Victorians were known for their conservative way of life, but these portraits show that many men of that era were unafraid of showing affection. The provocative black-and-white 19th-century images show men posing in surprisingly intimate embraces.
They are seen holding hands, wrapping their arms around each other, sitting on each other’s laps with their legs entwined, and enjoying intimate physical contact without any evident worries.
These photographs, mainly stereographs and daguerreotype, are part of a collection bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, by Columbia University librarian Herbert Mitchell.
As you can see, these pictures document men across all social standings, intellectuals, working men, teachers, painters, etc. However little else is known about the subjects, so their relationships remain open to interpretation.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests that the images are a “’natural and unself-conscious intimacy and physical contact that men enjoyed in a pre-Freudian era rather than portraits of lovers held in each other’s embrace”.
Sometimes the audience wrongly concludes that these men were expressing their closeted gay tendencies for the camera. While some of the men may be homesexuals, the majority are either close friends or siblings.
When you start sifting through old photos, you find that these kinds of poses were not aberrations, but were actually quite commonplace. The photos open up a window into a picture of manliness quite foreign to us now.
There are several reasons why men were so affectionate with each other back in the day. Men were free to have affectionate man relationships with each other without fear of being called a “gay” because the concept of homosexuality as we know it today didn’t exist then. America didn’t have the strict straight or gay dichotomy that currently exists. Affectionate feelings weren’t strictly labeled as sexual or platonic.
Another reason for the nineteenth century’s intense man friendships was that the social structure of society during this time helped foster such intense bonds. Men and women basically lived in separate homosocial worlds until they got married. There wasn’t much interaction between the sexes at that time.
The man friendship underwent some serious transformations during the 20th century. Men went from lavishing endearing words on each other and holding hands to avoiding too much emotional bonding or any sort of physical affections whatsoever.
(Photo credit: Herbert Mitchell / Metropolitan Museum of Art / Male Friendships in 20th Century by Brett and Kate McKay).