The photographic evidence is utterly convincing: Men hugged, nuzzled, embraced, held hands, entwined legs, sat in each other’s laps, gazed into each other’s eyes. Men loved one another blissfully, unashamedly, and they weren’t afraid to go into a photographer’s studio and document that love. But even apparently straightforward photos make notoriously slippery proof, and these pictures of “men together” from photography’s first seven decades (1840-1918) are slipperier than most. Are these emblems of the homoerotic longing smoldering behind the steely facade of modern masculinity or merely souvenirs of a time before that facade became so firmly fixed? Do they represent sexual desire or sincere devotion?
To queer social historians, the very existence of these antique images of affectionate men is tantalizing, both because they survive in such profusion (often in the hands of gay collectors) and because the exact nature of the intimacies they depict is essentially unknowable. This combination of (relative) ubiquity and (almost total) anonymity invites speculation, projection, and a broad range of wishful thinking. With Dear Friends, David Deitcher freely indulges in all three without ever losing his critical head. He doesn’t deny the suggestive possibilities of the many photographs of men cuddling like lovers reproduced in his book, but he resists the temptation to turn them into proof positive of a warmly expressive, casually public gay past. “In their elusiveness, their resistance to naming and categorization,” he concludes, “such photographs become their own best poetic evidence of the fluidity that marked the relations they reveal yet cannot prove.”
If this conclusion is frustrating to readers who’d hoped to follow the book’s trail of daguerreotypes, tintypes, and cartes de visite back to some turn-of-the-century combination of Eden and the Mine Shaft, we can’t say that Deitcher didn’t warn us—gently but firmly—right from the beginning. Opening with the rapt description of a photo of two handsome young men with their arms slung around each other’s shoulders, Deitcher strikes a confidential tone, persuading us to share his fascination and the curiosity it prompts. He structures Dear Friends as an investigation into the circumstances that encouraged the making of that image and so many others like it in late-19th-and early-20th-century America. Although his interest is not without its sturdy academic underpinnings (and a light smattering of academic jargon), it’s never disinterested, always engaged.
Because what Deitcher calls his “modest salvage operation” begins on such a personal note—including an aside about “satisfying [his] yearning for representations of same-sex sexuality” with the photos of swimmers in Red Cross lifesaving manuals—the reader is more than willing to indulge him on the long and winding road from ambiguity to uncertainty. At the core of his speculative method, he writes, “is the self-validating faith in the potential of private desire to lead to the disclosure of public truth.” Because the social construction of homosexuality—its categorization and criminalization, even the public currency of the term—didn’t really take place until the late 19th century, the tradition of romantic friendship that existed between men (and between women) was accepted as a particularly effusive form of male bonding. Whether at work, at war, or otherwise isolated from the world of women, buddies felt free to be physically affectionate without being immediately labeled deviant.
The photographic evidence of this is compelling and comforting. Even if all the couples and groups pictured throughout Deitcher’s book had no sexual interest in one another—and the odds are dead against that—their unselfconscious display of brotherly love is a welcome corrective to the parallel history of masculine callousness and reserve. Reproduced in their original range of warm brown tones and with their original, often elaborate mountings, the photos in Dear Friends show not just soldierly embraces (though many of the subjects are in the military) but a kind of melting intimacy. As if seeking shelter, men fairly swoon into each other’s arms. Others, seated, hook a leg over their companion’s or let their hand rest on his inner thigh. Though recorded almost a century ago, the casualness, deliberateness, and suggestiveness of these gestures remain almost dizzyingly potent—all the more so because the men engaging in them look downright heterosexual.
The apparent (and, of course, arguable) straightness of the men in Deitcher’s book would seem to be a given of the material were it not for a less scholarly 1998 book called Affectionate Men: A Photographic History of a Century of Male Couples (1850’s to 1950’s) published by St. Martins Press. Compiled by Russell Bush from his own collection, Affectionate Men contains a similar mix of formats and poses, but perhaps because it reaches into more contemporary times, many more of its male subjects appear—to this overactive gaydar range—homosexual. Since, ultimately, we don’t know a thing about the men in either of these books, Bush’s more queer-inflected selection doesn’t really alter Deitcher’s conclusion about the photos’ ambiguity, but it does give a more vivid face to the “fluidity” he remarks upon. (Surprisingly, neither book examines contemporaneous studio photographs of male-female couples, very few of which involve the sort of relaxed tenderness and intimate physical contact displayed here.)
No matter how vivacious, all vintage photographs are poignant with history and loss, but Dear Friends‘ touchingly elegiac air comes from the material itself. What’s been lost in the decades since these pictures were made is not just the tradition of romantic friendship but a kind of freedom and grace. Deitcher, who includes a photo of Walt Whitman with his “rebel soldier friend” Peter Doyle, lets the poet of sexual ambiguity describe the bonds memorialized in his book: “threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and lifelong.”
A show of the photographs from Dear Friends is at the International Center of Photography, 1130 Sixth Avenue, through June 10.