For the past twenty years, authors Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell were scavenging flea markets, estate sales, old suitcases, family archives, online auctions, and shoeboxes to collect 2,700 old photographs. All taken from the 1850s to 1950s, the sensitive pictures bear witness to the romance between men when male partnerships were illegal.
While compiling the book for the celebration of LGBTQ History Month in the US and sorting through the photos, Hugh and Neal noticed something mind-blowing. It was that the expression of love between these men that spanned different decades, centuries, and countries turned out to be almost identical. “They couldn’t have known about each other. Their [love] so similarly expressive—could only have emerged from their common humanity,” said the creators.
The captivating gazes and embracing poses reveal a world entirely different from the one we live in today. Taken in various settings, from military to domestic, and natural, the photos speak volumes about time-defying feelings of love and affection when societal norms had not matured just yet.
1945, Photo Taken In Austria
"‘In 1945, these two soldiers had hiked up into the Austrian Alps and a friend took their picture as they embraced in the snow. One soldier kept these snapshots hidden in a shoebox until the early 1990s when he handed them to a relative, along with the ring that he was wearing in the Alps photo, with the request: “Please keep these safe for me.” According to the relative, the soldier, nearing the end of his life, wanted to preserve the one thing that meant more to him than anything else. He passed away two years later.’"
In order to find out more about the beautiful photo book “Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s,” Bored Panda reached out to its creators Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell. For the past thirteen years, the Texan couple based in New York devoted their time to browsing flea markets and garage sales for historical snaps of men in love.
Their collection includes photos from the United States, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Latvia, the United Kingdom, and Russia.
Hugh and Neal told us in the interview that they initially didn’t think that anyone would find them interesting. “On one occasion, while purchasing a photo in person from a seller, we happened to have two of our albums containing about 400 photos. After the transaction was complete, we asked the seller if he would like to see how we had been mounting our photos into albums. He replied, yes. He went through both albums without a word. When he got to the last page of the second album, he closed it quietly and then said, 'You have to publish these.'”
That’s how the two creators began suspecting that the two of them were too small of an audience.
Postcard: Circa 1900, Provenance: Us
"Here are two well-dressed young men sharing an umbrella. One is placing a wedding ring on the other’s finger."
During the process, Hugh and Neal said that they had categories of photos they would refer to. “There are: boyfriends on bicycles, boyfriends in boats, boyfriends on cars, boyfriends on a paper moon, boyfriends in trees, beach boyfriends, bathing suit boyfriends, umbrella boyfriends, boyfriends kissing, boyfriends on a bed, boyfriends' splendor in the grass, photo-booth boyfriends, double hand-hold boyfriends, single hand-hold boyfriends, wrap-around embrace boyfriends, and many more.”
But they said that if the viewer “goes deeper into these categories, they arrive at identical, intricate embraces, without any way of having seen an example to copy.” The creators revealed that these similarities span geography and time.
For example, “Boyfriends in a boat, in a specific embrace, could number around 50 photos, and come from anywhere in the world, and span 50 to 60 years.”
But it turns out, determining whether the men in photos were having romantic feeling towards each other was not always easy. Nini and Treadwell shared the rule they invented when deciding whether or not to acquire a photo or snapshot.
“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.'"
Amazingly, a loving photo can be traced by looking into the models’ eyes. “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.”
Circa 1900, Note On Back: “In The Mirror.”
"This couple placed a camera on a dresser in front of a mirror and photographed their reflection. This image could be the first ‘selfie’ of a romantic male couple."
Hugh and Neal said that the overriding message of their book resides in its title “Loving.” “There is not 'gay' love, or 'straight' love. There is only 'love.' And because this romantic love is experienced by all humans the same way, everyone connects with LOVING.”
They added: “Our collection says this: 'Love does not have a sexual orientation. It is universally the same for all.'" The couple are “fortunate to have loving, supportive families. That being said, nearly thirty years ago, when we first began dating, it would be safe to say that our families didn't envision the loving relationship we already had, and still have today.”
Most importantly, they hope that if there are parents who realize their child is going to grow up and love someone of the same gender, maybe they will come across this photo book. “By looking into its past, see a loving future for their child,” Hugh and Neal concluded.