Busy Week in Collecting, Part 3 – more “Gay Interest” tintypes

As I’ve said before, you can’t really call these images that get sold as “Gay Interest” “gay” because the concept as we know it today didn’t exist in the 19th century. Men have always been physically and emotionally intimate with each other but the concept of two men (or women) living together in an emotionally intimate bonded relationship for life (or at least serially to the exclusion of the opposite sex) is very much a late 20th century concept. They are interesting though because they suggest possibilities – the absolute anonymity of the images leaves open the questions and suggestions to the modern imagination of what might have motivated the sitters to pose together, and particularly in the very openly affectionate and intimate way that they did.

Tintype, Two Affectionate Pals (Brothers?)
Tintype, Two Affectionate Pals (Brothers?)

These two men are very affectionate with each other. Their very similar appearance suggests they may be brothers, or they could just be very close friends. Quite possibly they were battlefield friends – the one on the right appears to be wearing a Grand Army of the Republic campaign ribbon. This may well have been taken at a unit reunion in the years following the war – note the photo was taken out of doors, on the grass, in front of a painted backdrop. I’m always interested to find images like this because it says so much more about the sitters than does a strictly studio portrait – there was some event occurring at which they wanted to record and remember their presence, and document their relationship. What was this event? Why use the painted backdrop instead of the landscape scene at the location?

This next image is even more ambiguous than the first one. Obviously from the fashions, a later image (end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century).

Tintype, Three Dandys
Tintype, Three Dandys

Again most likely just three friends, but the possibilities and suggestions are more ripe with potential for a late 20th century interpretation. The most interesting bit is the juxtaposition of the very fashionable dandy with the light suit with the staid middle-class burghers to his right and behind. Who was the dapper dandy, and what was his relationship to these gentlemen? Was he a foreign friend, visiting from overseas? Some exotic celebrity they had the good fortune to corral into posing with them, the 19th century equivalent of the cell-phone snap on the red carpet with a movie star? Certainly, the posing would have largely been the result of the photographer’s efforts to fit all three of them in the frame together, but the contrast between the dandy and the seated burgher couldn’t be more striking than if he were naked.

7 thoughts on “Busy Week in Collecting, Part 3 – more “Gay Interest” tintypes”

    1. Yeah. The thing I like about them is by virtue of their complete anonymity, they remain open to interpretation. The “Gay Interest” label is a purely 21st century invention for marketing purposes, imposing our sensibility on an image of something that may (and quite probably) have had nothing at all to do with the modern sensibility. It points out a very interesting problem/characteristic of the malleability of truth – there was a “Truth” behind each of those photos, one we can never know because it was unrecorded or became detached from the image. When we come along 130+ years later and invent or imagine a story revealed by the image, is it any less real than the story the image intended to tell at the time of its creation? It certainly says more about us in the 21st century and how we interpret these images than it does about the people in them, but in doing so, does it actually help make the images more relevant and meaningful, and continue their survival? We remember Mozart and Bach and Beethoven because their music has remained relevant in some way, but it is very easy to forget that there were hundreds if not thousands of other composers working alongside them at the time, whose music has been completely lost to history. If you were to find a piece of sheet music from one of these anonymous composers, devoid of context, would you be able to invent a story to give it relevance today?

      1. Hi Scott
        May I have your permission to quote some of this reply and the above article on my photobooth blog? (With full credits to you and links to your blog) It is very succinct and goes to the heart of some things I’ve been thinking over with regards to found booth photos.

  1. I will agree that not all of the nineteenth century photographs depicting, hand holding, physical closeness, etc. probably signify homosexual or lesbian intent. However men and women have lived in committed, intimate and loving relationships as long as that concept was figured out by Homo sapiens. Homosexuality is not a modern invention. Photography is.

    1. Kevin- I totally agree with you. My point about the “gay interest” label is that using it to describe these 19th century images is at best misleading. Homosexuality has always existed; same-sex relationships of an enduring and even domestic nature have always existed. But “gay” as a concept and an identity is very much a later-half of the 20th Century thing. In the 19th century, men would express their affection for one another in language that today would seem over the top even for heterosexual teenagers today. Society was far more rigidly gender-restricted then- men and women did not socialize unless they were married, and then mostly with other married couples. It was also far more accepted for men (or women) to express affection between themselves than it was to each other.

      I collect images that show same-sex intimacy or affection because they intrigue me. They reveal so many different possibilities, none definite, because in almost all cases the story behind the image is lost to time. Virtually everything we sitting here in the 21st Century say about these photos is an interpretation filtered through the lens of our point in time. Nothing wrong with that so long as we acknowledge it and respect the a-historical nature of those interpretations.

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