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Dear Friends is certainly one of the most interesting and provocative studies of American photography to have appeared in years. Deitcher refuses to read these poignant images EITHER as clear-cut evidence of gay relationships OR as . . . merely the standard poses of comradeship of the period. Instead, he investigates the unexplored territory that lies between these two poles—a history of social relations, personal contact, and literary friendship.
— Linda Nochlin

Dear Friends

AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS OF MEN TOGETHER, 1840 – 1918

 

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PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN, SUBJECTS UNKNOWN, TINTYPE, (3 3/8 X 2 1/2″), C. 1880

David Deitcher’s Dear Friends is an invaluable and deeply affecting act of recuperation, an eye-opening demonstration of the change over time in the nature of friendship and its acceptable public representation. Deitcher’s text adds immeasurably to our understanding of the photographs. In supple prose, wise with ambiguity, he has proved a sophisticated analysis of a previously little-understood aspect of the history of male-male relationships.
— Martin Duberman

FROM THE BOOK:

 

            At a certain point in the process of conducting such photo research, I reached an impasse. I’d been unable to locate a sufficient number of photographs dating back to the earlier years in American photography during the 1840’s and ’50s. At the advice of a friend, I phoned a well known authority on early photographs in general, and on daguerreotypes in particular. After giving me the names and addresses of a handful of collectors and dealers he thought might have what I was looking for, he told me about the extensive community of early-photography enthusiasts who had come together as members of an organization known as The Daguerreian Society. He suggested that I place a query in the Daguerreian Society Newsletter, which I did—taking care, as he advised, to describe my project discretely, which is to say without any allusion to its possibly gay point of view. Soon after the newsletter arrived in the mail in February 1999, an inundation of correspondence from “daguerreians” throughout the United States made it apparent that I’d hit the mother lode. More than twenty individuals wrote me with interest, often enclosing in their correspondence reproductions of early photographs in their possession that they considered representative of what my query referred to as “comradeship.”

After the query appeared, my dealings with one delightful man from Missouri eventually helped me to realize the extent to which my dealings with collectors like him had been tainted all along by my own internalized homophobia. It was homophobic self-censorship, masked as strategic discretion, that led me even after people responded to my query to describe my project to them in the disinterested manner of a scholarly photo historian. In introductory conversations, I always managed to avoid describing the nature of the desire these photographs elicited in me. Rather than admit to their emotional and erotic resonance as historic representations of same-sex love, I maintained an academic attitude, preferring to dwell instead on the “historic mutability” of friendship and masculinity.

The man from Missouri had sent me color xeroxes of a number of interesting photographs, including a fine daguerreotype and several good tintypes. He didn’t want to ship the original photographs to me, as other collectors had been willing to do, and therefore arranged to have a professional photographer copy them where he lives. When the transparencies were ready he called. “Instead of mailing them,” he suggested, “why don’t I bring them to you in person?” I offered to pay for him to ship the transparencies, but he was adamant. “We’ve gone through all this trouble to get these things made, and I’m a retired airline employee so airfare’s no problem. Besides,” he added, “my daughter lives in New York.” A few days later, a tall, thin retiree walked into my apartment; a little gingerly, he pointed out, because of a recent hip replacement. He had a long, pleasant face, a ruddy complexion, a shock of silver hair, and a slow smile that suited his midwestern drawl. I led him into my workroom, and while I examined his photographer’s handiwork I encouraged him to look over copies of the other photographs that I’d pinned up. The sight of all these photographs clearly pleased him, but then what “daguerreian” would not be happy to see scores of interesting old pictures?

As we were preparing to leave for lunch, my partner came out of the room in which he’d been working. I introduced them, and they exchanged polite greetings. But outside, as the collector and I were walking to a nearby diner, he turned to me and said, “I don’t mean to pry, but was that young man you introduced me to your partner?” I answered yes, adding that we’ve been together for seventeen years. Daniel congratulated me and then added that he and his wife were married in 1960. “We had two children and then unexpectedly she died of leukemia. I’m very proud,” he said, “of having raised two fine young people as a single gay dad.” A single gay dad? That this came as something of a shock was itself more surprising than anything that the man had actually said. All along I’d assumed that he was straight, an assumption that he’d reinforced inadvertently by mentioning the daughter he planned to visit while in New York. I assumed he was straight despite the fact that he shared my interest in such nineteenth-century images of male affection. I’d clung to that assumption rather than relinquish an intractable pair of homophobic myths: first, that men who marry are straight; second, that parenting is an exclusively heterosexual prerogative.

