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It started in a small antique shop in Dallas, Texas, down the road from their church. Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell would often pop over there after mass for a browse. Just another spot of casual shopping through stacks and menageries, the way many of us like to spend a relaxing Sunday.  

But some twenty years later, a retrospective lens casts that day as anything but standard. It’s the day their collection began, or should that be accidentally began?

“LOVING, A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s-1950s” tells the story of the couple’s so-called accidental collection. In fact, it tells many stories, some we thought didn’t really exist, others we imagined wouldn’t still exist in our time to be stories at all, and they all stemmed from that fateful day of looking through boxes in booths. 

The first photograph the couple found was one that they somehow recognized, because it contained something they’d experienced before and related to. It was a simple image of two men – Hugh describes them having “a look in their eyes that said there’s clearly something more here than friendship.”

The accidental collection grew in a book. Image: courtesy Hoegger Communications.

One photograph became two, two became three, and now twenty years later, three has become over three thousand. From shoe boxes, family archives, and online auctions, the couple has amassed a collection that includes images from as far afield as Bulgaria, Japan, and Latvia. In all of them, the men pictured have an undeniable look of affection for each other.

Hugh and Neal call their collection ‘accidental’, because they didn’t intend to start gathering and seeking out these pictures at all. But gather they did, and it became something of a compulsion. “During our earliest collecting years, before we lived full time in NYC, we found many photos at the Flea Market at 26th and 6th. Which later moved to Hell’s Kitchen. Since the internet was still in its infancy, many of our earliest acquisitions came from there,” Hugh recalled.

“1951” “Davis & J.C.” Photo: Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions.

It’s almost like the photographs came to them, attracting them with their tales of untold love that made the two almost feel responsible for their finds, calling the whole thing their “rescue mission.” Which it most definitely is.

In the same way that the couple was stunned to see that first photograph, it is stunning to see so many images gathered in one tangible and astounding book. To see men publicly displaying and recording their love during a time where many had thought that homosexual documentation didn’t even exist feels validating, to say the least. Gratifying. 

In its own way, they say, it is a love letter to the world. 

Unknown and Undated. Photo: Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving” by 5 Continents Editions

Hugh and Neal will be signing copies of “LOVING, A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s-1950s” at Domus on W44th Street between 9/10th Avenue on Wednesday, January 6 from 5pm.

There will be an exhibition at Hogarth Worldwide at 535 W46th Street (between 10/11th Ave) appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day. 

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