This article was originally published on VICE Italy.
Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell are Texan art collectors, who got “unofficially” married in 1992. In 2006, the couple was finally officially able to tie the knot in Massachusetts, “the only place in the US where it was possible to get married”. To do so, they not only had to get on a plane, but legally “set up residence in Boston, with an address, utilities, phone service, and a bank account,” as then-Governor Mitt Romney had revived a forgotten law from 1913 preventing Massachusetts from becoming, in his words, “the Las Vegas of same-sex marriage”.
At some point between these two weddings, among a pile of vintage pictures at an antique store in Texas, Hugh and Neal found an image that blew their minds: in front of a small 1920s-style house “were two young men, embracing and gazing at one another, clearly in love”. The photo dated back to when same-sex relationships were illegal not only in the States, but in most countries across the world.
The two collectors thought the photo must be one-of-a-kind, but soon after they found another in an online auction. This one showed two soldiers in the 1940s, posing cheek-to-cheek, with an etching on the art deco glass frame that said, “Yours always.”
Thanks to the pair’s formidable research and passion, today their collection amounts to over 2,800 vintage photographs spanning from roughly 1850 to 1951, shot in Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Japan, Latvia, the UK and the USA.
The story of the collection is told by Hugh and Neal in the essay “An accidental collection”, included in their book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, published by 5 Continents Editions.
Over the years, the pair studied the images, attempting to decode the signs of “one hundred years of social history”, and found some recurring symbols.
For example, they suggest that posing together under an umbrella, between the 1880s and 1920s, probably signified a romantic relationship; that wedding rings, bracelets and other tokens became increasingly common and reached a peak during WWII, when they were donned mainly by sailors and soldiers; and that photo booths (which appeared in the USA from 1924) were significant because, as they didn’t require a photographer or a developer, they allowed a couple to take a portrait without the fear of being “caught”.
So who did shoot the portraits of these lovers? By 1902, Robert Faries had invented a rudimentary device to shoot self-portraits, but it doesn’t appear to have been used in many of these pictures. The answer, according to the collectors, is that couples would get help from friends and family. Proof of this comes from some of the pictures collected in the book, depicting not just the couple but also – to use a modern term – their allies.
Today, homosexuality is still illegal in 70 countries around the world, and many LGBTQ people are still forced to either be discreet when it comes to expressing love, or to live in complete secrecy. These old photos remind us that such cruel laws still exist, and give us a candid insight into hidden love from the past.