Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dear Friends – American Photographs of Men Together, 1840–1918

Dear Friends – American Photographs of Men Together, 1840–1918. Exhibition at Kulturhuset, Stockholm, Sweden. Curated by David Deitcher.

This is so interesting:

"This exhibition examines a rich and pervasive, yet largely unacknowledged, tradition in nineteenth-century American photography in which men commemorated intimate friendships by posing together. Their poses could be surprisingly intimate, as is demonstrated by photographs of men holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes, entwining arms or legs, or resting in the shelter of a comrade’s accomodating body. Such displays of tender, even fervent affection will puzzle contemporary viewers who approach these photographs from a vantage point that differs radically from the conditions in which they were made.

The roughly 60 daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and early paper prints that form the focus of this exhibition were drawn from public and private collections in the United States. They suggest a surprisingly broad-minded attitude toward intimacy between men, one that challenges the conventional view of the Victorian era as more inhibited than our own.

Lending poignancy to these photographs is the fact that the majority of them are anonymous. They were dispersed following the deaths of the sitters only to resurface over a half-century later at flea markets, photograph fairs, and antique shops where enthusiastic collectors—most of them gay—rescued them from oblivion.

“Dear Friends” demonstrates the extent to which same-sex intimacy between men was acknowledged and publicly sanctioned throughout much of the nineteenth century. Depicting men from every class, race and walk of life—from urbane gentlemen to factory workers and farmers; from college chums and athletes to cowboys, soldiers and sailors—these photographs suggest that the bonds of friendship could be romantic in ways that we would identify as sexual but that Victorians, in their state of pre-Freudian innocence, would not.

These highly suggestive and ambiguous photographs attest to the fact that the nineteenth-century “cult of friendship” encouraged public displays of male affection of a kind that only later, toward the end of the nineteenth century, came to be considered perverse and criminal. Only then did the stigmatization of same-sex affection impede such fluid, romantic ties between men, and radically alter the meaning of their remarkable photographic legacy.

“Dear Friends” employs a multi-layerered approach to installation, incorporating ephemera and fragments of pivotal “period” texts to document the historic transformation of friendship, masculinity and sexuality, and to demonstrate the social preconditions for the existence, abandonment and subsequent retrieval of their photographic traces.

“Dear Friends” has been organized by guest curator David Deitcher, and corresponds with his award-winning book of the same title, published by Harry N. Abrams (2001). Deitcher writes: “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.” Deitcher provides an entirely new perspective on male friendship in the 19th century, on early photography’s importance in the constitution of intimate same-sex relations, and on the essential role of shifting social values in determining the meaning of photographic imagery."

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