I’ve been having the hardest time figuring out what these two gentlemen’s occupation is. They are wielding a trowel and a tin bucket, and staring into the bucket with a great degree of fascination. But they look too clean and too well-dressed for most manual labor occupations that would use a trowel and bucket – bakers, painters, plasterers, gardeners… when showing their profession, they’re usually a little less polished than these two. I’m going with plasterers as that’s a relatively high-earning trade, so maybe they could afford to get cleaned up before going in for their portraits.
I scanned this out of its octagonal Union case to make it easier to see the details. The case is in remarkably fine original condition, with no major cracks or chips.
The two men together could certainly in some people’s minds qualify this as a “gay interest” image, but I’m going to definitely disqualify this as it’s very obviously first and foremost a professional association. The dressing alike is a very 19th century thing within a trade, whereas dressing alike to show one’s sexual relationship to another is very much a late 20th early 21st century thing.
My latest acquisition. This is probably in a three-way tie for the best piece (by my own accounting, not on a financial basis) in my cased images collection, and still in the top 5 if you include my CDVs. Quite the rarity, it depicts a pair of Confederate soldiers arm-in-arm, smoking cigars. The case is a sought-after Union case (the Union in Union Case has nothing to do with the Union vs. the Confederacy, but rather it was a term for the case style, coined in the mid-1850s) depicting crossed cannon. As the Civil War encroached, patriotic designs became increasingly popular, and I can see how and why a pair of Confederate soldiers would want such a case design for their image.
Here is the image in its brass mat –
And a scan of the bare plate without the mat. I have done some dust removal for the purpose of clarifying the image, and applied a little unsharp mask to the image to bring out detail that would be softened in the scanning process, but otherwise this is an accurate representation of the plate and its condition. The image and the case have condition issues, but it’s an unique piece – where are you ever going to find another copy of this image? Despite the plate condition, you can clearly see the hand-coloring of the uniforms, the flesh-tones, and even the lit ends of the cigars have been tinted red!
The case as a whole is generally in good shape, but the lid is missing the velvet pad. This isn’t such a horrible problem, as the velvet pad can always be replaced, but it would have been terrific if it had remained, as the pad might well have had identifying information about the photographer and his location.
I know I’ve harped on the topic of Victorian-era images of affectionate men before, but I’ll do it again, especially since an image like this can be so fraught with meaning mis-applied by modern sensibilities.
Here we have a pair of Confederate soldiers. They are arm-in-arm, casually smoking cigars. I read the gesture as being purely affectionate, bonding between two soldiers who may be not only deep friends but it also reads to me as reassurance in the face of potential mortality. This one lacks any suggestion of sexuality, but I love the way it humanizes two soldiers that it would be easy for us 150 years after the fact to pigeonhole for their support of a cause we today condemn.
Into every life a little rain must fall now and again. Here is the latest arrival to my collection – a pair of British soldiers posing atop a cheetah skin rug. I’m not sure of the date – perhaps some military history buffs out there will be able to identify the time period more precisely (my best guess is between 1890-1910, perhaps as old as the 1880s) but more likely in the 19th century. In any case, the seller shipped it in a plastic sleeve that was loose, and held down with tape. The card either through direct action of the seller or carelessness got attached to the tape, and a big chunk of the emulsion lifted off the card. FORTUNATELY, A: I didn’t pay a lot for the image, and B: the big chunk stayed intact, so it is possible it can be re-attached without being too terribly obvious.
This ‘restoration’ is a purely photoshop restoration, quick-and-dirty with my limited photoshop skills. You can see what the card SHOULD look like with the chunk re-attached.
When I bought this, I saw it as a wonderful example of that genre of homosocial images of men being affectionate that you saw so very much of in the 19th century but faded out by World War I and pretty much disappeared by World War II. This very much has the feel of two soldiers of the Raj, or given the cheetah pelt, somewhere in Imperial Africa. Although probably it was in a London studio. These kinds of photos disappeared as changing attitudes toward men and women and their relationships evolved. The rise of urbanization, factory work, and the buddings of gender equality transformed the personal social sphere, particularly for unmarried people, and what had previously been mono-gendered changed to become heterogenous. With that heterogeneity came the rising expectation of directing your affections, at least in public, toward the “appropriate” gender. Even if the homosocial relationships didn’t go away, the practice of documenting them was suppressed.
After my recent find of that tintype showing two men holding hands, I thought I’d pull together a series of same-sex affection pictures. Turns out I have fewer than I thought. Thus the title, in part, and in part for the fact that the photos are more rare than you’d think on the one hand, and not as rare as you’d think on the other. In an era where same-sex attraction was only beginning to be named and understood as anything other than a moral failing to be treated as a crime, it would seem reasonable to assume images of affection between two people of the same sex would be virtually non-existent. Because, however, there was no concept of a homosexual person, the idea that expressions of affection between two people of the same sex would mean something other than friendship would have been alien and never enter into the mind of the average Victorian. And in an era where physical expressions of affection between the genders, in public anyway, would have been profoundly frowned upon even for a married couple, it is not surprising that there are few images of an affection that would not have been considered unmanly.
I thought it would be fun to review my loose tintypes. These are only the ones I’ve previously posted to the blog, not the entire collection. They run the range from tiny gemtype size (the one of Mr. Phillips in the top hat) to quarter-plate size (almost 5×7). They span a time period from the 1860s to the 1920s. Assembled they present a fascinating if incomplete snapshot of daily life in Victorian America. Showing everything from affectionate friends to unconventional family groups to people on vacation to working people with the tools of their trades, they portray a slice of life otherwise undocumented in literature or historical narrative. This is one of the great joys of collecting images like this – not just the traditional studio portraits, but the images that express meaning and personality beyond a marker that someone existed.
Here’s another tintype, also acquired today, that fits into that “gay interest” category because it shows two men being physically affectionate. Once more, I will stress that there is NO WAY to know the meaning of the gesture: it was much more acceptable in that day and age for two male friends to hold hands as a sign of friendship. These two look like they could very well be brothers. That aside, it’s an excellent example of a hand-tinted tintype showing a slice of Victorian culture in America. I wonder what’s going on with the one white sock, or is it a single white spat, on the gentleman with crossed legs. This is where the intrigue builds – it could be just that he lost one on the way to the studio, or he got one dirty and decided that only having one looked better than having one clean and one dirty. Or he was absentminded and put on one white sock and one dark one, kind of like Albert Einstein. Or, it could be an 1860’s/1870’s code to indicate something about the relationship between the two men. Without knowing historical referents, it’s an exercise in making interpretive leaps from fragmentary, inconclusive evidence.