In 20 years, Hugh Nini and his husband Neal Treadwell have collected 2,800 photographs of male couples. These ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, glass negatives, tintype, cabinet cards, postcards, photo strips, photomatics and snapshots represent more than one hundred years of social history that reflect the evolution of fashion, hairstyles and societal norms. The two collectors tell us the romantic story of these wonderful images and this singular collection, now available in a book entitled Loving.
Our collection began twenty years ago when we came across an old photo that we thought was one of a kind. The subjects in this vintage photo were two young men, embracing and gazing at one another—clearly in love. We looked at that photo, and it seemed to look back at us. And in that singular moment, it reflected us back to ourselves. These two young men, in front of a house, were embracing and looking at one another in a way that only two people in love would do. Dating sometime around 1920, the young men were dressed unremarkably; the setting was suburban and out in the open. The open expression of the love that they shared also revealed a moment of determination. Taking such a photo, during a time when they would have been less understood than they would be today, was not without risk. We were intrigued that a photo like this could have survived into the twenty-first century. Who were they? And how did their snapshot end up at an antique shop in Dallas, Texas, bundled together with a stash of otherwise ordinary vintage photos?
About a year later, we came across a second photo through an online auction. It was a miniature portrait of two soldiers from the 1940s, approximately the size of a man’s thumbnail. They were posed cheek to cheek, and their photo was in a small art deco glass frame with “Yours Always” etched into the glass. They had that same unmistakable look in their eyes as the first photo we’d collected so many months before. We thought we had now found the second, and last remaining, vintage photo of two men, like ourselves, who were in love. Thus began a twenty-year journey that neither of us saw coming—much less planned.
Our annual travels to Europe, Canada, and across the US gave us the opportunity to comb through boxes and piles of old photos at flea markets and antique shops. That, and the advances of the Internet, would grow our collection to more than 2,800 vintage photos of men who were in love. It is impossible to state how unexpected this is to us. Jokingly, we call this “the accidental collection.”
In the beginning, we acquired photos because they spoke to us personally. Soon, we were actively looking for them. As we came across more and more, there was a sense that we were involved in some kind of rescue mission. These photos had stood the test of time for somewhere between 70 and 170 years, and we were now the custodians of these unlikely survivors of a world that is only just beginning to catch up with them. As the years and photos accumulated, we began to feel a sense of obligation to share them with others. That said, strangely, though we have many good friends and loving and supportive families, we never shared this collection with anyone until fairly recently. Our reason was simple: we didn’t think anyone besides ourselves would find them interesting.
Collecting photos like these isn’t clear-cut and simple. Social norms regarding what is an acceptable display of affection between two male friends has changed over time. One hundred years ago an affectionate embrace between male friends was not uncommon. Friendship photos like that are often presented by sellers as being a “couple.” In some cases, they could be, but we usually pass on those. When deciding whether or not to acquire a photo or snapshot, we have a rule that we follow. We call it the 50/50 rule: we have to believe that it’s at least 50% likely that we’re looking at two men who are romantically involved. There are few 50/50 images in our collection and none in our book. What determines whether or not we’ll acquire a photo can sometimes be an embrace that leaves no doubt that the relationship exceeds friendship or fondness. When possible, though, there is one sure way to determine if a photo is “loving.” We look into their eyes. There is an unmistakable look that two people have when they are in love. You can’t manufacture it. And if you’re experiencing it, you can’t hide it.
Because of the age of the photos in our collection, the likelihood of any of the subjects, or the person who took the photo, is still living is very small. Our youngest photos are seventy years old. If the subjects were in their twenties, and most appear older, they would be in their nineties today. Is it possible that some, or one, of our subjects are still living? Yes, but highly unlikely. The unfortunate side to that is that there are no first-hand accounts of our subjects. Except one. We do have an account from a living relative of one of the two World War II soldiers mentioned above. The relative who was given the shoebox of photos and the ring for safekeeping was the nephew of one of the soldiers, John W. Moore. David, John’s nephew, grew up living next door to his uncle. David describes his uncle as more of a second father to him. He told us that his uncle, while serving in World War II, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. After the war, he returned to his home state of Texas, married, and started a family. The marriage was short-lived, and so was John’s independence, as he was soon confined to a wheelchair. David only knew of his uncle as being wheelchair bound. According to David, his uncle was gay and closeted.
It’s unclear whether the relationship between his uncle and the other soldier, Dariel, continued after the war, but John did have relationships with other men and shared some information about those relationships with his nephew. Our collection reveals to the world, and even to us, for the first time and voluminously, that feelings of love, attachment, or longing between two people are the same—regardless of the gender make-up of the couple. Their images evoke as powerful a sense of love and humanity as has ever been filmed, or written about, or acted out on a stage. They appear in many varied contexts that repeat across time and global geography. They pose together in the bow of a boat, on a tree branch, on a bicycle, at the beach, in a forest, leaning against a car, and even in, or on, a bed. From a social perspective, the range is extensive as the images reflect back nineteenth-century working class figures, fashionably dressed businessmen, university students, and soldiers and sailors of all ages—spanning the time between the Civil War, World War II, and into the 1950s.
Though none of the subjects in our photos had the legal option of marriage, they, like us in 1992, did have the private, personal option. They married themselves, to one another, and just as we did in 1992, they exchanged rings. One of our oldest photos, which is actually a tintype dating from around 1860 (p. 32), shows one of the men wearing a ring on his little finger. There is a sprinkling of various other photos where the men are wearing a ring, or rings. But it isn’t until you get to the American military from World War II that you begin to see lots of wedding rings—and even a few bracelets.We have many World War II soldier couples posing affectionately, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that we began to notice the many symbols of commitment, in the form of rings and other jewelry, worn by numerous soldiers and sailors. They were very subtle most of the time. In a few, however, one of them may be just barely pointing at the object of commitment as they smile into the camera. In the photo of John W. Moore and Dariel in the Alps in Kitzbuhel, Austria, Dariel’s left arm is draped over John’s left arm. Both are prominently displaying “wedding” rings.
The Hugh Nini & Neal Treadwell Collection, our collection, spans a century of time between the 1850s and the 1950s, and hits many notes in a rich chord. Thematically, it represents pure love. Photographically, it documents, from nearly its beginning, the first one hundred years of photo taking. One can also see the evolution of fashion, hairstyles, and societal norms as they relate to these subjects. The result is a romantic depiction of a special category of human beings, in all their diversity, that has been shown to be overwhelming for some, but certainly eye-opening for all. The intensity of their expressions, the purity of their passion, the simplicity of their emotions all serve to communicate a message as old as time, but from an unexpected, and heretofore hidden, source. Loving is a book that is intended to usher in a new sensibility, a fresh humanism of love. Rather than categorizing individuals, the collection brings us all together, “accidentally,” under one —if we may—“umbrella.” It shines new light on the universality of the most written about, enacted, or filmed emotion—love.
Its message is for everyone.
By Hugh Nini & Neal Treadwell
Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell are photography collectors, and the authors of the book entitled Loving published by 5 continents, from which this text is excerpted.
English version published by 5 Continents