The Last Rivet (Photographs by Berenice Abbott & Margaret Bourke-White)

Published in 1940, this book of images and text commemorates the completion of the Rockefeller Center in New York, begun at the height of the Depression in 1932. It originally came with a rivet motif dust jacket (which I don’t have) and the cover is even made from green velvet. Classy.

Before looking at the book itself, perhaps a word about these fine captains of industry is in order. The Rockefeller’s fortune was based on the success of Standard Oil, founded by the original patriarch John D. Rockefeller in the 1870s, and whose ruthless business practices ensured that rival oil companies were either taken over or destroyed, until by the 1890s it controlled 88% of all refined oil in the US. Eventually, in 1911, under pressure from the courts and the US government concerned about this monopoly, Standard Oil was broken up into different companies that make up the names that still dominate the globe such as Mobil, Exxon and Chevron. The Rockefellers owned a quarter of all the shares in the new companies, whose value doubled, making John D. the richest man in the world at the time. John D. Junior, son of the founding father, took over and was implicated in the Ludlow Massacre when the National Guard, whose wages were bankrolled by the Rockefeller controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, shot and burned to death between 19 and 25 people during a miners strike in April 1914. I think it’s fair to say that the Rockefeller fortune was not gained by being nice to people. And just as night follows day, immense wealth and power buys respectability for a Medici-like family whose tentacles soon spread throughout much of American commercial, banking and political circles.

But wait, it gets better. At the same time as the Rockefeller Center was being built the family business was keeping some very shady company indeed.  Standard Oil of New Jersey (later renamed Exxon) entered into profitable partnership arrangements with the notorious German company I.G. Farben (infamous producers of Zyklon B poison gas for use in concentration camps and organisers of slave-labour factories in Auschwitz) as well as being instrumental in providing vital fuel additives to the Nazis (tetraethyl lead). This was needed to make aviation fuel in order to fly German planes and drop bombs on much of Europe. They even seem to have gone to great lengths in the cover up, shipping it through the neutral  Spanish Canary Islands (after re-registering all their oil tankers in Panama so as to prevent them being  stopped and searched) where it was then transferred to German ships bound for Hamburg. They also appear to have used their South American depots to supply fuel directly to German tankers. But it wasn’t just the Nazis cash that Standard Oil of NJ was happy to take; they were also engaged in similar practices with Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. It has been argued that through their actions they may have directly assisted in the bombing of Pearl Harbour where a substantial portion of the US Navy was sunk.  But this is not to say that Standard was choosy about its customers; it had no problem selling oil to the Allied side as well. Business is business after all.

And there’s more; another of the Rockefeller cash-cows was Chase National bank, which ran a complicated money laundering scam for the Nazis through the German-American community in which worthless bits of paper issued by the Nazi regime were magically turned into US dollars needed to buy raw materials for desperate German factories. According to documents released by the US Archives, between 1936 and 1941 Chase brought in $20 million for the Fuhrer, while at the same time helping themselves to a substantial amount of the $1.2 billion in commission paid for their services as middleman, which mainly came out of funds taken by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. The bank went to great lengths in order to hide their activities from the US Treasury and Chase is also directly implicated in seizing money from the French bank accounts of its Jewish customers after the German takeover and for being overly helpful with the Nazi regime throughout the entire war. After being investigated for these activities, Chase avoided prosecution using blackmail; they threatened to embarrass the FBI and other government departments if it went to court by spilling the beans about all the dirty tricks they knew about.  Then, just as now, it is virtually impossible to hold powerful corporations to account. And these are only the scandals that have come to the surface; who knows what other skeletons have been quietly buried.

John D. Junior in a rather cynical move considering the company he was keeping at the time, piously expresses his personal hatred of war in the book and presents large corporations as responsible, ethical beings concerned about the welfare of mankind; “War is often laid at the door of business. On its very face such an imputation is as absurd as it is false.” To reinforce the message, there is an image of the Final Abolition of War mural by Jose Maria Sert which was commissioned for the lobby.

Now, nobody’s saying that the Rockefeller’s were stuffing suitcases of Reichmarks under their beds or had a safe full of swastika-embossed gold bullion hidden behind the Monet in the sitting room. That’s the kind of thing criminals do. When you’re amongst the super-rich you don’t need to get your hands dirty – the company you control does all that and you get to cream off the massive profits from the rising stock prices. And of course, you have no direct knowledge of any possible wrongdoing because nothing is ever written down or said aloud. These sorts of things are done on a nod and a wink making it almost impossible to prove who knew what. That way, if something does go wrong some middle-management bozo gets to go to jail while the main players are able to feign surprise and shock at what has been uncovered.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of the Rockefeller’s profiteering from their Nazi connections is not an area that the book dwells upon – that kinda thing tends to spoil the feel-good mood.

