Biographical / Historical
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.
1. The page on Rivers in New York University=s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives web site (http://laborarts.org/collections/item.cfm?itemid=82) --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.
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.