Interview with the authors of this incredible collection of gay history
We have come so far. As a community, LGBTQ people have spent countless years paving the way for us. While we are not yet nearly arrived, flames of fear and trepidation of being our authentic selves have simmered for many. For others, the journey is still long. Until 2003, it was illegal for men to express love and intimacy with one another in Texas. Until 2015, we couldn’t marry. Today, our transgender community is under fire. Trailblazers like Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson, and more recently, those like Laverne Cox and Pete Buttigieg are pillars that represent how far we can make it.
African American gay men are still the courageous minorities fighting to survive amid racial injustice while embracing their sexuality.
We must never forget where we’ve come from, recognizing the strength and dignity of those who fought for expression, love, and intimacy on a deeper level.
Authors and collectors Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell have breathtakingly done this work.
Published in 2020, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850-1950, is an incredible portrayal of romantic love between men. Hundreds of photos that the couple have curated fill the pages, each photograph representing the incredible stories of men who know love.
I was thrilled to sit with these two fascinating men. Here is their story.
How did the project start?
Neal Treadwell: We call it the accidental collection. This started about 20 years ago and Hugh and I were just finishing up with church heading to brunch. We thought, “Well, let’s just head home and there’s this antique store on the way.” Not looking for anything in particular, I found an old shoebox full of photographs and I was flipping through it and in the middle of them was a photograph of these two guys. One of them was hugging the other one from behind. It was obviously a loving embrace. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is kind of cool. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Hugh Nini: We couldn’t even imagine a photograph like this would have ever been taken, much less not thrown away into the trash of burned or whatever in the 80 years since it was taken.
NT: We ran up to the counter with it and the other photos kind of stuck it in the middle. I think we paid five bucks for the whole group. It sat on our desk for about six months. About nine months later we found our second photo and it was at an auction. We’re like, “you know, this is the only other one, maybe that’s out in the world.” This is before the internet or anything else, we were just excited to have the two.
HT: They came in very slowly for the first few years and we didn’t have any awareness that we were starting a collection. The first one we saw was 80 years old. We were surprised that it had survived that long. Our only intention was to keep it, to continue to survive. Same with the second and the third and honestly, this was so long ago. We were doing it so unconsciously that we don’t even really remember the exact order of all the things that happened during the first five years. There was a point where we did realize in running across these photos and acquiring them, preserving them, that it had started to form a collection.
We were leading super busy lives during all of this time. Independently, I think that Neal was out of town. I went through our collection on my own, going, “This is amazing what we’ve got here,” and I didn’t say anything about it. Then Neil was at home alone. He did the same thing. We never talked about any of this. We call it our “sleepwalking phase of collecting.” At some point after those two incidences, we got together and said, “You know, we’ve got some amazing stuff.” It was at that point we started doing this very intentionally with no other goal in mind than to find another one. And then another one after that.
NT: When we were collecting, we looked at them ourselves, but we never ever told any of our family or friends because we thought they would think we were crazy or something collecting photographs of dead men, but romantic couples. We never thought anyone would ever be interested in them. When we look at the photos, we saw ourselves looking back.
HN: Never was there a thought in our heads that we should tell them that we’re doing this collecting. It just never crossed our minds to do that. We were laughing about this the other day, there would be a particular photograph that would be at an auction and the auction was going to go off at a certain time to coincide with a dinner we were having with somebody. We’d be at the table with our iPhones under the table, carrying on a normal conversation, bidding on the auction. A couple of times, somebody said, “What are you doing?” We’d say, “Nothing! We’re not doing anything!” We were kind of a little embarrassed about it for some reason. I don’t know why.
I know that feeling of going antiquing, walking around a moldy mildew warehouse, then you stumble upon something that there’s no question you need to have.
NT: It’s like Christmas all the time.
Tell us about the sexuality of the subjects in these photos.
HN: In our book, the essay doesn’t refer to them as homosexual or gay at any point anywhere. The pictures we have are of two people who are in love with each other. And that’s how we described them. That’s where we want to keep the tone of the conversation, about the love that they’re sharing, loving humanity. The fact that they are male is secondary.
How has the response been to the publication? What surprises have you found in this project?
HN: We recently received something in the mail, something unexpected from Munich, Germany. It was a book written in German, with a handwritten note in the front. It said, “Congratulations on your book. This is for you. It will amuse you.” It’s a book about a German, Royal family, within the family was Prince Frederich Leopold of Prussia and he had a boyfriend, Freiherr Cerrini. They were a couple. This book is about the whole family, their hunting lodge, activities that they did, family portraits. And this couple is depicted repeatedly throughout this book as a couple. They were arrested in 1944 by the Nazis and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. If you read the forward of our book, the only firsthand story we have of any couple in our book is of two American world war II soldiers.
These American soldiers were in the 42nd infantry division that fought across Germany. The nickname for the 42nd infantry division is the “Rainbow Division.” So these two soldiers, John and Derek, were a couple during the war. The 42nd infantry rainbow division is famous because it liberated the Dachau concentration camp. You have this amazing convergence of these two prominent subjects in our book who are also famous because they belong to the Rainbow Division, the division that liberated the Dachau concentration camps on April 29th of 1945. Two of the prisoners they liberated were Prince Leopold and Cerrini. Seven days later, Germany surrenders, and World War II is over in Europe. A few days later, they hike up into the Alps as a couple. They had exchanged rings. The rings are very prominent in the photograph and a friend of theirs took a picture of them embracing as a couple.
From Rolling Stone to CNN, to my local magazine, it’s everywhere. Did you anticipate this?
NT: Not at all. We thought it would be well-received and everything, but it’s even more than that. It’s the amount of press that we’ve received around the world. It’s been like 175 unique articles, the national TV station in France, in Germany, and Italy. The couple that did the BBC reel were from Portugal and they reached out to us through our website. This was only supposed to be for a BBC Portugal gap but ended up being approved for BBC global. It’s also won many awards.
HN: Neil and I were definitely sleepwalking through the very early years of this, then we were intentionally collecting just for collecting sake. At about the 13th year, we started to feel an enormous sense of obligation that this needed to be shared, that it can’t just be the two of us knowing about these photographs in this collection.
I’m excited that the response to this book highlights what people have tried to ignore for so many years through those generations, and it’s brought completely to light.
You wouldn’t believe the number of Trump voters that have bought this book. It speaks to the message of love and humanity. Unless you have your heels dug in about wanting to hate gay people, you’re going to be open to this message. And they have been. Because of my job, I interacted with a more conservative community than Neil perhaps did in his profession. I know these people are not on my side politically, but they bought the book in droves.
Thank you for finally uncovering these artifacts that have never been seen before. I mean, you know, sexuality has been depicted, homosexuality has been depicted. What message do you hope to spread with this project?
HN: It’s our position that love does not have a sexual orientation. The love that people feel, the love that Neil and I feel for each other, all people, it’s the same love. There’s not a gay love and a straight love. It’s the same love. This book is a powerful depiction of people who are in love with each other.
What’s next for you guys?
NT: We are working with Hogarth Worldwide, and we will be doing an exhibition in June at their facility in Hell’s Kitchen. They are going to have 60 of our photographs, some of them are going to be blown up life-size, it’s very interactive. It’ll be online as well. Gay Pride is after that. They’re doing a lot of virtual events around Gay Pride, so we’ll have some type of social distance event and stagger it through June. It will stay open as many months as need be. After the launch in June, it will go global because they have 40 facilities around the world.
Many thanks to Neil and Hugh.