The photographs belong to Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell, who describe them as an ‘accidental’ collection of imagery. Just over 20 years ago, the pair stumbled across a black-and-white image, taken in the 1920s, of two young men embracing, and found themselves intrigued with who they were and how the photo had ended up in an antique shop in Dallas. “Taking such a photo, during a time when they would have been less understood than they would be today, was not without risk,” the duo write in the book’s intro.
This image launched the Nini-Treadwell collection, which saw the pair sorting through boxes and piles of old photos at shops and flea markets anywhere they travelled to. As it stands, they’ve acquired 2,800 images so far.
“In the beginning, we acquired photos because they spoke to us personally,” they explain. “Soon, we were actively looking for them. As we came across more and more, there was a sense that we were involved in some kind of rescue mission. These photos had stood the test of time for somewhere between 70 and 170 years, and we were now the custodians of these unlikely survivors of a world that is only just beginning to catch up with them.”
Treadwell and Nini had to set some parameters on what they would buy along the way, instituting a ‘50/50 rule’ that meant they had to be at least 50% sure the photograph was of two men that were romantically involved. They also uncovered some telling stories – for example a World War II soldier who’d saved a whole set of snapshots in a box together with a ring, and a request to keep them safe after he’d died, having been unable to come out publicly during his lifetime.
Some images, taken under umbrellas, speak to the secret code used in the mid 1800s up until the late 1920s – posing beneath meant the two men were involved with one another. And the images span the world, originating in five of the seven continents (Africa and Antarctica are the two missing).
Taken as a whole, the book offers up a fascinating collection of vernacular photography that’s also a moving set of images, and a reminder of the discrimination and need for secrecy many of these men were likely to have experienced in their lifetimes.
Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s is published by 5 Continents Editions, priced £52; fivecontinentseditions.com