Glimpses at a Photographic History of Men in Love 1850 – 1950
Twenty years ago Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell were browsing through stacks of vintage photographs in a Dallas antique store when they came upon a 1920s photograph of two young men embracing. Nini and Treadwell were impressed by the “open expression of love that they shared” during a time when such openness came with great risk. They thought they found something singular, but a year later at an auction they came upon a miniature photo of two WW2 soldiers posed cheek to cheek with “Yours Always” etched into the photograph’s glass frame.
Thus began a collection that has now grown to over 2800 vintage photos of men documenting their love for each other. Many of these photos are generously collected in a massive coffee table tome called “Loving – A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850 – 1950”.
I don’t normally purchase coffee table photography books, but I was struck by these photographs, by the expression in the men’s eyes, the individuality of their faces, the stories and relationships and social circumstances hinted at by what the photographs reveal. This book moves me profoundly.
These are photographs that were held and possibly cherished privately for decades and only found their ways into estate sales and flee markets and auction sales of vintage photography until many years, decades, even more than hundred years after the original owners had passed, taking the stories behind these photographs with them to the grave.
Some hints at gay culture hundred years ago come through in some of the photographs. In my preperations for my musical Speakeasy I had learned a lot about coded language amongst homosexuals in the 1920s. The book includes several examples of one man putting his finger to his mouth with a smile like in the photograph above. Another theme that runs from the mid 1800s though the late 1920s is two men posing together under an umbrella. The most remarkable photograph of that includes another man posing as a minister marrying the couple.
Nowadays it is generally accepted that homosexuals and gay relationships have always been part of human history. But I remember too well how all too recently people would insist on declaring homosexuality a modern phenomenon, something that didn’t exist in the past. Looking through these photos I can still hear those voices who would draw upon any reasoning to dismiss and erase the evidence of gay love in history.
Maybe that is why I find these photos so particularly moving. They are visual proof of real people from times where homosexuality was mostly hidden and forbidden, coming out of the shadows with proof of love brilliantly etched in light.
They also serve evidence of different styles of clothing – including bathing costumes – over the ages.
Many of the photographs show soldiers, from the World Wars and beyond. General conscription brought men from all over the country and all social circumstances together. Including young men from the country or small towns who discovered that they weren’t the only fellows who felt that way…
In almost all photos we can only guess at who the men depicted were, what their stories are. The photos themselves are all the evidence we have. But even that already shows us a variety of social circumstances.
However there is one photo for which Treadwell and Nini did find out the names and histories of the men depicted, plus the man who took the photo, from a surviving relative. You’ll have to purchase the book to find out the full narrative – and I highly recommend you do, the book is a treasure which these few glimpses can only hint at – but I’ll just reveal that the two men are American soldiers during World War 2 who had helped liberate Dachau and took this photo while stationed in Kitzbühel, Austria. Which is an odd coincidence for me personally: I myself have spent many vacations in Kitzbühel (and wrote about it too) and this photo was likely taken on a mountain slope where I would ski as a child 30 years later.
The Nini-Treadwell collection was fed by photos collected through antique stores, flea markets and auctions in the USA, Canada and Europe. Curiously, photograph auctions in Eastern Europe particularly helped grow the collection. Therefore most of the photos are likely to have been taken in North America or Europe, especially Eastern Europe. But for some specific clues that may be caught in certain details that suggest time and place and circumstance, mostly the photos tantalize us with the long past stories into which they offer merely a momentary, intimate glimpse.
In one of the few photos offering an obvious clue, these two men below are clearly holding hands behind the Iron Curtain. If the building behind them is still standing, someone might be able to locate the exact spot where this photo was taken. The words on the banner above – which I can’t read, but others surely can – might with luck even tell us what day that photo was taken.
So much about homosexuals in times before Gay Liberation remains lost to history. These photos offer rare, compelling and moving glimpses into their lives and loves.