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.
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).
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.
As I’ve been collecting images, and I do a fair bit of my looking on Ebay, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting albeit off-putting trends. I go back and forth between interest in tintypes, daguerreotypes, and CDVs, with the occasional odd foray into early 20th century images if they include things like cars. In looking for daguerreotype images, I’ve been seeing a lot of what are really very ordinary, common images (no identification of subject or photographer, 1/6 plate to 1/9th plate size, ordinary condition) being listed for astronomical prices ($650 for a 1/6 plate dag? Really?). It’s one of those things that gives you a false impression of the market – seeing all those listings at those stupid prices makes you think that A: your own collection is worth a lot more, and B: if people are listing them for that kind of money, they must be selling for that kind of money. This impression lingers unless you do a search on closed auctions, where you’ll see that most of the successful sales are still in the under $200 range, with the odd exception of some truly rare or exceptional images (1/2 plate, known subject, unusual subject, etc).
Another marketing trend I find a bit odd is the whole “gay interest” tag in the image description. On one level, I get it – the seller is trying to reach out to an under-appreciated market. On the other hand, I question if the people using that tag line understand the “gay interest” thing at all. Two men or two women posing together in the Victorian world did not make them a same-sex couple. They could be siblings, co-workers or just friends. 99% of the time we have zero context to go with any image to make an assessment of the relationships captured in the images. There was no public subculture in the 1850s or even in the 1880s that we would today recognize as analogous to the late 20th/early 21st century gay culture, and as such it would not have been recorded photographically. There is certainly an interest in finding proof of ancestry – “see, we DID exist in the 1850s”. Unfortunately, buying in to the “gay interest” marketing of these images is really just being taken for a ride through ignorance and vulnerability. Don’t get me wrong – it’s certainly fun to speculate what might have been going on behind the scenes of these pictures, and what the relationships of the sitters might be to one another. I have one image in my collection that in the right minds implies no end of off-camera highjinks. But it’s still pure speculation. If you see an image marked “gay interest”, buy it only because you actually like the image, not for any marketing baloney designed to separate more of your hard-earned money from you than is fair.