Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell’s stunning new book, LOVING A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, is a collection of previously unpublished vernacular photography depicting romantic love between men that powerfully and movingly reasserts both that love is love and that we’ve always been here. A married couple themselves, Neal, who works in the cosmetic industry and Hugh, a former ballet dancer turned ballet teacher, have been together for nearly three decades. While browsing in an antique store in Dallas, Texas around 20 years ago, the pair stumbled across a photograph from the 1920s of two men in a tender embrace. That unexpected discovery sparked a passion that has resulted in their still growing “accidental collection” of around 3,000 photographs of men in love. A selection of over 300 of these images is featured in their beautifully produced new book which was published internationally on October 14th 2020.
These images of men loving men document the progression in photographic techniques and presentation, with the inclusion of ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, glass negatives, tintypes, cabinet cards, photo postcards, photo strips, photomatics, and snapshots, while changes in fashion and societal behaviour are also evident. Sometimes taken in public settings, surrounded by friends and family, sometimes in private, the photographs often capture loving gazes between the couples. The Nin-Treadwell collection is predominantly from the United States, but also includes images from across the globe including Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Japan, Latvia, and the UK.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell about how their collection began, the patterns in body language that they’ve discovered in the images, what they’ve learned about some of the men in the photographs, and why the book appeals to such a wide audience.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How did you first meet and how long have you been together as a couple?
Hugh Nini: “We’ve been together nearly thirty years. We met in 1992 in a bar that was called 4001 back then, in Dallas, Texas. That night it was just a very a brief exchange. ‘Hello, how are you?’ And that was it, nothing more.”
Neal Treadwell: “But, as I was leaving I put my number in his back pocket.”
Hugh: “Then about two weeks later, I called him up and asked him out on a date.”
How would you describe what coming out was like for each of you? I also wondered if you had encountered a book like LOVING when you were younger how that might have helped you in terms of self-acceptance?
Hugh: “The only hesitation I had in accepting that I was gay back in the 1960s was that I didn’t have any clear path forward to what life would look like. There was no modelling for me, and so I sort of lived like a monk basically. I never had any qualms about being gay though. I was sure that I was right and that everybody around me was wrong and that I just needed to wait for the world to catch up with me, and that finally did happen. In terms of gay representation, fortunately we now have lots of examples on TV and in movies and so forth, but what we didn’t have until this book was published is a clear look into the past, but now we do.”
Neal: “Mine was a little different. I was out to friends, but I wasn’t out to my family until Hugh and I met when I was in my late twenties. Part of the family took it really good, but part of the family didn’t. I didn’t speak to my father for 10 years. It was disappointing to have someone say that they love you every day and then all of a sudden they don’t. He has come around now and he’s very accepting of us, and is trying to be a part of our lives which is great, but it was difficult for that part of my life. When we started working on the book, Hugh produced a video of images that we were going to include. When I showed it to my mother, who has been so supportive of us all along, you could just see her shoulders relax, because it was a different narrative that she was seeing and it resulted in a different understanding of her feelings towards us. It was beautiful, and our conversations have changed a little bit. Then when my younger brother saw the photographs he was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is love!’ And so those who have embraced it in my family are our cheerleaders and they’re speaking about the book and sharing it with their friends. So it’s made a big difference.”
Hugh: “It is definitely something that we need as a community, and it certainly seems to be serving the purpose we hoped it would. More than that though, what we hope for, and what we dream of and pray for, is that parents who are raising children who are going to end up being gay will find this book and they’ll be able to see a loving, happy future for their children, and will approach their children in a different way than has been historical so far.”
What was the first photograph that you came across and what was it that spoke to you about it?
Hugh: “We actually had to revisit it recently because we’d misremembered the details of it. We’d thought that the men were facing each other, but the first photograph we came across and bought was taken around the 1920s, and there’s one man hugging the other from behind in a relaxed embrace. It’s very sweet and very tender. It didn’t make the book because it wasn’t clear enough to reproduce.”
Although I’ve encountered ancient same sex love in literature and we know of writers that were probably gay, I think there’s just something about photographs that feels like proof that we’ve always been here and had romantic relationships, which is important because so much or our history has been hidden or not preserved and passed down.
Hugh: “Well, E.M. Forster wrote Maurice in 1913, and kept it a secret until after he died in the 1970s. That’s what they were facing then and our book is allowing men like E.M. Forster, and Clive and Maurice, and countless others, to narrate their own lives for the first time in history. We can talk about our lives today, and Neal and I got married and our family and friends were in attendance and that was wonderful, but these couples didn’t have that option. The only way that they could preserve little mementos of their relationship was with a photograph, hidden from the world and kept hidden until the time was right. Now this is the time.”
