When Hugh Nini and Neil Treadwell stumbled upon an old photograph in an antique store in Dallas, Texas, they saw themselves reflected in it.
Filmed around 1920, it showed two men in front of a house posing in a loving embrace at a time when being gay was not only frowned upon but actually illegal.
“He represented us, so we bought the photograph, took it home and kept it on our desks for six or nine months,” Treadwell recalled in a phone interview from the couple’s home in New York. “It was a random find and we never thought we’d find another one.”
However, in the two decades since, the couple have unearthed much more – in fact, scouring auction houses, flea markets and flea markets, they have amassed an archive of nearly 3,000 images of men in love.
Photograph on thin paper, known as a visiting card, dating from around 1880. Scroll to see more images from Love: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s-1950s. Credit: Courtesy of Nini-Treadwell/5 Continents Editions
Filmed between the mid-19th century and just after World War II and filmed on five continents, the collection includes portraits and candid shots of couples lying in bed, picnicking on the grass and posing next to their cars. Nini and Treadwell may not know under what circumstances the pictures were taken, but they believe the characters’ body language and mutual gazes are unmistakably those of romantic lovers.
“This book means for the first time that these people, these couples, can speak for themselves,” Nini said. “They couldn’t do it when they were alive, but they can do it now and I think it’s really powerful.”
The image is believed to be from the turn of the 20th century. Same-sex marriage was legalized in the US over 100 years later. Credit: Courtesy of Nini-Treadwell/5 Continents Editions
Given that many of the images were taken at a time when taking, processing or storing such photographs could pose a significant risk to personal safety or even freedom, the photographs also represent individual acts of bravery, he added.
“These couples did something very risky because they really cared about each other. They immortalized their feelings with these photographs and then were forced to hide them forever,” he said.
However, there are historical examples in their collection of men exchanging rings and participating in informal wedding ceremonies. One image, believed to be from the turn of the 20th century, shows a young couple holding a sign that reads “Single but wants to be married.”
In addition to showing the evolution of attitudes, hairstyles and fashion over the decades, the images also depict the development of photography as a medium. The oldest images in the collection were made using early camera molds and include ambrotypes that were created on glass and daguerreotypes that appeared on metal plates.
In addition to staged portraits, the collection also includes images of couples lying in bed and having picnics. Credit: Courtesy of Nini-Treadwell/5 Continents Editions
The archive comes to the advent of paper photography, and then photo booths, which, like the various shots taken in the reflections of mirrors, eliminated the need to trust the photographer.
And while Nini and Treadwell know next to nothing about their subjects, they know even less about where physical photographs have been in subsequent decades.
“Some of the photos have creases so they may have been folded up and put away in a purse, while some were left intact because they were hidden in a book or in a desk drawer,” Treadwell said.
“We wonder what kind of trip it was – not only for the couple, but also for the photo that was passed to each other. Has it been shared by friends? Was she marked by family? How did she get into our hands?
Undated image believed to have been taken in the USA. Credit: Courtesy of Nini-Treadwell/5 Continents Editions
Thus, the viewer is left to imagine the stories behind each photo. According to the couple, the breadth of positive reviews for the collection is a testament to the universality of love.
“It’s very comforting and rewarding to know that this makes sense, and that this applies to both those who are 18 or 20 years old, and grandparents who look at (photos) because their grandchildren are gay. Either it’s an elderly gay or straight people – the whole gamut,” Treadwell said.
“The message of our book is not about sexuality at all,” Nini added. “Our position is that love has no sexuality – it is universal.”