There Was a Time When These Pictures Were a Secret. Now, They'll Finally Be Celebrated the Way They Deserve.

Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
From Esquire
Two men enter a junk shop. It's a lazy Sunday after church and they're not looking for anything special. Just looking. Past used armchairs, paintings, kitschy pieces of jewelry - and then one of them discovers a small box of black and white photos, maybe ten of them, old and faded, the edges roughened. One image catches the eye: two men in front of a house, arms wrapped around each other. It must be a hundred years old, but the look in her eyes? Timeless. And clearly.
When they stumbled upon this photo, Neal Treadwell, who works in the cosmetics industry, and Hugh Nini, a teacher at the Joffrey Ballet, had been together for eight years and immediately recognized the look. They grabbed the photo. And over the past 20 years, they have taken nearly 3,000 vintage photos of men in love with men. Now they are releasing Loving, a book of more than 300 images from their collection from before the Civil War to shortly after World War II that captures such deep connections - and exudes such pure happiness - that it simply overtakes you.
For some, these are just old snapshots or "found photos" that their owners left behind for reasons unknown. But Treadwell and Nini refer to them as "the unlikely survivors of a world just beginning to catch up with them". And when you leaf through her book, it feels like a small miracle that so many of these photos are even here. How many could there have been at the beginning? Perhaps the only thing protecting them was the desire of their owners to keep them secret, hidden away from the hands of disapproving relatives and the scars of time and sunlight.
Here Esquire picks a few favorites from Loving: A Photographic Story of Men in Love, 1850s-1950s.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
Where were these photos taken?
Many of the early pictures in the book were taken by traveling photographers who pulled up to a fair, circus, or even prayer meeting and pitched a studio tent. They often had a painted background and a few props. Given the time, Nini explains, "there was certainly some risk to the men." Yet there were photographers - "and I'm sure the men knew who they were," says Treadwell - who photographed the men like any other couple and helped them pose in certain ways so that they could express themselves . The picture above is likely from 1890-1910.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
Sometimes an umbrella isn't just an umbrella.
As you leaf through the book, you will find that many of the pictures look like they could have been taken yesterday, namely umbrellas. What is this all about? It's a visual code that for connoisseurs means romantic involvement. "We didn't think about the first umbrella photo we found. We thought it was just an umbrella," says Nini. "But then we kept seeing it. It's an intentionally encoded message." Interestingly, it is a message that transcends borders: your collection contains umbrella photos from the USA, Germany, Bulgaria and Serbia. It has also crossed the decades: “The earliest we have dates from the 1860s. And it goes back to the 1920s. After that, it mostly stops. No idea why. "This photo is probably from the 1910s.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
They got dressed for the occasion.
A hundred years ago it was a special occasion to be photographed. What you see in Loving are men who look like they took the carriage to the photo studio after a day on Wall Street, as well as those who seem to have come straight from the fields and may pause to remove a bit of dirt their overalls. Sometimes they even got dressed right away, perhaps to emphasize their close connection - as in this late 19th century picture, where men wore bow ties, popped their collars, and rolled up not only their sleeves but also their trouser cuffs. "Ordinarily, you wouldn't see someone fit that far," says Treadwell. "They went the extra mile."
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
A little body language goes a long way.
How can you tell when two men are in love rather than like close friends? Treadwell and Nini worked on the principle that you know when you see it: the tell-tale look in their eyes. "There's a softness in the face and then in the eyes," says Nini. "There is a sense of satisfaction." Sometimes the shimmer wasn't there, but the body language told the story, like in this arcade-style "Honeymoon Special" picture shot in front of a painted set. Here the gentlemen could have been mistaken for old friends, except for a lonely right index finger.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
There was a lot of love during the war.
"Military couples from around the world make up a disproportionately large number in our collection," says Nini. Up to 20 percent. You have lots of photos of Army and Navy men from WWII, but also some that date back to the Civil War. "It makes sense," he says. "If you were a man destined to fall in love with another man, the military was a good place." But this particular photo is a rarity, partly because of all the information it offers - their names are written on the picture, it's dated - but also because the men are black. "There are," says Nini, "very few romantic African American photos."
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
They were ready, ready, but unable.
Some pictures in Loving show sticky warmth. Some have a deep tenderness. This one from 1905 shows unusual bravery. Photographers kept props and signs ready to lighten the mood and maybe generate a little more business. That preprinted sign, Nini says, was usually reserved for a single man who walked in and notified the ladies that he was in the market. But the young men here have cleverly changed the meaning of the sign from advertising to proclamation. Imagine being in your late teens, maybe early 20's, in this era and making that kind of statement with that kind of confidence in your eye. "It's just an amazing sign of clarity about what they meant to each other at such a young age," says Nini. How do we know these young men were a couple? An accompanying photo shows her with an umbrella.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
Celebrating love in the style of the 60s
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the Pony Express began delivering mail, and this picture was taken. It's the oldest in the book.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
They document a hidden story.
Treadwell and Nini believe this photograph - about 115 years before the Equality Act came into force - could be the first documented marriage between two men. Everything is there: the "minister", the ring, the Bible and of course the umbrella. The photographer serves as a witness. This photo, says Treadwell, "is especially important to us because it says that Hugh and I and the way we feel are nothing new." We can document these feelings and dreams that go back to the very beginning of photography. "
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
It was a time for reflection.
While the love between two men could have been secret, someone actually had to take the picture to capture it in a picture. There was some risk involved with this, and the first modern photo booth with its promise of privacy didn't emerge until 1925. That's why this picture is special. Treadwell and Nini call it "perhaps a romantic male couple's first selfie". The men pose in front of a mirror and use an automatic shutter release. You can see the squeeze ball triggering the lock. Nini believes this could be the Faries Shutter Tripper, patented by Robert Faries in 1902.
Photo credits: Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions
Does love last
The couples in these pictures: what happened to them? "Some of them probably made it," says Nini. "Some probably didn't." We never know what happened outside of the frame, those moments of romance, courage, defiance and heartbreak that make up a life. What we do know is that at least in that split second of the camera's moment there was a moment that sure looked like love.
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