Neal: ‘Something that we’re really curious about is that you can tell whether the photograph was folded and then kept in a wallet and carried around, or if it’s still pristine then it was likely kept in a drawer. The oldest one we have is dated at around 1845, so it’s more than 170 years old. It’s an ambrotype, and one assumes that it was kept hidden for all these years and transferred from several different hands down through the family, which is incredible. There are a few photographs though that do show supportive friends and family, but they are few and far between.”
Hugh: “In fact there is a period, between around 1890 and 1929, where there’s definitely more openness, and more family and friends are involved in the photographs. During the 170 year period that our collection covers there weren’t organised groups flush with money and a whole political party behind them bent on making our lives miserable. This is a new phenomenon, what we’re facing now. We just bought a photograph of two young men fully kissing on the lips in an embrace surrounded by school friends who are all clapping and smiling. It has a date, 1923, so it falls within that time period where it certainly seems like there was more openness and acceptance, more joy and more happiness both amongst the couples themselves and in their surroundings.”
Over the years so many similar photographs must have been discarded or destroyed, so I’m happy that these images have found their way to you to be looked after and shared with the world. In the book’s introduction you describe your collection as a kind of “rescue mission”, could you give me an insight into that aspect of it?
Neal: “Yes, it is a rescue mission! When we found the first couple we didn’t think that there were many photographs out there like that, but as we found more we knew we had to take better care of what we had. In the beginning, we were just putting them in a file cabinet, but then we made an album for them.”
Hugh: “Never in a million years did we think we’d now be sitting on 3,000 photographs, and that the first album would turn into 12 albums.”
One thing that’s fascinating as you go through the book is the body language and the way that the men in the photographs are looking at each other. What are some of the things that you look out for that make it clear that the men are in love, and were there any recurring patterns or themes that you began to see in the images as your collection grew?
Hugh: “Oh, yeah, the little signals that are there are wonderful. If you look at the very first photograph inside the book, I’m not going to give it away, but I’ll just tell you that there is a telltale sign that makes it a 100% certainty that this is a male couple in a romantic relationship. We’ll leave it for your readers to study that photograph. We’d actually owned that photograph for a couple of years before we saw it ourselves.”
Neal: “Sorting through the photographs to put them in albums I discovered there was a common thread in their embraces and it wasn’t that it was within a certain time period, say the 1930s or 40s, it went all the way from the 1850s up through the 1950s. Whether it was the over the shoulder finger holder or the double handhold, there were also the umbrella photographs.”
Hugh: “These poses and the way they would embrace each other, the intricacies, there would be no way for them to have seen somebody else do this and copy it. This is something that sprang organically from all over the world, all across time and geography. The similarities are incredible, and Neal is the one who spotted that. I had never looked at them that way before.”
Neal: “It wasn’t until I had a couple of hundred of them spread out on a table that I started to see those patterns. It was like playing a card game, seeing what matched.”
The symbolism of the umbrella is interesting, isn’t it? In the 1700s it was apparently seen as a sign of “dandyism” and being “effeminate”, so there’s quite a long standing association with umbrellas and men being perceived as gay.
Hugh: “You found more information on it than we’ve been able to, the only thing we’re going on is the collection. The first umbrella photograph that we collected was only because of the way the men were looking at each other, and they happened to be holding an umbrella, we didn’t think anything of it. Then we found another photo of two guys in love looking at each other and again there was another umbrella, and we still didn’t pick up on it yet. I think we have 50 umbrella photos now. It was definitely a statement that they were making intentionally, not that people were making about them, but that they were making about themselves that said, we are a romantic couple. The oldest one probably goes back to the 1860s, and then it ends after the 1920s. We don’t see any more after that.”
Neal: “You’re always going to get someone who’s going to question whether it’s actually a gay couple in a photograph, but it’s really interesting because with the image of the two men holding that ‘Not Married But Willing To Be’ sign, when you look at the whole photo strip there’s actually a photograph of the same couple right beside it. In that other photo we see them holding the stem of an umbrella, their fingers are locked together, and they have a beautiful look, they’re staring into each other’s eyes. So there’s a full story of that couple, and we have five photos of them. I think the umbrellas is also about unity and protection as well. There’s the photograph that we have of the gay wedding towards the back of the book, and one man is sliding a ring onto the other man’s finger, and they’re holding an umbrella so it’s canopied behind them.”
How did you go about deciding which images to include in the book?