Given the increasing number of lesbians and gay men raising children these days, and the legions of married men who had always engaged in more or less furtive gay sexual encounters, it seemed irrational to be continuing to identify marriage and childrearing exclusively with heterosexuality. Even as a boy, I’d learned with the unwitting help of my parents (of all people) to question those alibis. When I was a child, I remember that my mother worshipped Leonard Bernstein. One night at the dinner table, she was holding forth on the subject of the charismatic conductor when, out of nowhere, in a fit of competitive pique, my father pronounced her beloved Lenny a fag. To this outrage my mother responded that the maestro was—thank you very much—a happily married father. A smirk momentarily disturbed the symmetry of my father’s face who needed say no more since my mother’s defense of her idol had struck him as the non sequitur I later knew it to be.

And yet, even the thought that the men in these photographs might have married and raised children is dismaying to me. As my research into the social history of male friendship in the United States has revealed, the naturalized identification of marriage and parenting with heterosexuality has often been used to deny the queer past. Countless gay men and lesbians have been coerced into acquiescing in this conspiracy of self-denial. Given how commonplace it has been for same-sexers to lead double lives, and the force of the terror that has fueled this masquerade, universal heterosexuality seems a more convenient than fitting conclusion to draw from the matrimonial glut.

Dismay, under any circumstances, is a strong and troubling emotion, one that leaves a sense of depletion and powerlessness in its wake. But what does it mean to experience dismay in reflecting on the historical probability that the men in these photographs may well have married and had children? The feeling surfaces as if in acknowledgment of the many men and women who have been coerced into living a lie, having had little choice but to assist in expunging their deviant desires from the historical record. But to the extent that dismay is also a form of abjection, it suggests deeper roots than mere frustration in the search for signs of a past that has been obscured. I feel the disabling effects of dismay when, for example, I read historical accounts of romantic friendship between men that conclude (as if to eliminate the possibility that these intimate same-sex ties may have also been sexual) that they ended with adulthood and marriage—the two, inevitably, being equated. The historian Anthony Rotundo drew this conclusion in his study of the romantic friendships, passionate attachments that he limited to the interregnum between boyhood and manhood. In romantic friendship, he observed, nineteenth-century youths found a substitute for the “emotional nurture provided most often in boyhood by a mother,” the “worldly counsel” supplied by a father; even “a rehearsal for marriage.”[i]

Defining adulthood and maturity in terms of marriage and successful adaptation to the harshly competitive, male-dominated nineteenth-century workplace, Rotundo implied that any man who married but nonetheless sustained a romantic friendship suffered from arrested development, to say nothing of those other men who never married, including those who, in the face of draconian punishment, participated in illicit same-sex relations. Such a view is consistent, of course, with the view of homosexuals as psychologically arrested narcissists, Peter Pans who have failed successfully to navigate the oedipal shoals. This painfully familiar scenario was upheld by the homophobic postwar vulgarizers of Freud’s problematic etiology of homosexual object choice.[ii] Dismay—at the absence of history where history should be; at the intractability and apparent logic of the homophobic mind-set—may therefore be rage turned inward, partly in fear of the annihilating force of that violent emotion; partly in frustration at being intimidated at the thought of the real and imagined destructive power that has almost succeeded in supplanting the queer past with the popular myth that no such past exists. Dismay of this kind is a self-fulfilling sense of one’s own powerlessness.

Only over lunch with the man from Missouri was I finally able to discuss freely the nature of my interest in old photographs of men together. Until then, I had believed that such forthrightness would jeopardize my chances of securing the cooperation of collectors. And yet, with the exception of the collector who promised to respond to my e-mail reminders but never did, only one other man came close to justifying those fears. “In response to your call for images of male affection,” his e-mail began, “I might be inclined to submit an image or two but am curious as to the light in which they would be presented. Is the object of your book to indicate a homosexual affection (which I believe 99% of such images are not) or just to illustrate the differences in the manner [in] which men/boys interacted with each other 150 years ago?” Weeks passed before I responded by writing that while it was not my intention to claim such photographs as proof of a gay past, I fully intended to consider “how and why such ambiguous artifacts stimulate different responses in different viewers—including those who are homosexual and might want to find evidence of a past with which they can identify.” I was genuinely surprised when this collector provided me with access to an extremely elegant daguerreotype of two youths who may or may not have been brothers. Each of them has extended an arm around the other’s shoulder, and both have reached their other arms forward to clasp hands before them. The result is an elliptical composition that is echoed by the daguerreotype’s oval frame. More than any other photograph reproduced here, I think of this one as epitomizing the specifically youthful affection that, according to Rotundo, would disappear as soon as these boys grew up to be men.

But what about the many surviving photographs of similarly affectionate men who were fully grown when their pictures were taken? Are such photographs and the commemorative tradition they exemplify representative of a time when same-sex love was freer and less fraught than it later became? Do such photographs provide evidence of a time when impassioned ties between men, and between women, were taken for granted—or, perhaps more precisely, taken as granted? Are they surviving shards from a past that, from a certain perspective, looks positively Arcadian inasmuch as—given a certain discretion—the intimate relations they picture, and others that they only imply, were for some time spared the all-encompassing suspicion and scorn that would later be heaped upon them? But what kind of Arcadia is it that brackets off as “unspeakable” some of the most intimate forms of human contact? Might such pictures simply reflect that prevalence in the nineteenth century of loving feelings between men? But can love between men ever be “simple” when it corresponds historically with the consolidation of power between them and their domination over others? To consider such questions seriously is to risk promoting the belief that taking pleasure in these photographs requires a certain ignorance about the reality they picture.

