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Friends or Lovers?

Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s–1950s

Nini-Treadwell Collection (5 Continents: 2020)

Photographers have been making pictures of male affection since Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre invented the first photographic processes in the 1820s and 1830s. At first, professionals made images of carefully posed subjects in front of contrived backdrops; after the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera in 1900, snapshots taken by amateurs came to dominate. By the end of the twentieth century, these early images of men touching, holding hands, embracing, and occasionally kissing had become highly sought-after collectibles, especially by gay men.

What we cannot escape when looking at these photographs—such as the examples in the illustration above, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art—is the question of what is actually going on: What are the men doing in the photograph? What was the nature of their relationship—were they friends or lovers? And does it even matter?

It is difficult when looking at any old photograph to know exactly what it meant at the time it was taken. “Without an encompassing structure,” wrote David Trachtenberg in a study of Civil War photographs, “individual images remain empty signs, unable to communicate a determinate meaning.” It is in part this uncertainty that gives such photographs their timeless appeal. In his 2001 book Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840–1918, David Deitcher compared gay men’s relationship with antique photographs of “anonymous men” to “flirtation”: “Uncertain of anything that ever actually transpired between [them], the collector is free to imagine whatever he pleases.”

The problem of determining with any degree of certainty what actually happened, as opposed to what we may imagine happened, becomes particularly acute when we realize that mores have changed over time. In the nineteenth century, Deitcher wrote in Dear Friends, “American men and women were…encouraged to establish intense, even passionate, bonds of friendship with members of their own sex.” Citing historian Anthony Rotundo, he continued, “In the twentieth century…the ardor that had developed between such young men ‘would seem unusual outside of gay circles.’”

Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell began purchasing such photographs twenty years ago, and since then their collection has grown to encompass some 2,800 items. They have now made over 300 of these poignant images available in the beautifully produced volume Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s–1950s.

Most of the photographs Nini and Treadwell chose for the book depict two men together, usually touching. They show men posing in studios, lying on the beach, arm in arm, kissing—soldiers at ease, a cowboy dance, and two youths holding a sign saying, “NOT MARRIED BUT WILLING TO BE” (view gallery). There are many tender expressions and much affection, and the pictures are a true pleasure to admire and to study.

In the introductory essay, Nini and Treadwell acknowledge that “social norms regarding what is an acceptable display of affection between two male friends has [sic] changed over time.” They explain that they only purchase a photograph for their collection if they “believe that it’s at least 50% likely that we’re looking at two men who are romantically involved.” Sometimes, for them, the clue is an “embrace that leaves no doubt that the relationship exceeds friendship or fondness.” Other times it is an “unmistakable look that two people have when they are in love.”

The question is whether two collectors’ inevitably subjective reading of body language in old photographs, mostly separated from their historical context, provides a reliable guide to what was in two men’s hearts 60, 100, or 170 years ago. Some of their examples seem to me fairly unambiguous: One postcard shows two men holding hands, fingers interlocked, while a third man stands behind them with his arms on their shoulders. According to the catalog, a note on the postcard reads, “John, David – Eddie 1915. David shared Eddie’s feelings for another kind of love.”

Others seem to me less certain, including many in which two men appear arm in arm, temples touching, or head resting on shoulder, smiling and perhaps looking at each other, but with no further clues about their relationship. Absent additional research, it seems to me that many of these photographs could mean anything or nothing. And if we dated and located them, conducted historical and iconographical research, and so forth, absent a smoking gun, we could still only say, “The balance of probability suggests that…”

Even some truly remarkable photographs may or may not mean what they seem: One undated postcard shows what appears to be a same-sex wedding, with one young man officiating while a smiling couple exchanges rings under a parasol. It is a beautiful and fascinating image, and such private ceremonies of commitment undoubtedly took place. But without knowing more about the context, we cannot say for sure, and it is possible to construct alternative, equally plausible explanations—a nervous groom rehearsing, for example, while his best man plays the role of the bride.

Should it even matter to us what was really going on in these photographs? In Dear Friends, Deitcher cited Walt Whitman on appearances and first impressions: “Though well aware of the dangerous likelihood that ‘reliance and hope are but speculations after all,’ the poet settles on the life-affirming hopefulness of the largely imaginary sense of connection.” For me, at least, seeing myself reflected in an image of two young men from a century ago is one of the greatest sources of “life-affirming hopefulness” there is, no matter how imaginary my sense of connection may be.

Illustration by gay·F·fect based on works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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