LGBTQ History

Historical photos of men in love: The first selfie of a gay couple is over a century old

The first mirror selfie
The first mirror selfiePhoto: 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.

“In the mirror” Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection

Photograph

Undated

65 x 58 mm

Note: “in the mirror” (black mount paper)

Hugh and Neal: When we acquired this photo, we didn’t realize that this couple was taking their own picture.  It’s a 120-year-old selfie of a romantic male couple.  From a little research, we found an article that described, very accurately, the device used to take one’s own picture more than a century ago: the Faries Shutter Tripper.  Invented by Robert Faries and patented on January 14, 1902, it consisted of a metal cylinder mounted to the camera shutter that is connected by a rubber air hose and operated at the other end by a rubber squeeze balloon in the shape of a ball. When the ball was squeezed, air was forced into the mechanical linkage of the cylinder, which then caused a piston inside the cylinder to trip the shutter.  And that is what appears to have been used in what we’re calling “the first selfie” of a romantic male couple. Below their picture, the two men wrote: “In the mirror” in white ink.

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