‘We were both shocked that the photo was ever taken’: the collectors who assembled a trove of early vernacular photos of men in love

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On an ordinary Sunday 20 years ago, Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell went to a local antique mall they’d been to many times before. While browsing, Treadwell spotted a box filled with old photographs and, as he flipped through, he found a snapshot of two men in a romantic embrace, dated 1927. “At the time we were both shocked that the photo was ever taken,” says Nini, a former ballet academy director, “much less survived 73 years to end up in our hands, in Dallas, Texas.” The couple thought they’d never find another antique photo of men in love.

And then they did, almost a year later. “When we found the first, we had no expectation there would ever be a second,” Nini says. They have since found photographs of male couples in formats dating to the beginning of the medium—daguerreotypes, glass negatives, cabinet cards, tintypes and photo booth snapshots—at flea markets, estate sales and online marketplaces, all taken during an era when same-sex marriage was illegal. It was only when they had amassed around 300 photographs that Nini and Treadwell realised it was a collection. It now numbers more than 4,000 vernacular photos dating from between the 1850s and 1950s, sourced from 36 different countries.

Loving: They Love Each Other, Musée d’art et d’Histoire Geneve (MAH). Courtesy of Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

The exhibition Loving: They Love Each Other(until 24 September) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire (MAH) in Geneva, Switzerland, publicly debuts a selection of 400 images from their trove. Inspired by the book about their collection published in 2020 (Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850-1950, Five Continents Editions), the exhibition contains almost every photograph from the book plus 80 that Nini and Treadwell collected after its release.

“In these pictures it’s fantastic the number of different stories it could activate,” says MAH director Marc-Olivier Wahler of Loving as a whole, and also a 1951 photograph of two soldiers sitting on a bench. “You wonder, they’re in the army and are they really together? Then suddenly you see the entangled feet. And all these possible stories—what happened to them, what happened to this photograph? Where was it found? It’s endless.”

Loving: They Love Each Other, Musée d’art et d’Histoire Geneve (MAH). Courtesy of Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

Loving also includes newly commissioned artwork by Swiss photographer Walter Pfeiffer, known for his playfully erotic portraits of male models. Pfeiffer chose snapshots from Nini and Treadwell’s collection and then colorised and enlarged them, layering a contemporary filter on the vintage images. Two rare black-and-white videos by conceptual artist Urs Lüthi will also be screened together with the exhibition.

In contrast to these two established Swiss artists, most of the photographers and sitters in the photographs are anonymous. An outlier is an early 20th century portrait that may be of Bloomsbury circle artist Duncan Grant and poet Rupert Brooke. Otherwise, the men in the photographs are unnamed.

Loving: They Love Each Other, Musée d’art et d’Histoire Geneve (MAH). Courtesy of Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

Apart from some photo booth snapshots (generated by a machine) and an early selfie of a couple in a mirror, the authors of the images are also unknown. With many of the photographs in the collection taken at a time before at-home cameras were readily available, the understanding is that couples used photographers who they felt comfortable approaching to help produce visual testimony of their loving relationships. Few 19th-century photographers are known to have taken portraits of same-sex couples, with New York-based Alice Austen being one of them. This collection proves there were many uncredited others.

As private collectors, Nini and Treadwell had the freedom to preserve something outside of the institutional mainstream and inspire new research. “We felt [it] was our obligation to keep these photographs. To keep them safe,” says Treadwell, who works in the cosmetics industry. “Our goal is to continue to have museum exhibitions wherever we can that will propel us into telling this story and sharing the history that love is love. Love has been around forever.”

Loving: They Love Each Other, Musée d’art et d’Histoire Geneve (MAH). Courtesy of Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

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