October is LGBT History Month (not to be confused with Pride Month!), a time for us to honor and celebrate the many LGBTQ+ voices that have impacted our society. Twenty years ago, couple Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell found a photograph of two men embracing from around 1920. They bought the picture, which they thought was one of a kind until they discovered another.
They kept collecting: scouring online sites, searching at photography shows, and connecting with sellers. Over 320 of those images are part of their new book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s. It features men in love and showing affection when there was a significant risk in documenting it.
In 1969, when the cops raided Stonewall Inn, its patrons – gays, lesbians, and transgender – pushed back and ignited the modern gay rights movement in the US. It took until 2015 for same-sex marriage to be legal
There is something that transcends time periods, nationalities, and social standing: the look of love.
And it was these glances and gazes that led couple Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell to amass a singular photographic trove of men in love that spans 100 years. Images that show bold men from the United States and around the world embracing, kissing, and holding hands when documenting such affections were risky.
‘The main driving force of the collecting is the unmistakable look in the couple’s eyes,’ Hugh Nini told DailyMail.com. ‘It’s something that you can’t hide,’ Neal Treadwell added.
What started out 20 years ago, as Nini put it, ‘killing time on a Sunday afternoon’ has turned into a new book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, which features over 320 pictures that have never been published before. The images range from workers wearing overalls to members of the upper crust elegantly dressed in the late 1800s, to soldiers in uniform from World War II and the 1950s.
#1 1945, Photo Taken In Austria
loving1000 – “In 1945, these two soldiers had hiked up into the Austrian Alps and a friend took their picture as they embraced in the snow. One soldier kept these snapshots hidden in a shoebox until the early 1990s when he handed them to a relative, along with the ring that he was wearing in the Alps photo, with the request: “Please keep these safe for me.” According to the relative, the soldier, nearing the end of his life, wanted to preserve the one thing that meant more to him than anything else. He passed away two years later.”
#2 Photo Strip: Circa 1900, Provenance: Us
#3 Photograph: Undated
Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell call it their accidental collection. In February 2000, the couple was ‘killing time on a Sunday afternoon’ after church at an antique mall in Texas. They found a photograph of two men embracing from around 1920 and were immediately drawn to it. ‘We felt like we were looking at ourselves,’ Treadwell told DailyMail.com. They bought the image. Above, a picture from their collection and their new book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, from circa 1910. Nini explained that it was a postcard that also had the pair’s name, ‘E. Thieniann & M. Hunter.’ He said: ‘This was an embrace that repeated often’
#4 Photograph: Undated
#6 Postcard: Circa 1900, Provenance: Us
loving1000 – “Here are two well-dressed young men sharing an umbrella. One is placing a wedding ring on the other’s finger.”
#7 Photograph: Undated
Amazingly, a loving photo can be traced by looking into the models’ eyes. “We look into their eyes. There is an unmistakable look that two people have when they are in love. You can’t manufacture it. And if you’re experiencing it, you can’t hide it.”
Most importantly, while working on the photo book, Nini and Treadwell realized that the notion of them as a loving couple was not a new one. “What we have learned from our collection is that we’re not new.”
On the contrary, the creators behind the beautiful book found out that “We, and other couples like us, both male and female, are a continuation of a long line of loving couples who have probably existed since the beginning of time,” they wrote in the book.
#8 Note On Back: “1951” “Davis & Jc”
The couple thought the photograph they had purchased was one of a kind. But then, that November 2000, they bought another one that they found online. Soon, they connected with sellers when they traveled to Europe, and continued to look and search for images both online and at photography shows. However, while the couple was accumulating more and more photographs, they did not see themselves as collectors. Above, an image of two men that is likely from the 1930s or ’40s
#9 Photograph: Undated
#10 Photobooth: Undated, Provenance: Us
loving1000 – Above, the cover of a new book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s. Couple Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell spent 20 years amassing photographs of men in love. They wrote: ‘Our collection reveals to the world, and even to us, for the first time and voluminously, that feelings of love, attachment, or longing between two people are the same – regardless of the gender make-up of the couple’
Nini pointed out they were busy professionals in Texas. He was running his own ballet school while Treadwell was working in corporate roles for cosmetics companies. ‘It sort of happened in front of us,’ Nini said of the collection. Above, a picture from 1951 of two soldiers that had ‘Davis & J.C.’ on it. Nini told DailyMail.com: ‘Photographs of African American couples are extremely rare.’ The couple said they have tried to buy every one they have come across
#11 Photograph: Undated
For years, Nini and Treadwell kept the collection to themselves because they didn’t think others would be interested. In around 2012, the couple moved from Texas to New York City, where they currently reside. They then met up with a seller at a Starbucks and showed him two of their albums. After carefully flipping through the albums, the seller suggested that they publish a book of the images. Above, an image circa 1900 of a young couple with a sign, ‘Not married but willing to be’
Nearly 30 years ago, a mutual friend introduced Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell at a Dallas club. Two weeks later, they went on their first date to see the movie Bugsy, both recalled. They have been together ever since.
One Sunday after church, they decided to browse at a nearby antique mall – without an inkling that trip would one day turn into a collection and book. ‘On the weekend that was my favorite thing to do: estate sales and antique shows,’ Treadwell explained.
While in one of the shops, they found a photograph of two men embracing from around 1920 and were immediately drawn to it, he said. ‘We felt like we were looking at ourselves.’
