Photos are, at their essence, about acting as a witness to a feeling or emotion. Neal Treadwell and Hugh Nini’s accidental collection, 100 Years of Men in Love, is a witness to love and hope. Showing on HereTV, David Millbern’s documentary about Nini and Treadwell’s collection is well worth the 60 minute investment.
I had a chance to chat with Treadwell, Nini, and Millbern about the film and the collection.
The Risk of Photographing Love
Based on the book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s – 1950s, the documentary 100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection, is a deep dive into Nini and Treadwell’s moving collection of vintage photographs of men in love with each other. Over decades, Nini and Treadwell have collected images from flea markets, estate sales, and shoe boxes. These photographs represent partnerships of love that were almost universally frowned upon, if they weren’t outright illegal when the images were taken.
To take and then keep these photographs is a testament to the risks these couples took for love. To intentionally create evidence that could be used against you is, at least to me, an unfathomable sacrifice.
The Emmy Award winning Millbern who worked with Nini and Treadwell to put his film together explained to me that the collection proves that the joy of male partnership existed then and should be celebrated now. For Millbern, we stand on the shoulders of these brave couples that were not able to be free in showing their commitment to each other.
We stand on the shoulders of these brave couples that were not able to be free in showing their commitment to each other.
Using the Pullback Shot to Perfection
Watching the film is very much like a long slow pullback, the reveal that these couples took the chance to memorialize their love in the face of prejudice and danger is exhilarating. I found myself considering the well of hope that these men must have contained despite the melancholy that, for the most part, these relationships had to remain hidden. Millbern explained to me that he used the tight crop and then pulled back to create a sense of reveal and discovery for the audience, as if they were also participating in the exploration of the photography.
The film takes its time to examine many images from Nini and Treadwell’s collection that includes what might be at first viewed as casual photographs, only to reveal more intimate touches as the frame expands.
As the documentary continues, Millbern includes more and more photographs of indisputable love and intimacy from Nini and Treadwell’s collection.
Occasionally, Millbern speeds up the rate at which the photographs are shared. For the audience, this feels like a waterfall of love and the proof of love.
Old-school printed matte photographs give the owners a chance to write quick missives or long poetic odes on the reverse. The film highlights a few captions, but I had to ask Nini and Treadwell which were their favorites. Both Nini and Treadwell picked captions that sum up the intimate nature of the images, the boldness involved in the act of photography:
John said that David shared Eddie’s feelings for another kind of love.
I send you a photo that will probably raise a curtain on a part of my life.
Where Did The Collection Start?
I was curious where Nini and Treadwell’s collection started. For Nini and Treadwell, the documentary is aptly named, An Accidental Collection. Having found a single image that felt like a fluke, Nini and Treadwell never expected to find more. Nini and Treadwell are constantly surprised that the images have lasted so long. Certainly, there is a risk in taking the images, but keeping them, hidden or not, raises the danger. The very fact that the images were kept long enough to make it to vintage markets is another indicator that the men in the photographs harbored hope for their love.
Picking up other photographs when they came across them, once Nini and Treadwell realized that they had collected almost 300 images, the pair had to concede that they had a collection on their hands. Showing the images to a small group of friends, organizing the images here and there when time permitted, Nini and Treadwell decided that they had to do something better for the collection. If the men photographed had taken risks to capture and keep these images, Nini and Treadwell figured they had to share and celebrate them.
Need to do something better to celebrate the photos.
Nini and Treadwell showed parts of their collection to a vintage photography vendor. Nini and Treadwell expected the vendor to appreciate the collection as a quaint and very niche collection. The vendor recognized the value that Nini and Treadwell saw and enthusiastically suggested that the collection be published. Nini and Treadwell explained that almost every publisher that they talked to was interested.
Where to For The Collection Now?
Nini and Treadwell confirmed that the success of their book has made collecting much more difficult. Basically, the book has created hundreds of collectors who are now also looking for similar images. This makes the images even more rare than they had been, which, as supply and demand dictates, raises the price.
The success of the book spurred contact with several galleries. Unfortunately, COVID put an end to plans before showings could really start. I explained to Nini and Treadwell that I can imagine posters for their show in bus stops around town. Mysteriously, Nini and Treadwell told me that there is actually big news in respect of a showing on the horizon.
Nini and Treadwell are excited that Millbern’s documentary will amplify the message of such a successful book. If it wasn’t for the upcoming doc, I’m not sure that I would have come across the collection, so Millbern’s instinct to make a full documentary should be lauded.
One Miscellaneous Note
There are a few photos in the documentary that feature one of the men sporting a spoon in his pant cuff. Nini and Treadwell also noticed this. Having done a little research, Nini and Treadwell explained that a spoon was a simple for courting or available for courting in the mid-19th Century. Women would slip a spoon into their outfit. Clearly some of the couples depicted in the collection decided to adopt it.
All images provided by LOVING: The Nini-Treadwell Collection.