Hugh: “Initially our publisher asked us to come up with our top 600 photographs, and it was excruciating to get down to that many, let alone getting down to the final 327 that were published. There are definitely photos in our collection that belong in the book, but there are only so many pages available, so we chose the ones that had the clearest, strongest message. Some photographs are obviously better than others. There’s a scale which we call the 50/50 rule. When we look at a photograph we have to be at least 50% sure that it’s a romantic male couple, because sometimes they’re very subdued, but there’s a look in the eyes that indicates that they’re are a couple, and if it’s not expensive we’ll collect it, but there are no 50/50 images in the book. They’re all 99.9 percenters.”
Neal: “And then some of the photographs that we absolutely love, and that are strong enough to be in the book, you really couldn’t reproduce them because they were just a little too blurred or too dark. We didn’t want to change the photograph from its natural state to work in the book, so those were eliminated as well.”
There isn’t much racial diversity in the book, does that reflect the photographs that you’ve come across generally?
Neal: “Yes, there are only two photographs of men of colour in the book and the reason for that is because those images are so rare and so hard to find. We probably have about 12 in our collection, maybe a few more. The only one that we’ve come across that we don’t have is because we were out-bid on it. We have asked specifically for photographs of men of colour and people are looking for us around the world, but they’re just they’re not there.”
What about the range of social classes that we see in the images?
Hugh: “Well, it’s beautiful. I love the hillbillies. There are two photographs of them out in the middle of nowhere, and a there’s a wooden shack, and they’re embracing on a wall and sitting on the porch, and one is sitting on the other one’s lap. It makes me wonder how they met. It’s incredible, they can’t be within horse riding distance of more than five or six people, but somehow this young couple found each other. Then there’s what we call the ‘Boris and Clive’ photograph, which is of two beautifully well-dressed handsome men in a cabinet card that was posed for in a studio. So the images run the gamut from the most disenfranchised part of society up to it’s upper crust.”
Neal: “From a photography standpoint, back in the 1860s and 70s, a paper photograph was more expensive than what they called a tintype. That’s a photograph that’s on a hard piece of tin, and they would’ve been taken at a circus or a fare or at church, somewhere like that. There’s no negative, it’s just photographed and then printed directly on to the metal and handed to the person and they walk away with it. That was less expensive than a paper photograph, so a lot of people of all different classes were able to have a photograph taken like that.”
Hugh: “It was like the Polaroid Instamatic of the 1800s.”
Have you found out anything about any of the men in the photos?
Hugh: “A professor from Vienna contacted us the day after the book launch and told us that the couple on pages 210 and 211 is Rupert Brooke the poet and Duncan Grant the painter. So we immediately Googled their images, and if that isn’t Rupert Brooke and Duncan Grant then it’s their identical twins!”
Neal: “Also, a lady reached out to us and said that one of the guys in one of the photo booth shots looks so much like her grandfather. She showed us some family photos, but none of them were of him at that age, so we couldn’t be certain that it was him, but it was a positive conversation. We’re hoping that as the book gets out there, more men will be recognised and more stories will come out that we’ll be able to share with our followers on social media. We already knew one story which is in our introductory essay to the book about the two guys in the snow.”
Hugh: “Yes, that’s the only image that we have where there’s a known living relative who knows the story of the subjects. It’s of two soldiers from World War II that fought across Germany in the 42nd Infantry Division, the Rainbow Division, which has nothing to do with rainbow flag. It was named the Rainbow Division in 1917, and it was the division that liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. When we first came across the photograph though seeing these two soldiers posing in front of a brick wall with a rainbow painted across it did seem kind of interesting, given the symbolism of the rainbow to us now, but it didn’t have anything to do with their romantic relationship. We spoke to the nephew of one of the men who we got the photographs from about whether his uncle had actually been at Dachau when it was liberated. He paused for a second and then said, ‘They liberated it? Well, I have photographs that my uncle took of the gate and the boxcar with the bodies piled up.’ It is a horrifying photograph, but very famous. So his uncle John and Dariel were actually at Dachau for the liberation as turns out, and there’s photographic proof of that and the nephew still has those photographs. The ring that John, the man in the front of the photo, is wearing is still worn by his nephew every day in honour of his uncle. The first photograph that we collected of those two men was actually a 50/50 photograph, but for $10 we thought we’d take a chance on it. Then the photograph of them in the snow showed up about a month later.”
What about when it comes to inscriptions and notes on the photographs, what have some of the highlights been with those discoveries?
