Queer love has been around forever, but it can be hard to picture what it looked like even a century ago. Now, thanks to a new exhibition at the Musée d’art et d’histoire (MAH) in Geneva, Switzerland, visitors can see firsthand via a collection of 400 photographs of men in love, dating from between 1850 and 1950.
The collection is the product of couple Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell. 20 years ago, the duo stumbled upon a photograph of two men embracing at an antique store in Dallas, Texas. They couldn’t help but see themselves in the photo, and they decided to take it home.
“When we found the first, we had no expectation there would ever be a second,” Nini told The Art Newspaper.
But there was a second. And a third, and a fourth, and so on, until their collection reached its now massive scope of more than 4,000 historical photographs of men in love, originating from 36 different countries.
“We felt [it] was our obligation to keep these photographs. To keep them safe,” Treadwell said. “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.”
In 2020, Nini and Treadwell turned their collection into a popular photography book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850-1950, that featured more than 300 of the photographs they’d found over the past two decades. They also released a short documentary telling the story of their collection.
Now, their collection has been adapted to an exhibition, also titled Loving, which features nearly all the photographs from the book, along with 80 never-before-seen pictures that Nini and Treadwell have collected since the book was released.
“In these pictures it’s fantastic the number of different stories it could activate,” said MAH director Marc-Olivier Wahler. He gave a 1951 photograph of two soldiers sitting close together on a bench as an example.
“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 is on display at MAH through September 23. Get a sneak peek at the photographs for yourself: