It’s crazy all of the historical artifacts you can find on the Internet. I found whole tumblrs, such as Victorian Gentlemen in Love (warning, some photos are NSFW), full of photographs like these:
Now all together: awwwwww.
But when I did a google search to find that tumblr again, I found that the Art of Masculinity had posted over 100 photos as they investigated male affection in photography. They noted that the construct of homosexuality as an identity is actually very new, only developing in the 20th Century. Before then, homosexuality was something that was done, rather than who you were (although many actually started trying to construct an identity for homosexual men and women throughout the 19th century, according to Graham Robb’s Strangers).
They also make an important point when looking at photos like these — except for the pornographic photos, or very friendly photos like the ones above — is not to apply our labels on people who haven’t explicitly identified as homosexual (or Uranist) or homosexual tendencies.
As importantly, these photographs shed light on the emotional stagnation encouraged in men these days. As they write:
Whether the men below were gay in the way our current culture understands that idea, or in the way that they themselves understood it, is unknowable. What we do know is that the men would not have thought their poses and body language had anything at all to do with that question. What you see in the photographs was common, not rare; the photos are not about sexuality, but intimacy.
These photos showcase an evolution in the way men relate to one another — and the way in which certain forms and expressions of male intimacy have disappeared over the last century.
The blog goes on to compare photos of different types — portraits, snapshots, soldiers, work, sports — with contemporary photos. It’s sad to see that while men in the Victorian era, hailed as a time as repressive as one can get, feel that they can do such simple things as touch each other without recourse, men today seem to stand as far apart as possible while remaining in the same photos. (Most women certainly don’t see the need to do the same.)
As for the Victorian photos, they are a great scroll through (both Victorian Gentleman in Love and the Art of Manliness article, along with other collections). Occasionally a photo will be pornographic, and it startles me when I realize that. Victorian Pornography — seems like an oxymoron, right? Although in London, I did see a collection of pornographic snuff boxes, albeit from an earlier time period. Especially pornography involving two men at a time when such behavior could get a sentence of hard labour.
And yet, men still kept these tokens of their love (the portraits, not the pornography). That’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?