Hugh Nini & Neal Treadwell
Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s-1950s
All images Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving" by 5 Continents Editions
One of the things I will be grateful to move past once we are able to get back to a semblance of normality will be not watching this YouTube 'Home Tours'. It's not that they're not been enjoyable they all tend to follow a formula that becomes grating after your 1000th tour - and they never seem to clean up properly before they start their video. Alas, as much as this might be a guilty pleasure it was one of these tours that I came across LOVING by Hugh Nini & Neal Treadwell.
This stunning book, made up of photographs from The Nini-Treadwell Collection, is at first glance heartwarming and on later reflection a beautiful time capsule of love. But it is deeper than that as LOVING isn't just a celebration of gay men it is a celebration of that rare closeness that is shared between men - be them friends, family, colleagues, or lovers - and that's what makes this book so enticing.
We spoke with Hugh & Neal ahead of #PrideMonth 2021 to talk about their groundbreaking book.
Hi Hugh & Neal, thank you so much for talking to TNC, how have you both been coping during these rather difficult times?
All things considered, very well. A lot of people have suffered greatly during this time. Relatively speaking, our difficulties have been a small inconvenience. We send our love and prayers out to those who have born the greatest loss in these difficult times.
Has this time offering you any new creative opportunities?
Actually, it has. Neal has become an IG expert. He started our account, @lovingbynealandhugh, one year ago. We now have over 8,000 followers, and do an IG live every Friday at 5:00 pm EST. I (Hugh) have written a screenplay based on four of the couples in our book. Three of the couples' stories are factually true. And almost unbelievable. One of the storylines, the couple on the cover, is fictional. As well, the first 1000 took up a lot of time until just recently.
You’ve been together since the 1990s and met in Dallas, when did you know you were meant to be together?
On May 28th, 1992. Our first date.
Congratulations on the release of LOVING: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s - 1950s, what has it meant to you both to release this unique book?
We are so gratified by the embrace our book is receiving from all over the world. We collected for 13 years without telling anyone what we were doing despite having very loving family and friends. No part of us thought that anyone would find our collection interesting until about eight years ago. Our collection's message is one of "love". We are so pleased that our book is conveying that message in such a powerful way.
Did you imagine you would get the response you have gotten for LOVING?
In a word, no. About eight years ago we came to the realisation that we had a significant "collection" that we more or less accumulated in our sleep. At that point, a sense of obligation settled in us that it needed to be shared with others. We didn't if 20, 200, 2000 people, or more, would want to see it. We hoped that it would have an impact. But "this", we never saw this coming. We are overwhelmed.
Are there any comments you have gotten that have left an impression on you?
Thousands. But if we pick one at random, it would be this one from someone who identifies himself (?) as JJ. "I happened to be looking at something else when this came into view on my screen. I checked out the synopsis and decided I "had to have it." Not at all disappointed (except for the minor gouge in the cover...sorting machine?). Anyway, I completely stopped what I was doing to flip through it. I found myself getting completely choked up. I realised a lot of things....some personal, some more reflective. The most poignant: I'm definitely taking a different approach to my own life...a more positive one, I hope. The other, I realised, is that I've always 'known' the struggle down through time for men such as me, but this book really helped me to get my mind around it...we've always struggled and most folks wouldn't see the absolute subtle nuances in these photos that I see....so glaringly. I see acts of defiance and downright rebellious postures and expressions....major acts of bravery for their time. Really helped me to remember...I am NOT alone in this.....thank you for this collection...it matters more than I actually realised when I ordered it."
You’ve almost sold out of LOVING 1000 - A Limited Special Edition, what made you want to create these limited editions?
We were in a meeting with our American distributor and publicist, and they asked us if we had any ideas to raise funds for the exhibitions and launches in the US and Frankfurt. (Off the record: publishing is suffering from the advent of the internet. They no longer have budgets for anything but paper and binding). We didn't have an idea at the time, but later that evening we came up with the idea of doing a limited/signed/numbered/dedicated edition. We began shopping for domain names. Loving100 was already taken. Loving500 was already taken. Loving1000 was available for $12.00. We thought, wow, that's going to be a heavy lift. But we went for it. And then Covid hit... But, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, LOVING: The First 1000 eventually took off. We've now sold 952 of 1000.
How did the Nini-Treadwell Collection come about, do you remember the first photo you ever found together?
Our collection began twenty years ago when we came across an old photo that we thought was one of a kind. It was after church, and it was an unusual Sunday in that I (Hugh) didn’t have any rehearsals scheduled that day and Neal wasn’t flying out to NYC or the west coast for the week to work. We each had the day off. Something that didn’t happen often enough during those years. After church service, we stopped at an antique store that we’d been to many times before. We weren’t looking for anything. We were just enjoying a leisurely day doing something casual. We had gone to different areas of the shop. Neal came over to me holding a cardboard box with some old photos in it and said, “Take a look at these.” I started sifting through them - he already had and knew what I’d see when I got to the last one. There were about ten ordinary photos from the 1920s of houses in our neighbourhood. This area in Dallas is called the “M Streets”. When I reached the bottom of the pile, there was a photo of two young men embracing - romantically! They were embracing and gazing at one another - clearly in love. We looked at that photo, and it seemed to look back at us. It seemed to reflect us back to ourselves. These two young men, in front of a house, we are embracing and looking at one another in a way that only two people in love would do. The young men were dressed unremarkably; the setting was suburban and out in the open. It struck us as being quite a bold thing to do back then. Taking such a photo, during a time when they would have been less understood than they would be today, was not without risk. We were intrigued that a photo like this could have survived into the twenty-first century. Who were they? And how did their snapshot end up at an antique shop in Dallas, Texas, bundled together with a stash of otherwise ordinary vintage photos? We never expected to find a second one. We are now at over 3200.
