It is said that images have the strength to explain something that words can’t, and if that is to be believed then the importance of gaze intensifies. The audience’s gaze on an image determines the ways of looking and deciphering of that image. This gaze also determines the things that we miss out on. We oftentimes bypass the presence of queerness in everyday reality, and that is why perhaps two men holding hands on the roads of Delhi isn’t something out of the ordinary. It is a way of showing affection to a friend, but when it comes to the West, holding hands or physical proximity between male friends hasn’t really been a cultural thing. These littlest of queer moments in the history have been compiled and served to us in the photography collection ‘Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s’ by Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell. The book reiterates the presence of queerness in the human history, while also showing how our perspective and gaze has always been too hetero-normative to recognize these little moments of queerness. An exhaustive collection covering the period of 100 years, ‘Loving’ tries to demystify the notion of queerness as an import and shows with photographic examples the presence of queer love and desire between men from the 1850s to the 1950s. It carries over 2,800 photos, sometimes professional portraits and some others personal and private moments captured, in what seems to be an urge to memorialize these relationships which were unspoken of in the public sphere during that period.
The authors spent two decades to collect and compile all these photos of men which remained unpublished till now. In the collection’s foreword, the authors explain how they stumbled upon a photo of two men from the 1920s in an antique shop in Dallas. They write, “These two men, in front of a house, were embracing and looking at one another in a way that only two people in love would do… 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 today, was not without risk”. They found photos in the most unexpected of places like in shoe boxes, flea markets and also in estate sales, online auctions etc. Oftentimes, when collections like these appear, they seem to focus only on the West and delightfully ignore other parts of the world. However, this collection cares to bring in some diversity and covers a plethora of region as the authors spoke about in one of their interviews: “It has photos from all the continents except for Africa and Antarctica”. It includes images from countries like Japan, the UK, the USA, Bulgaria, Canada, and Latvia among others.
It is a diverse collection when we see it from the perspective of relationships as well, sometimes the boundaries thinly drawn and some others times in brazen gutsiness like the one where two men hold a preprinted sign that reads: “Not Married But Willing to Be”. The fluid representation of love, desire and intimacy enables the collection to expand upon the moments of desires in queer spaces and representations. While images of homosociality have been common in the vintage collections of photographs, the authors here stress that they have avoided any kind of instance of homosociality. They note that in order to determine that the image is representation of romantic love; they focused on the eyes of these men and in a rhetorical sense proclaim that two people in love have an “unmistakable look” which they cannot hide. In that sense, the curatorial efforts of the authors are based on both presumptions as well as general universal notions of how people are supposed to act in love. Putting that aside, the photos have other diverse elements including the curatorial effort of covering men from different backgrounds from working class individuals to aristocrats, military personnel to farmers, and more, giving us a rounded outlook of the society, in general, during those times.
These photos also challenge boundaries, for example, the authors have made an effort to include biracial couples into the collection, in addition to how it has covered numerous countries presenting a more rounded outlook. It presents us with intimate desires of men, who were living in a time when desires between people of the same gender was frowned upon and strictly prohibited. These unspoken desires that were played in closed rooms, barracks and hostels were somewhat meekly peeking into the tiniest of gestures in the images. It could be both the men holding hands, or just putting their arms around each other, not explicitly giving way to queer portrayal of desires, but somewhere symbolically providing an outlet to their love. The fact that love is universal and that we share this feeling irrespective of our gender, orientation, caste, creed, colour etc comes to the fore when we see these images. ‘Loving’ speaks to our universal desire for love and longing, but does so with photos of men loving each other when love between them was prohibited.
An interesting way to look at the collection is how it also captures the intricacies of the war period, since it covers the time between the Civil War, World War and other important world events. In an interview with the BBC, the authors mention an interesting anecdote, where they talk about how two soldiers who were fighting during the World War in Germany took pictures of themselves during and after the war ended. The authors note how the first few images they found of the couple were ‘tame’ in the way that they were standing next to each other and posing like friends do. They reiterate that there is one image in particular, from a time after these images, where they are both posing in a meadow with rings on their wedding fingers and in close proximity. The authors note that this is the moment they realized that their suspect of these two friends being more than friends was right and they started looking more into the body language and eye gestures of these men in the photos.
When archival images resurface in the present times, it reflects so much about the times that it belongs to. Similarly, this collection traces the changing social norms, the styles, behavior, and fashion among other things and in that sense it is of an anthropological importance as well. It also traces the journey of photography as it changed throughout the decades. It presents us with a slice of life from the bygone times, and contextualizes how it must have been to live in a time when queerness was not even a concept in itself. People were living queerly even before the inception of the etymological concept of queerness which came in late 1900s.
The collection is an important milestone in the history of photographic collections of queerness as it not only asserts how queerness has always been part of our lives, but also presents an antithesis to the rising monolithic sense of heteronormativity, closely linked to the political changes in the world. It paves the way for the future generations to base their politics upon the fact that queerness is not an import; it is essentially human, existing since time immemorial in crevices of friendships and unnamed relationships owing to societal perception of same-sex bonding. It shifts the gaze from heteronormativity and brings queerness into the history of photographic journey. It is aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating to see images of men in love with each other and expressions of love in a time when ‘love’ was only socially sanctioned between opposite genders. It empowers the gazing audience with the brazen brevity of the men who loved against all odds and memorialized their moments that we witness today. Nini and Treadwell, rightly note, “The subjects of our photos, with the release of LOVING, will publicly narrate their own lives for the first time in history. And far from being ostracized or condemned, they will be celebrated and loved. And the love that they shared will inspire others, as they have us. Love does not have a sexual orientation. Love is universal.”
About the Authors: Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell are art professionals currently living in New York City.