Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918by David Deitcher, Catherine Smith, Cynthia Greig
Dear Friends is the first book to demonstrate how common it was for 19th-century American men to commemorate intimate friendships with a visit to the local photographer. Reproducing more than 100 never-before-published vintage photographs, this groundbreaking book provides evidence of a kind of physical intimacy between men that challenges the conventional view of the Victorian era. David Deitcher's provocative text combines historical research, social observation, and pictorial analysis to explore the nature of same-sex affection between men during the period.
- Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 7.60(w) x 10.50(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
Look at this picture. What do you see? A photographic shard, a sliver of paper, measuring little more than one inch square in warm shades of gray and brown. Its lower right-hand corner is missingbroken off perhaps owing to the brittleness of such old paperand its surface is further disfigured by a burn mark. Registered in the emulsion of this tiny silver chloride (or gelatin silver) print is a medium close-up of a pair of handsome young men. Evidently they went to the trouble of combing their hair for the photographer, but they are otherwise dressed casually in simple jackets worn over shirts with neither collars nor ties, in a style that suggests American working men of the 1890s. The fellow on the left is radiantly fair, with clear, soft eyes. His darker friend has piercing eyes and a level gaze that suggests confidence and poise. But it is the intimacy with which these men posed so long ago, and the survival of this fragile object against the odds, that makes this photograph an object of wonder to me. Each man rests a hand affectionately on the shoulder of the other; or, more precisely, at the point where the shoulder meets the bare skin of the neck. Such a comfortable display of mutual affection between men in the presence of a commercial photographer would be rare indeed in our supposedly more liberal time.
I first became aware of photographs like those that appear throughout the pages of this book when I saw this one during the spring of 1994. I'd been invited to give a lecture at the Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. A student there hadvolunteered to meet me at Philadelphia's Thirtieth-Street Station in order to drive me out to the school. My lecture concerned an incendiary topic: contemporary cultural practices that demonstrate a gay, lesbian, or "queer" perspective on life. The student had a particular interest in the subject of my talk, having only just come to terms with the fact that he too is gay. After the lecture, he drove me back to the train station, and as we sat in the warm cabin of his battered Ford Ranger pickup truck, he handed me a copy of his own work-in-progress: a handsome artist's book entitled (after a poem by Walt Whitman), "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances." His project included reproductions of anonymous nineteenth-century photographs of men in affectionate poses, as well as more informal World War II-era snapshots of American soldiers enjoying leisure time. These he juxtaposed with fragments from a variety of published writings concerning gay history, identity, and the nature of sexual difference. Even a cursory glance through the pages of his book made it clear that the photographs and the writings it contained had been an indispensable source of pleasure, stimulation, and strength to its author throughout his solitary struggle for self-acceptance. But it was the earlier photographs, such as the tiny print of the two young men, which came as a revelation to mc. This ephemeral object has survived its abandonment, just as it has survived the men whose appearance it preserves, the memory of their names, and any details about their lives except their physical appearance. These factors combined with the surprising intimacy of the anonymous sitters to trigger a powerful emotional response in me. I wanted to know more, and to see more.
Looking at these photographs has made me wonder about the kind of affection that the men in them actually shared. How was it that such men were so comfortable posing so closely together? As anonymous photographs, they remain stubbornly ambiguous objects. I know nothing about their long-since deceased subjects, nothing about the occasion that brought them together to sit for a photograph one day. A photograph like this comes with no provenance, often without even an inscription that might provide clues to help answer the many questions it raises. The Tyler student picked it up for a song at a Pennsylvania flea market, as he did the other old pictures he's collected. One thing I know: He was powerfully drawn to these objects, believing that in them he had found something that he wanted, and even needed, to see.
Being drawn in this way to enigmatic artifacts from the past provides evidence of longing: longing for the self-validation that results from having a history to refer to; longing for a comforting sense of connection to otherspast as well as presentwhose experience mirrors one's own. Inasmuch as photographs like this lack supporting documentation, they are powerless to communicate anything more than the following: This is how these men looked ell that day when they sat for the photographer. Anonymity, and the uncertainty it perpetuates, facilitate a kind of pleasure that would be more difficult to sustain under the potentially harsh, and always more limiting, details of a more concrete historical intelligence. Research into the gay history of nineteenth-century London prompted one writer to ask: "Do we view it with dismay, since it is a record of sorrow, of powerlessness, a record of lives wrecked? Or is it possible to read even these texts, written as they were by journalists, policemen and court clerks, with delight, as precious traces of dangerous, pleasurable, complicated gay lives?" Uncertain of anything that ever actually transpired between the men in such a photograph, the collector is free to imagine whatever he pleases. Immersed in their appearance, he remains ignorant of any tragedy that might have befallen them, or of any crime they may have committed or been punished for. With neither caption nor context to anchor this object of his desire, he is free to wonder: By what hazardous, indirect route did this uncanny image, imprinted on a fragile scrap of paper, survive to find its way to my desk, where it arouses curiosity about the details of the world it so vividly pictures, and desire for whatever it represents?