Where was the most surprising place you have found a photograph for your collection?
That would be the very first one, in Dallas, TX. We came across it on a lazy Sunday afternoon at "Love Field Antique Mall". Love Field Antique Mall has nothing to do with "love". It's named after the nearby airport, Love Field Airport. The antique mall is vast and mostly has objects or decor in its booths. We'd been there many times before. Never once noticed any photos for sale. And never found another one there over the last 21 years.
When did you realise you wanted to turn your collection into a book and did you have any apprehensions about sharing these amazing photographs?
We began to think about sharing our collection when we brought two of our albums to a pre-arranged purchase from a seller we'd been buying from for many years. This was in early 2013. He looked through the two albums without a word, until the end. His only comment was, "You have to publish these!!". At the time, we really didn't know what to make of his comment. But that started a vision for what would ultimately materialise into, LOVING.
LOVING isn’t just a document of gay men it truly documents the beauty of love and how much love really is universal, do you think your book will add to the growing discourse around LGBTQ history and relationships?
You are so correct about LOVING being a book about "love" that just happens to be delivered by same-gendered couples. The primary message of our book is love. That it is being delivered by male couples is secondary. And to your point about the discourse, it's generating, yes, it's expanding the conversation about love among the LGBTQ community. But also, WAY beyond "us". This conversation is expanding into all corners of the world. We always viewed our collection as such. But it's still surprising to see it actually play out before our eyes. The short documentary about our book and us has been winning Best of Shows, and numerous Gold, and "Bests", at film festivals here in the US and globally. As well, it was chosen by a jury to be one of 21 finalists, out of more than 12,000 entries, from all over the world. Results on that one will be announced on May 25th. None of these film festivals are LGBTQ festivals. They're mainstream. The book is being embraced by people from all walks of life. As you said in your question, it's universal.
"This provided them the opportunity to meet one another, for friendship or a romantic relationship, in a way that wouldn't have otherwise been possible."
Was it surprising to see how open and affectionate the men are in these pictures?
Absolutely. When we found the first photo, we couldn't believe that a photo like that had ever even been taken. Much less survived nearly 80 years to end up in an obscure antique shop in Dallas, TX. These couples were extremely bold in their expressions of love for one another. Some more than others. "Not Married But Willing To Be" was taken around 120 years ago. Marriage equality wasn't even a phrase until recently. How bold is that? Especially for such a young couple. Yes, their expressions of love are astonishing. They leave no room for any other interpretation.
Is there anyone photograph that really connects with you?
Besides "Not Married But Willing To Be", the double-page on 210/211 is breathtakingly beautiful. It's such an intimate moment and the expressions seem to be "alive" today. More than 110 years after it was taken. After our book was launched, a professor from Vienna identified the couple as the famous British poet, Rupert Brooke, and the famous British artist, Duncan Grant. We've researched old photos of them, and if it's not them, it's their twins. Also, they both belonged to the artist collective, Bloomsbury Group, during the time this photo was taken. We loved the photo before we were informed about who the subjects are.
What is next for LOVING?
About halfway into our collection, we were surprised that there were so many photos of soldiers and sailors who were couples. They covered the time from the American Civil War and up through to World War II. They also included soldiers and sailors for non-US countries. What we came to realise is that during wartime, all over the world, men, including gay men, were brought together. These gay men, who came from big cities, or small towns, and isolated places, were brought together in the service of their countries. This provided them the opportunity to meet one another, for friendship or a romantic relationship, in a way that wouldn't have otherwise been possible. Our current book has a portion of military photos in it. But since a significant portion of the entire collection is military, a possible second edition featuring military couples is on the horizon: LOVING: The Military Edition.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from LOVING?
We receive, daily, messages and emails from people who have bought LOVING. And their communications confirm what our dreams were for this book. We wanted LOVING to give people more hope and belief that true love is real. We hoped it would be healing for some. We wanted our assertion that love does not have a sexual orientation, that is it universally experienced in the same way by all, to come across. And lastly, and most importantly, we wanted parents of gay children to be able to see a path for their child, by looking into the past of the couples of LOVING. All of that has been confirmed by our readers. Actually, there's one more thing. These couples memorialised their love for one another with a photo. And then, for its very survival, had to keep it hidden all their lives, and beyond. Now, for the first time in history, these couples will narrate their own lives, the way they personally experienced them. And that gives us a great feeling in our hearts.