A book chronicles a Texan couple’s collection of over 3,000 photographs, which started with a chance find in a Dallas antique shop
It was 20 years ago, when Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell were sifting through old photographs of 1920s suburban houses in an antique shop in Dallas, that their lives – and their relationship – changed forever. “At the bottom of the pile was a black and white photo of two young men romantically embracing one another – they were clearly in love!” the couple remembers today. “The photo seemed to look back and reflect to us ourselves.”
Nini and Treadwell had never collected photography before, but the subjects’ courage to pose for such an intimate picture against scrutiny intrigued them. When they acquired the photograph on an idyllic Sunday, the couple was unaware that they’d eventually collect over 3,000 photographs of the same subject. Milan-based 5 Continents Editions recently published the book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, which includes 315 images selected from their collection of anonymous lovers photographed roughly between war-ridden years of 1850 and 1950. A current exhibition at creative agency Hogarth Worldwide’s New York office displays larger format prints from the selection.
The amassing of Loving is a story of chance encounter as much as of the couple’s curiosity for gay ancestry. A year after the initial photograph, they found a second photograph of two lovers in New York. A handful of discoveries later, Nini and Treadwell thought they were, “preserving a few unlikely survivors, and it would still be many years and hundreds of photos before we realised that we in fact had a collection.”
Between flea markets, antique shops, and photography vendors across Paris, Budapest, and the US, the couple found themselves on a project to document love deemed vile at its time. “These men’s memento of their love had to be kept secret for its very survival, but how these photos survived after their lives is anyone’s guess.” The lack of male romanticism represented in media – unlike sex which has somewhat been a subject for underground or institutional photography – was an initial drive for the couple.
“We were basically sleepwalking through all of this and didn’t make notes or take records,” they explain of their early years. “Simply we had no idea what was in our future as it relates to our collection.” They’re still wildly curious about each couple’s backstory, but the pictures’ charm lies in the mystery. Considering their time’s realities, the affection expressed in the images is bold and kept out of sight. Secluded beaches, desolate farms, and uninhabitated forests are the backdrops for a passionate kisses and tight hugs. In a series of pictures, the couples lie in beds, free from prying eyes gazes outside, or sail off for a guaranteed isolation in the water. A photograph, which is believed to be shot between 1930 and 1940, shows a couple perched on a paper moon while one man rests his arm over the other’s shoulder. In another undated picture, the couple’s eyes lock under an umbrella. The era’s sartorial trends are notable, with sharp dandy suits, sailor hats, and tight white tees. Regardless, joy inherent to being in love remains prevalent.
After 30 years together, Nini and Treadwell believe their collection embodies their own relationship, too. “The pictures taught us that we’re nothing new or special in the world and that people like us, and others, have always existed.”
Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, published by 5 Continents Editions, is out now.