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Hugh Nini (left) and Neal Treadwell are the pair behind a coffee table book and related short documentary about men in love.
A photograph of two men under an umbrella. One is smiling while the other has a settled look on his face as he holds the shoulder of the other, who is holding up the umbrella. They are infront of a house and leaning on a fence.

Treadwell and Nini’s collection of vintage LGBTQ+ photographs

To honor and celebrate Pride Month, here is a reflection on two award winning documentary short filmmakers and published authors.

In 2000, Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell, a same-sex couple from Dallas, Texas visited their local antique shop after church. While browsing, Treadwell found a box filled with old photographs. As he flipped through the photos, he found a capture of two men in a romantic embrace, dated 1927. Believing that this was the only historic documentation of a same-sex couple, they made a purchase and kept it safe in their home. 

Almost a year later Nini and Treadwell found a second photograph. In an interview, Nini stated,  “When we found the first, we had no expectation there would ever be a second,” Yet there was, along with many more. Over many years, the couple has found over 4,000 photographs of male couples, from daguerreotypes to glass negatives. Of all the photography methods, the couple found that a majority of the images were taken in photo booths. This shows that the photobooths were one of the only places same-sex couples could truly express their love. However, many of the photographs were also clearly taken by friends or family– a telling sign that there have always been outlets for LGBTQ+ individuals.  

Once Nini and Treadwell found that they had collected nearly 300 images, they realized they had a collection on their hands. The couple decided that they had to do something better for the collection aside from showing the photographs to friends and organizing them from time to time. The men photographed took risks to capture these images of their love, so Nini and Treadwell knew they had to honor them.

The collection contains photographs from all over the world: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Japan, Greece, Latvia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Serbia. A constant reminder that queer love is everywhere, highlighted graciously by the brave and loving men who are featured in the photographs in question. 

Oftentimes the burning question comes up. How do Nini and Treadwell know these men are in love? That they aren’t jokes or just taken out of context. The couple says the answer is simple. “We look into their eyes,” the couple writes “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.” True love cannot be masked no matter how hard these men try, and you can see this in each of the photographs included in the published book created by Nini and Treadwell, ‘Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s.’ 

Front cover of Loving: A Photographic History of Men in love, 1850s-1950s. Shows two men smiling on the cover with one arm around the other resting on the others shoulder.
A photo of a spread from Loving: A Photographic History of Men in love, 1850s-1950s. On the left, there is a photograph of two men looking at each other under an umbrella. On the right, there are two men looking at the camera and holding a sign that says "Not married but willing to be." In all capital letters.

When the first photograph was found in 2000, Nini and Treadwell were ‘not married, but willing to be’: just as the two men in one of their most famous findings. However, six years later, the collectors married in Massachusetts: the first state in the US to legalize same-sex marriage. Vast changes in the United States’ attitude toward LGBTQ people have taken place since the couple’s very first discovery—and even more since the photographs they discovered. Yet the photographs tell that there is a large amount of continuity in male couples from the 1850s to the modern day. Looking into the past of same-sex couples allows us to see them in our present and even into our future as a blooming community. 

“We felt [it] was our obligation to keep these photographs. To keep them safe,” says Treadwell. “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.” – Hugh Nini

A photograph found by Nini and Treadwell. Shows two men sitting on a car, one wrapping his arms around the other while the other holds onto his arms. They are smiling at the camera.