The spin that the Rockefeller’s are peddling in this publication is that the centre was a happy collaboration between labour and industry, with both sides working harmoniously together in order to build the complex. Indeed within the book we have repeated mention about the gratitude felt by New York to the Rockefeller’s for creating, directly and indirectly, 75,000 jobs during the Depression decade. Certainly in an era of mass unemployment any bit of positive news is seized upon by politicians and the media to say that the future is looking better, but to exhibit such fawning gratitude towards the originator of a commercial project which was designed to further enrich the already super-rich, is, to pardon the pun, a bit rich.  In order to prove their gratitude towards the little people who did the actual work, there is even a photograph of a worker in the book, head raised as if in awestruck wonder at the vision of progress that he was helping to build all thanks to the far-sighted vision and generosity of the Rockefellers. One whole photograph.  Ain’t that nice?

Perhaps a more accurate indication of the Rockefeller’s attitude towards the common man was best expressed in their painting over of the mural commissioned from Diego Rivera for the Center, Man at the Crossroads, whose depiction of the potential power of working class solidarity (and an image of Lenin) didn’t really conform to the way they liked to do business.  This deliberate exercise of immense personal power to obliterate anything that might pose a challenge to them, I think, speaks volumes about the true nature of the Rockefellers. Although they pay lip-service to partnership with the people, their actions and business interests are all really designed to consume and exploit the powerless individual in the name of enriching themselves.  A few bucks thrown at some philanthropic exploit is supposed to paper over what has in reality been a very sordid history of greed, intimidation, amorality, manipulation, as well as the corruption and corrosion of democratic structures, not to mention aiding and abetting totalitarian regimes bent on world conquest.

Now I’m not saying that the photographers who were involved in producing images for The Last Rivet were in any way culpable. A paying gig is a paying gig; I’m sure that an assignment to represent what was seen as an architectural triumph would have been gratefully received by many. The photographs in the book come from a number of photographers, most notably from Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke White, although the individual images are not credited. Architectural images predominate with the main RCA building being presented over and over again. The largest image, presented as a double page spread, shows Fifth Avenue full of hustle and bustle and streets filled with traffic, which is the only image to make reference to the rest of New York city itself. The Rockefeller Center is presented as a world apart, distant from the mundane everyday of the chaos below.

The other main body of images in the book consist of the Last Rivet ceremony itself, consisting of the type of ribbon-cutting photography you’d expect see in the local paper; assorted dignitaries lined up on chairs, pompous stuffed suits and attentive crowds. A full page image at the beginning of the book even shows the man of the people, a be-suited Junior in white-gloves, doing a bit of riveting.

The photography in the book doesn’t work for me; it very much looks like what it is, a compromised mish-mash of safe images designed to flatter.  For a book that has the look of something that a lot of money was pumped into, the net result is pretty poor.  It wasn’t as if they were short of a couple of bucks to hire a graphic designer and really push the boat out and produce something really spectacular.  Some of the architectural images are ok but from the likes of Bourke-White or Berenice Abbott, I’d expect better. Apart from the velvet cover and the rivet motif, the book as a whole is quite unremarkable and, to be frank, boring. You could forgive this in part if the photography was good, but even that is, in the main, as insipid as the contents of this book.

But it’s not all bad; I do like the paper stock they printed it on.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Rivet (Photographs by Berenice Abbott & Margaret Bourke-White)

  1. Really interesting, PP. I believe Berenice Abbott shot some images of Rock Center during her FAP project ‘Changing New York,’ and I expect whomever compiled this book simply asked her for those images. I agree, they are not among her best. I’m sure she had appropriate contempt for the Rockefellers, but by 1940 her grant money had dried up, she was doing interesting (but unpaid) experiments in scientific photography, and, as you say, a paying gig is a paying gig.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for that. I’d say you’re absolutely right about Berenice Abbott – that makes complete sense to me. We all have to put food on the table. I certainly hope that everybody involved in the book project charged top-dollar and laughed themselves to sleep that night.

      The book is published by Columbia University Press which is interesting in itself, because Columbia University owned the ground rent for the site and the Rockefellers had to lease it from them and the book even says that 29% (!!!) of the university’s total funding came from this rent.

      I don’t know, but perhaps this book was produced by the university higher-ups who most likely wouldn’t know or care too much about what the final result so long as it was suitably flattering. If that is the case, (again pure speculation) you’re employed on a book project working for a patron who knows little about these matters and whose only purpose is to butter-up somebody else, then I think there would be pressure on you to play it safe? The rivet and the velvet cover may have even been a hard sell to the university??

      Whatever I say about the Rockefellers they were, in fairness, willing to allow artists to push the envelope (within limits) and produce visually striking work. This book strikes me as way too conservative and safe for this project. That’s why I think that perhaps this might have been a PR project commissioned by somebody else for their own agenda?

      All utter speculation on my part of course – not a shred of evidence to back it up at all Still, its interesting to try to unpick these things.

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