Hugh: “We have a photograph from the early 1900s, which is not in the book, it’s of two college guys in their dormitory room, laying on the bed embracing. Somebody went back and put devil horns on one of them and a moustache, and on the back the first thing that was written is something loving like, ‘You are the most beautiful creature that ever breathed air.’ That’s all scratched out and written over that is something like, ‘You are the most heartless, horrible person I’ve ever known.’ So it shows the arc of their relationship, which didn’t end well!”
Neal: “There’s another one that says on the back of it: ‘Eddie, 1915. David shared Eddie’s feelings for another kind of love.”
What’s the reaction been to the book so far?
Hugh: “It’s been unbelievable. Neal has become an Instagram expert and our followers have multiplied by the thousands in the last two weeks. He gets messages from people all over the world.”
Neal: “Yes, I’ve been speaking to people in Poland, and a woman from Finland got in touch the other day. I asked her what had drawn her to the book and she said, ‘The photos are so loving. My husband and I just thought they were beautiful so we had to have it.'”
Hugh: “Neal and I purchased the first 1,000 copies of a special limited edition that are signed and numbered, and that started back in March.”
Neal: “At certain levels people purchasing the book can ask us to dedicate it to someone when we sign it. So we’ll be walking along the street looking at emails of what people are requesting and you just go into happy tears, it’s emotional. One of the dedications said something like, ‘To my grandson John and to his boyfriend Bob on your engagement. We’re so happy for you, love Grandma and Grandpapa.’ So there are grandparents buying the book for their grandson who’s getting married. There was a dad who wrote a dedication for his daughter. There are straight couples that are buying the book and writing the most beautiful notes for dedications, so we’re seeing that it’s really affecting everyone. Receiving those requests has been emotional and the book feels like it’s something that allows people to connect with someone in their family or a friend.”
Hugh: “Actually a former student of mine from the 80s, Gary, who’s a heterosexual man in his forties got in touch. I knew his family and Gary really well, and his father came out recently at quite an advanced age, he’s in his seventies, and Gary bought a copy of the book for him. We knew going into this that it wasn’t going to be a “gay book”, but that it would be about something that’s universal. What we’ve seen in just the two weeks since the launch is that the audience for it is everybody; grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and so forth. It’s reaching a very wide audience and that’s really the message of the book; love is not straight, it’s not gay, it’s not bi, it’s just love and we all feel it the same way, we all experience it the same way. It’s not a different kind of love for us than it is for a straight couple. It’s the same love and that message is penetrating, and we’re grateful for that.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, book, TV series, play, opera, piece of music, artwork, or person? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you over the years and resonated with you, and why?
Hugh: “One of my favourites is a film from 1986 called Parting Glances. It was written and directed by Bill Sherwood and it was the only film he ever made. He curated all of the music for the film, and he chose classical music because it was free, but what he chose fits the movie so well. Being made in 1985 and released in 1986 we were in the thralls of the AIDS pandemic then, so it relates to that in the movie a little bit. It was way ahead of its time, and it’s a film that is really about love more than anything else, even love that ended but still lingers between his best friend and the man he lives with whom his heart belongs to. I think they made it for about $40,000, so it was super low budget. And, John Bolger who plays the boyfriend, is the great-nephew of Ray Bolger, who plays the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. I think Parting Glances is a wonderful film. I found it on TV somewhere in Dallas in the late 80s, and I have my own DVD of it, so I still watch it every once in a while.”
And how about you Neal?
Neal: “When we were living in Dallas we went to the Cathedral of Hope for about 18 years. It’s the largest predominantly LGBT church in the United States. We were fortunate that at Easter we’d always have different singers come along and sing with us. And one that was pretty emotional, because she had just come out, was Nell Carter from the sitcom Gimme a Break! She had such a gorgeous voice. She came to the church with her wife and their two kids. Unfortunately, she passed away a couple of years after that. But those were always emotional and beautiful times that we had. There was also a gay couple that came to the church several times, they were the sweetest guys, Jason Warner and deMarco Deciccio, they have several albums out as Jason and deMarco, and they’re very inspirational and their music is really good too.”
By James Kleinmann
LOVING A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s published by 5 Continents Editions is available now priced at $65 USD. ISBN: 9788874399284.
For details on LOVING: The First 1000, a special, signed and numbered limited edition of the book priced between $100 and $1000 USD head to loving1000.org.
Follow LOVING on Twitter @NTreadwell and Instagram @LovingByNealandHugh.
I have a couple of post cards of male couples, undated but probably pretty old. They’re not quite embracing but from their poses I can’t help thinking that they were more than just friends. I’d love to send them to Nini and Treadwell.