Historical photos of men in love: They were born 120 years too early

They were born 100 years too early
They were born 120 years too early Photo: Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection

The new book LOVING: A Photographic History of Men in Love portrays romantic love between men in hundreds of moving photographs taken between the 1850s and 1950s. Now, the authors are sharing some of the never-before-published photos exclusively with LGBTQ Nation this month along with their thoughts and the backstory behind each photo.

Taken when male partnerships were often illegal, the photos are from the collection of a married couple, Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell, who over the past 20 years have meticulously accumulated over 2,800 snapshots, portraits, and group photos.

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The couple found them at flea markets, in shoe boxes, estate sales, family archives, old suitcases, and online auctions. Their collection now includes photos from all over the world.

The technology used consists of ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, glass negatives, tintypes, cabinet cards, photo postcards, photo strips, photomatics, and snapshots – over one hundred years of social history that reflect changing fashion, hairstyles, and societal norms, as well as the development of photography.

The men in LOVING shared a common desire to be seen and memorialize their stories despite the risks. Each image is an open demonstration of love, affection, and also bravery. The message here is as old as time, but from an unexpected, and heretofore silent, source.

Challenging boundaries, universal in reach, and overwhelming in impact, the photos speak to our spirit and resilience, our capacity for bliss, and our longing for the shared truths of love. It moves the conversation beyond old stereotypes and shifts the narrative to where it should have been all along: two people in love can be any two people, regardless of gender, orientation, or any other human-created divide.

They were born 100 years too early
They were born 120 years too early Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection

Photo strip


35 x 27 mm

Provenance: US

Hugh and Neal: This is one of five photos of this couple in our collection. One other appears with this one in our book.

The amazing feature of this photo is upfront, center, and declarative. This sign, “Not Married but Willing to Be,” is likely a prop that the studio photographer would supply to single men who were having their solo photo taken. Jokingly, dressed in their best clothes, shaved, and hair groomed, the solo male would hold up this sign as an advertisement to the ladies that they were available.

This young male couple, approximately 120 years ago, held it up together proclaiming that they would like to be a married couple. They didn’t just think or talk about it, they memorialized it in this photo.

And this photo needed to be hidden from friends, family, and strangers, so that it could survive into the twenty-first century to become a full page in our book.

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