Photographs of Men in Love Take Centre Stage at Geneva’s Museum of Art and History

Friday, May 26, 2023
Photographs of Men in Love Take Centre Stage at Geneva’s Museum of Art and History

This summer, from 8 June until 24 September, the Museum of Art and History (MAH) presents Loving: a photography exhibition featuring unique portraits of men in love from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

These rare photographs bear witness to times and places where male love was, and sometimes still is, prohibited. Drawing on the internationally-acclaimed namesake publication from 2020, this is the first public display of Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell’s exceptional photography collection. In collaboration with MAH, the duo has curated a selection specifically for the rooms of the Rath Museum. It comes complete with an intervention and film projection by iconic Swiss artists Walter Pfeiffer and Urs Lüthi.

Originating from Texas, Nini and Treadwell accidentally began collecting anonymous portraits of male couples two decades ago. Now based in New York, the pair has since developed an expansive collection comprising over 4000 photographs taken between the 1850s and the 1950s around the world. They found these images at flea markets, estate sales, family archives, and online auctions. The range of individuals shown in the pictures is extensive, covering 19th-century working-class men, fashionably-dressed businessmen, university students, and soldiers and sailors of all ages, spanning the period between the US civil war and the second world war. Regardless of the time and place, however, one common aspect emerges across the photographs: the singular dynamic between their protagonists and the poses they adopt. At once loving and playful, the couples appear in intricate mise-en-scenes including at the bow of a ship, in bed, or even in mock wedding ceremonies. While the photographers’ identities are unknown – aside from those images taken in photo booths –it is assumed that they share a certain proximity and even complicity with their subjects.
Photograph, 1951 83 x 121 mm, Note: "1951", "Davis & J.C." Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell collection © Loving by 5 Continents Editions 

Photograph, United States, undated, Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell collection © Loving by 5 Continents Editions

The selection on display at MAH features 400 unique photographs of various dimensions – some never seen before – taken both professionally in studios and spontaneously in natural settings. Among them is an early twentieth-century photograph featuring two young men believed to be Bloomsbury poet Rupert Brooke and artist Duncan Grant (Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law) lying together on the grass. Other pictures include one from circa 1880 showing two elegantly-dressed young men in suits holding hands, one sitting on the other’s lap; one from 1951 featuring two Black soldiers in uniforms sitting on a stool bench, one tenderly resting his chin on the other’s shoulder, and an undated picture showing two young men kissing passionately against the backdrop of expansive hilly fields. “They memorialised their feelings for one another in these photos at great risk,” Nini and Treadwell say. “All of them are examples of love, affection, attachment, and bravery. What we as collectors, personally, have come to understand from these photos is that couples like us have always existed.”

Additionally, the iconic Swiss photographer Walter Pfeiffer has intervened specifically for the display at MAH. Known since the 1970s for his homoerotic and often humorous portraits of amateur male models, the Zurich-based artist has selected several photographs from the Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell collection, which have been colour-modified and enlarged to adorn the museum’s walls. This site-specific intervention allows the display to bridge past and present, giving the otherwise historical collection a contemporary twist. Meanwhile, the equally iconic Swiss conceptual artist Urs Lüthi – credited as Lou Reed’s inspiration for the song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ – will show two rare black and white videos. Projected simultaneously in the museum’s basement, the films were shot in Florence in 1974 using a split-screen technique. They feature images of milk pouring into an empty glass, Lüthi illuminating his face with a torch and the artist’ former partner, Elke Kilga, smoking quietly before pointing a gun at the viewer.
Image on top : Photo booth image , United States, undated, 27 x 32 mm, Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell collection © Loving by 5 Continents Editions

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Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.

Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.


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