It was an unexpected find and the couple bought the picture. That was in February 2000. But that November, Nini and Treadwell discovered another photograph online and purchased it. They started searching online – eBay, auctions – and snapping up images, which they said accelerated their collecting. The couple also went to photography shows and connected with sellers when they traveled to Europe.
However, while the couple was accumulating more and more photographs, they did not see themselves as collectors. Indeed, Nini and Treadwell have called their collection ‘accidental.’ Nini pointed out they were busy professionals in Texas. He was running his own ballet school while Treadwell was working in corporate roles for cosmetics companies.
‘It sort of happened in front of us,’ Nini said.
#12 Photograph: Undated
#12 Photograph: Undated
At first, the couple stored the images in a filing cabinet. But then, Treadwell said: ‘I just started putting them in a photo album.’ Soon that album was overflowing with pictures and another one was needed. The above photograph of two men dashingly dressed from the late 1800s was ‘the most expensive we purchased by far,’ Treadwell said, who noted ‘the sweetness in their touch.’ Nini added: ‘They went through great pangs and preparation to sit for this photograph. This is not something that two buddies do’
#13 Circa 1900, Note On Back: “In The Mirror.”
loving1000 – “This couple placed a camera on a dresser in front of a mirror and photographed their reflection. This image could be the first ‘selfie’ of a romantic male couple.”
#14 Postcard: Circa 1900, Provenance: Us
It took 10 years of filling album after album for the couple to realize what they had. ‘We were doing it on automatic pilot,’ Nini recalled. ‘It dawned on me we had a pretty amazing collection.’ Treadwell added: ‘We really felt we should give them the respect they were due.’ Above, a picture from around the late 1800s or early 1900s. Nini explained that the image was part of what was called a photo strip, in which pictures were stacked side by side. This particular photo strip was two photographs side by side and the size of postage stamps, he explained. The image is the cover of their new book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s
#15 Photograph: Undated
#16 A Photographic History Of Men In Love 1850s–1950s
At first, the images were stored in a filing cabinet. But then, Treadwell said: ‘I just started putting them in a photo album.’
That album was soon overflowing with pictures and another one was needed.
It took 10 years of filling album after album for the couple to realize what they had. ‘We were doing it on automatic pilot,’ Nini recalled. ‘It dawned on me we had a pretty amazing collection.’
Treadwell added: ‘We really felt we should give them the respect they were due.’
After years of looking at the pictures, the couple detected similarities. ‘Patterns emerge. Patterns crossing time, geography, and nationalities, we began to notice that the organic poses from one couple were an exact mimic of another, such as the way they held hands, embraced, or just leaned into one another,’ they wrote in their essay for the book.
After perceiving there were themes, Nini and Treadwell created categories for the images, such as boyfriends and cars, boys and bicycles, and double handholding.
#17 Undated, Provenance: Us. Note On Back: “Rubenstein And Whiskers, Ahk”
One accessory kept making an appearance in the photographs: an umbrella. Nini said the couples clutching the umbrella was ‘like holding a gay flag. It seems like a declaration to us.’
Nini and Treadwell are careful about drawing conclusions about the men in the pictures. ‘What we can say is that they are in love with each other,’ Nini said.
For years, they kept the collection to themselves because they didn’t think others would be interested. In around 2012, the couple moved from Texas to New York City, where they currently reside. They met up with a seller at a Starbucks and showed him two of his albums. After flipping through the albums, the seller suggested they publish a book of the images. ‘We just kept hearing it,’ Nini said.
About two years ago, they decided to see if they could do it. Eventually, this would led to their new book, Loving. ‘Love does not have a sexual orientation. It is universally experienced by all in the same way,’ Nini said about why they published the book.
‘The subjects in our photos, with the publication of Loving, will narrate their own lives for the first time in history. Far from being ostracized or condemned, they will be celebrated, and the love that they shared will inspire others, as it has in us,’ they wrote.
#18 Tintype: Undated, Provenance: Us
#19 Cabinet Card: Circa 1880. Provenance: Us. Note On Back: “Mcinturff, Steve Book, Delaware O.”
Nini and Treadwell have been together for decades but it took until 2006 for them to be legally married. ‘According to us, we’ve been married since 1992. There wasn’t a ceremony with friends and family. It was just something we did on our own and it included exchanging rings,’ they wrote in their essay.
In 2006, Massachusetts was the only state where they could get legally married. It was a process that included the couple setting up a residence and a bank account in Boston, according to their book. It has been long road for same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court declined to take up a case in 1972, which sent the issue back to the states, according to History.com.
Three years earlier, in June 1969, cops raided Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar in which the gay, lesbian and transgender community hung out, and its patrons pushed back. It sparked riots that is said to be the start of modern gay rights movement.
By the end of the 1980s, some places were allowing domestic partnerships but by 1996 then President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which, according to History.com, ‘didn’t ban gay marriage outright, but specified that only heterosexual couples could be granted federal marriage benefits.’
In 2000, some states, like Vermont, allowed for civil unions and by 2004, Massachusetts was issuing marriage licenses. It would take until 2015 for the Supreme Court to rule that state bans against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional and it was then legal throughout the country, according to History.com.
Nini and Treadwell have now collected nearly 3,000 photographs, and that preserving them is important. Nini said: ‘We want to make sure they survive in perpetuity.’
In their essay, they wrote: ‘Our collection reveals to the world, and even to us, for the first time and voluminously, that feelings of love, attachment, or longing between two people are the same – regardless of the gender make-up of the couple.’