Such a relation to photographs of anonymous men is therefore akin to flirtation. It parallels the sense of limitless possibility that depends on not knowing very much more about a man than is suggested by his presence, and on deferring the moment of defining the nature of an erotic relationship that may be sexual but that cannot be "fixed" in the sense that committed relationships are. Desire thrives on the suggestion, on the possible, just as surely as it shrinks from the light of a deeper familiarity. British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written that flirtation "sustains the life of desire." As in flirtation, the collector's desire to sustain a relationship with these photographs and to the men they record embraces uncertainty as "a way of cultivating wishes, of playing for time."
In looking at old photographs of anonymous men, desire ranges freely, attracted to the quirks of physical appearance as well as the appearance of intimacy; to a man's looks, comportment, and style, which antiquity renders especially alluring. I find myself drawn to a broader range of physical types than is the case today: to skinny men with odd, angular faces; to men with crudely cut, heavily pomaded, or just plain greasy hair; to unshaven men and to men who sport extravagant sideburns, handlebar mustaches, or full shaggy beards. It would be hard to exaggerate the contrast between the men in these pictures and today's masculine ideal of chiseled features and gym-crafted bodies suggesting armor, not flesh; imagined as if in cybernetic resistance to aging or plague.
It is as if men put themselves together more inventively back then. Notwithstanding the legibility of codified fashions among borderline dandies like the men in some of these pictures, other men in other pictures responded with a combination of invention and pragmatism to the varied circumstances of nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century life, as members of different classes in variously urban, rural, and frontier settings. American men of disparate economic means evolved styles of dress and modes of comportment that, in retrospect, seem strikingly original. But perhaps this is too distanced, too abstract a way of looking, which depends too much on the knowledge that so much about their style has since been codified, copied, and reified by today's purveyors of masculine American style, from Hollywood to Marlboro to Ralph Lauren.
In addition to the mildly erotic pleasures of looking at affectionate men from another time, there are other factors that draw me to these old photographs. I am drawn to the orphaned pictureto the castoff that lies unnoticed and undignified at the weekend flea market amid the unsorted elastic-bound stacks of other tintypes, cartes-de-visite, and postcards. I feel something other than exhilaration in having discovered photographic evidence of historic same-sex affection in an era of possibly more fluid relations. I identify with the weathered object. In its tears, scuff marks, and dents, I see the signs of age, and more. I see the stigmata of their abandonment and mistreatment as so much discarded junk. To be drawn so empathetically to inanimate objects suggests a form of identification with them; that, and a decidedly morbid relation to the past.
Like most photographs, these old likenesses convey a vivid sensation of the presence of the sitters who died long ago. The morbid pleasure in looking at them results, in part, from certain characteristics of photography itself, which Roland Barthes, among other writers, has noted. Looking at this object, I am aware that long ago light registered its uncanny impression in the emulsion-coated surface as it probed the living bodies of these men in their space and time at the instant of exposure. Just as the passage of time has stripped these men of their identities, so exposure to light, which brought their image into being and now makes them visible, is causing them to fade from view.
Are some individuals more susceptible than others to interacting with old photographs in this way? I've long considered that gay men hold a special franchise on this dismal sense of beauty. Perhaps knowing that no children of my own will survive to remember me contributes to my morbid attraction to these mementos of forgotten men, caught in a moment of intimate connection; as does the suspicion that some of my eight nieces and nephews may forget me too. Who among them, I wonder, will neglect to tell their children about their queer uncle David who went away and lived with a man and didn't have any children?
Sometimes I'm afraid that I glimpse my future in the past lives of those other men. But then I remember the reaction of my friend Lauren, a single straight woman in her thirties, as she leafed through a stack of these photographs while sitting on a porch on a summer day. At first she expressed delight and interest in seeing so much evidence of the physical ease and affection that American men once demonstrated together. But then she paused, as if also overcome by darker feelings. "These are sad," she added, "they're like death, aren't they?" Without knowing it, Lauren had approximated an observation that Susan Sontag once famously made about photographs: that as such vivid encapsulations of something that once was and is no more, photographs are infused with the spirit of death.
