indians in Brooklyn, and other groups, which required extensive exploration, research, and photographing over periods of many days or weeks. A variety of miscellaneous ethnic and religious groups are covered in the general "Other Religions" and "Nationalities" folders. The contents of the "Judaism" folder include primarily New York sites and people, but there are also additional views of a synagogue from the Virgin Islands project.

Series 2 of the collection contains four cassette tape recordings of two interviews with Mr. Alland, three made by Richard Ahlborn (with Eugene Ostroff and Matt Salo) in 1985, and one by David Haberstich and Richard Ahlborn, June 2-3, 1986 (at which time the photographs were donated). The tapes include readings from his autobiography, personal reminiscences on his experiences as an immigrant and a photographer, and commentary on the photographs.
The collection is arranged into two series.

Series 1: Photoprints, 1930-1943

Series 2: Audiotape Cassettes, 1985-1986

The photographs are arranged topically and by nationality.
Biographical / Historical:
Alexander Alland, Sr., was born in Sevastopol, Crimea (formerly in the Soviet Union) on 6 August 1902. His last name originally was Landschaft, but he legally changed it to Alland following the birth of his son. Alland's interest in photography began at the age of twelve, when he helped a local photographer with darkroom work. He constructed his own camera from cardboard with a simple meniscus lens and exposed glass plate negatives with the device.

Toward the end of the Civil War in Russia in 1920, Alland relocated in Constantinople, Turkey, where he was hired as an apprentice by a graduate of the Vienna Academy of Photography. When the Union Nationale des Combatants Francais went on a pilgrimage to Gallipoli, a former battle zone on the Dardanelles, he was asked to accompany them in order to document events. After having his request for a pay increase refused, he left his employer two years later and opened his own portrait studio, "Photo d'Art Russe." When civil unrest threatened Constantinople in 1923, he decided to emigrate to the United States.

During his first years in the United States he worked in photo finishing businesses while engaged in home portraiture independently. He married in 1929 and a son, Alexander, Jr., was born. In the 1930s he became one of the best known photographers portraying the life of immigrants and various ethnic groups in New York. (1) In 1936 he was appointed supervisor of the Photo Mural section of the W.P.A. Federal Art Project, and worked as a free lance photographer for magazines and periodicals featuring the activities of various ethnic groups living in New York City. He specialized in making photomurals with montage techniques. (2)

In 1937 Alland became photography instructor at the American Artists' School and joined the American Artists Congress. In 1939, his first book, Portrait of New York, was published and he became president of the "Exploration Photo Syndicate" and went to the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of a project to produce a pictorial record of the West Indian Islands. His photographs appeared in publications and were exhibited at the New School for Social Research and at the Schomberg Collection. In 1942 he joined the staff of Common Ground magazine as photography editor and was appointed by the National Youth Administration to supervise their photography workshop. His book American Counterpoint appeared in 1943 and was selected as "One of the Fifty Best Books of the Year." The original prints from that book were exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York, which also exhibited a portfolio of his work on American Gypsies. In 1944 he became director of an agency, "Pictures for Democracy," and in 1945 his book The Springfield Plan was proclaimed another "One of the Fifty Best Books of the Year."

During World War II Alland did technical photography for the War Department, receiving a commendation for this work. After another book My Dog Rinty was published, he left New York City to establish a school of photography, combined with a school of dance directed by his wife, Alexandra, a professional dancer and choreographer. (3) He then began to exhibit his own photographs and to collect glass plate negatives and vintage prints by significant photographers. He is perhaps best known for locating a collection of Jacob Riis negatives and making them available. In 1974 Aperture published his biography, Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen4. Because of his efforts in providing the Riis negatives to the Museum of the City of New York, that institution awarded a special commemorative medal to him in 1973. The Riis book was followed by two more studies of photographers, Jessie Tarbox Beals, First Woman News Photographer (5) and Heinrich Tonnies, Cartes de Visite Photographer Extraordinaire. (6)

Retrospective exhibitions of Alland's work were held in two major Danish museums in summer 1979 and he was honored for contributions to the cultural history of Denmark. In 1991 studies for his photomural work were included in an historical survey exhibition of American photomontage at the University of Maryland at College Park. (7).


1. My text is based upon the biographical information recorded on my taped interviews with Mr. Alland in this collection, but see also Bonnie Yochelson, The Committed Eye: Alexander Alland's Photography. New York: The Museum of the City of New York, Inc., 1991.

2. Merry A. Foresta, "Art and Document: Photography of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project," in Official Images: New Deal Photography (essays by Foresta, Pete Daniel, Maren Stange, and Sally Stein), Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, p. 153, based on an interview with Alland, January 1987.

3. Photographic historian Anne Peterson, contractor for three Archives Center photographic collection projects between 1986 and 1982, reports that she studied ballet as a child with Mrs. Alland.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid

7. See catalog by Cynthia Wayne, Dreams, Lies, and Exaggeration: Photomontage in America. The Art Gallery, University of Maryland at College Park, 1991 (exhibition at the gallery Oct. 21 Dec. 20, 1991).
Related Materials:
Materials in the Archives Center

Carlos de Wendler Funaro Gypsy Research Collection (AC0161)

Contains additional Alland photographs. De Wendler Funaro also photographed Steve Kaslov, his family, and his Bowery coppersmith workshop.
Collection donated by Alexander Alland, June 3, 1986.
Collection is open for research.
Copyrighted material: photographs may not be reproduced without written permission from the Estate of Alexander Alland, Sr.
Synagogues -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York, N.Y.  Search this
Newspapers -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Muslims -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Minorities -- Housing -- 1930-1940 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Minorities -- Housing -- 1930-1940 -- Virgin Islands  Search this
Judaism -- Customs and practices  Search this
Housing -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Immigrants -- 1930-1940 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Housing -- 1930-1940 -- Virgin Islands  Search this
Buddhism -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Catholic Church -- Liturgy  Search this
Chinese drama -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Churches -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Clergy -- 1930-1940 -- United States  Search this
Coppersmiths -- 1930-1950  Search this
Ethnic costume  Search this
Ethnic groups -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Falashas -- 1930-1940 -- New York (State) -- New York  Search this
Fortune-tellers -- Gypsies -- 1930-1940 -- United States  Search this
Pluralism  Search this
Poverty -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- Virgin Islands  Search this
Printing -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Protestant churches -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Religious and ecclesiastical institutions -- Photographs -- 1930-1940 -- New York N.Y.  Search this
Singers -- 1930-1950  Search this
Synagogues -- 1930-1940 -- Virgin Islands  Search this
Photographs -- 1900-1950
Oral history -- 1980-1990
Interviews -- 1980-2000
Audio cassettes -- 1980-1990
Alexander Alland, Sr., Photoprints, 1932-1943, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Gift of the artist.
See more items in:
Alexander Alland, Sr., Photoprints
Archival Repository:
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Online Media:

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