But what of the relationships that other gay men have sustained to such photographs? What of collectors—men in their sixties and seventies—who came of age not only before AIDS established circumstances in which the gay predisposition to morbidity assumed disastrous new meanings, but before the inception of the mass movement for gay sexual freedom and civil rights made it possible for gay men to live more openly. Under those conditions, such men would have been drawn to these photographs as rare historical emblems of their desire. When representations of same-sex love are forbidden, images of men together, which the guardians of mainstream propriety consider innocuous enough to leave unregulated, become cherished objects of desire. This happens through a more or less conscious act of willful misinterpretation. As an adolescent, I remember satisfying my yearning for representations of same-sex sexuality, of male flesh against male flesh, in looking at the photographs of swimmers that illustrated the “Junior Lifesaving” manuals of the American Red Cross. In retrospect, that willful misuse of vernacular imagery had about it an unmistakable charm, as did the accompanying projection of erotic scenarios onto these functional stagings of seminaked men in distress being rescued by others.

Today we can swim in seas of homoerotica and X-rated porn. It should not be taken as a detraction from the pleasures of porn to underscore the guilelessness and ingenuity with which image-starved gay men and lesbians perused everyday representations for sexual excitement; nor to admit to mourning the passage of such creative strategies for (homo)sexual survival as one of the costs we have had to pay for replacing gay subcultural ingenuity by gay culture, tout court.[iii] There are, of course, other related trade-offs, in which one thing is lost at the price of another being gained. Ultimately, this book provides evidence of a parallel trade-off that results from the historical transformation of the social meaning of same-sex affection from an early-nineteenth-century tradition of romantic friendship and comradely love to the considerably more recent, modern category of homosexuality. Among the casualties of this reconceptualization of same-sex affection was the more fluid affection that characterized romantic friendship and comradely love, and its physical expression among men who posed for photographers holding hands, entwining limbs, or resting in the shelter of each other’s accommodating bodies, innocent of the suspicion that such behavior would later arouse. What was gained would take the better part of half a century to crystallize: the awakening of gay men and lesbians to the political nature of their modern oppression, which then led to the making, in the historian John D’Emilio’s phrase, “of a homosexual minority in the United States.”[iv]

Tragedy, past and present, can provoke acts of defiance. Symbolic defiance is implicit in the act of historical reclamation and brings pleasure and persistence to the search for evidence of a past, even if it includes the debris of lives wrecked by antiquated injunctions or disfigured by more modern technologies for regulating desire. Resistance compels the queer historian to unearth precious traces of that past and to disseminate them in the form of previously untold stories of men and women, some of whom succeeded as others failed to live with and act on their forbidden love. Through such acts of recuperation, the queer historian helps to ensure the continued availability of that past as a source of validation and connection for similarly isolated individuals in the future.

The fact that the photographs in this book can ultimately only perpetuate uncertainty regarding precisely what they picture in no way detracts from the significance of their recovery and collection. From a queer perspective, this self-imposed horizon of historical knowledge has a salutary effect, inasmuch as it rejects the hubris that so often motivates more elaborately legitimated attempts at historical reclamation.[v] Nor should the importance of this modest salvage operation be denied on the basis of its speculative (and therefore depreciated) historical method. Central to that speculative method is the self-validating faith in the potential of private desire to lead to the disclosure of public truth.

 

 

[i] Anthony Rotundo, “Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy and Middle-Class Youth in the Northern United States, 1800-1900,” Journal of Social History, 23, no.1 (1989), pp, p. 14.

[ii] For an enlightening discussion of male homosexuality as viewed by Freud and his followers, see Kenneth Lewes, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

[iii] This point may well be the most important, and least troubling, contribution to be found in Daniel Harris’s collection of essays, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (New York: Hyperion, 1997).

[iv] See: John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[v] Perhaps the most spectacular demonstration of such historical hubris is the corporate-sponsored “restoration” of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. I am not interested in whether or not this Herculean effort has “restored” Michelangelo’s frescoes to anything approaching their condition in the artist’s day. That does not seem a question that anyone lacking a time machine can reasonably hope to answer. Far more interesting is the underlying attitude that modern technologies can somehow cleanse the material consequences of a half millennium, and the accompanying idea that this is a historical thing to do so—as if the Renaissance could be made more immediate to the conditions of life at the end of the twentieth century. That this rehabilitation has occurred during Pope John Paul II’s reassertion of papal authority, with funding from a Japanese film company, speaks volumes about the relationship between such spectacular acts of historical and cultural reclamation and the institutions that find such actions desirable.