* * *
In July 1997, I came upon a reproduction of a daguerreotype of two men in the pages of the New York Times. In the photograph, the more handsome of the two men is seated, and the other is standing with a hand resting comfortably on the shoulder of his mate. What can one learn from the visual evidence alone? That the standing figure was perhaps of more than average height, with a lanky build and strong, weathered hands that suggest an active, physical life. He had a der chin, long wavy hair, a trim beard, and a pinched expression. Both men appear rugged, yet prosperous in suits worn over silk vests, clean shirts, and ties. The seated man was powerfully built, his face marked by prominent cheek bones, deep-set clear eyes that are set wide apart, and a broad, sensual mouth. He appears to be wearing some kind of headband, which combines with his short, curly hair and symmetrical features to give him a vaguely classical look. The fact that I encountered this photograph as a captioned illustration in a newspaper article meant that I did not have to rely on the testimony of the picture at all; that I could not for long enjoy the unfettered freedom to imagine whatever I pleased about the men it portrayed. A glance at the photograph's caption and the article's headline informed me about the identity of both sitters, and helped mc to surmise something about the nature of the bond they shared.
The caption identified them as Texas cattle barons Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, who posed for the half-plate daguerreotype in Brownsville in the 1850s. The article informed me that this was only a few years after the United States annexed Texas; and forcibly persuaded Mexico to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That treaty honored Mexican land titles in principle but could not guarantee them in fact, which led to tensions between Mexican landowners and the horde of American businessmen, squatters, and ex-soldiers who arrived with claims to land that may or may not have been authentic. It was in that avaricious postwar setting that King and Kenedy, like other large ranching families, consolidated their holdings. It is therefore possible that what this daguerreotype commemorates is that consolidation of wealth and power.
King and Kenedy were representative of a class of men who were so powerful that they could pretty much take possession of whatever they thought was theirs, whether or not it legally belonged to them. Hence the title of the Times article: "Cattle Barons of Texas Yore Accused of Epic Land Grab," which was published on the occasion of a lawsuit filed by descendants of José Manuel Balli Villarreal and his with, Maria Antonia Cavazos de Hinojosa. In the early nineteenth century, the king of Spain deeded the disputed 363,000 acres to Balli Villarreal, whose descendants leased it to Kenedy, who then may effectively have stolen it to amass enormous wealth, not only from cattle ranching but From oil and gas that were discovered on the property.
Does familiarity with potentially incriminating details about the lives of such men neutralize the attraction that I know I can sustain under the speculative conditions of a more purely imaginary association? Knowing about the underhanded and perhaps brutal behavior of someone who is the object of my desire may make me feel ashamed of that attraction, but hardly eradicates it. Indeed, the contents of my fantasies and dreams tell me that quite the contrary is true. Nevertheless, as is so often the case, I was effectively raised to pay a psychological price for such pleasurable desires in the turmoil and guilt that accompanies them.
In the "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass, in "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances," Walt Whitman addressed the anxiety and excitement that accompanies the emotional gamble of trusting one's good first impressions of another, knowing how ill-founded such first impressions can ultimately prove to be. Whitman's poem also describes the gloom that sets in at the mere thought of relinquishing such admittedly uncertain trust for the safer, but emotionally deadening presumption that, as he writes, "we may be deluded." The poet's determination to suspend such disbelief acknowledges the impossibility of living in a state of permanent disillusionment, an impossibility that is shared by the gay man who searches through piles of old photographs for evidence of a past with which he can identify. Though well aware of the dangerous likelihood that "reliance and hope are but speculations after all," the poet settles on the life-affirming hopefulness of the largely imaginary sense of connection.
May-be seeming to mc what they are (as doubtless they
indeed but seem) as from my present point of view,
and might prove (as of course they would) nought of
what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely
changed points of view.
I experience a parallel sense of uneasiness in deciding to bracket off whatever "history" may have to say about these photographs in order to explore what they represent from my decidedly interested perspective; knowing, as Whitman did, that any single vantage point can only offer a form of intelligence that is profoundly contingent. This is therefore an argument for the importance not just of documentary research, with its promise of "objective" historical knowledge, but of trusting that the attentive pursuit of subjective desires that are shaped and fueled by the emotional inner life of the mind can yield other truths of no lesser importance. Inasmuch as these photographs of men ultimately remain enigmatic objects, they attest to the desire and doubt that together motivate historical research. But by the same token, they remain humble reminders that the past cannot be recapturedat least not through the empirical methods of modern histories that emphasize the separation between historical subjects and objects.
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