With the release of 100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection in select theaters and on VOD today, I wanted to follow up my review from last week with a special feature digging into the making of the documentary. My main gripes with the film were that the information behind this project wasn’t given a spotlight, leaving me with questions by the time the credits rolled. Since I was given a chance to speak with authors Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell as well as pose some questions to director David Millbern, I figured I would provide the answers to those lingering questions for those that leave a viewing as curious as I was.
Something not made explicitly clear in the documentary was how long both Hugh and Neal had been collecting these photos. The subtitle of “The Accidental Collection” comes from their unexpected gathering of multiple photos, but just how many years have they been on the hunt? As Hugh tells me, “22 years now.” The two never set out to specifically look for these photos, but acquired the first one around roughly 1999-2000 and have been continuing to find more since.
With such a long period of time, I asked the two what compelled them to keep searching for more photos of gay couples. “We weren’t compelled in the beginning because we didn’t think there would ever be a second one,” Hugh said. “We thought that we had found a unicorn, basically. Neal had stumbled across a second one about six to eight months, maybe a year, later. We’re not entirely sure because we weren’t keeping records and weren’t thinking we would ever have to talk to anybody about this.”
As described in the documentary, Hugh and Neal would often visit antique shops and flea markets as a hobby, so after collecting a couple of more photos, they started to specifically seek them out. Over time, the collection grew to a couple of hundred and that’s when the two realized they had something special on their hands.
From there, you’d reasonably expect that the idea for a photo compilation book came naturally, but that’s actually not the case. For those unaware, 100 Years of Men in Love is something of a visual companion to a photo collection titled Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s. Compiled by Hugh and Neal, director David Millbern would eventually get in touch with the two and help put a spotlight on the photos that he thought were incredible. Both the book and the film go hand in hand, so a lot of the history deals more with the collection first, followed by the film.
Hugh and Neal previously lived in Dallas, Texas, and were in touch with a photo dealer, but it wasn’t until they moved to New York City that publishing these photos became more of a reality. “We had moved to New York and there was a guy that was a photo dealer,” Neal explained to me. “He would send us first right of refusal every once in a while when we were living in Dallas. After the move, he sent us a photo and we liked it, so we asked him to send it over, and he mentioned that he lived right down the street.”
It couldn’t have been a more serendipitous turn of events for Hugh and Neal. After meeting at a Starbucks with a few of their albums in hand, the dealer was impressed. As Neal told me, “We never showed these photos to our family or friends or anything. We were kind of embarrassed, because we thought, ‘Who would be interested in saving these?’ So, he flipped through the first album page by page. He reached into his bag and pulled out this huge magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes and was looking really close at the photos. After he made it through the second, he said to us, ‘You guys have got to publish this.’”
Hugh added that this was the first time anybody else had ever seen the collection. The two had been gathering photos for 14 years and their meeting with this dealer was the turning point for producing a book. While they didn’t really act on anything for another five years (the meeting happened around 2013), they eventually showed the collection to some friends and most of them saw the potential in publishing. The two agreed more people needed to see it, so they showed it around and a few years later, Loving was published.
So how do we get to 100 Years of Men in Love, then? Neal explained, “David reached out to us about a week after the book launched. He contacted us via email through our website. As he told us, ‘I don’t know what it is, but this is a really important project.’ He had one thought about what he wanted to do and interviewed us in the beginning, but then changed his mind and made the documentary about the photos.”
David corroborated that when I asked him the same question. “I met Hugh and Neal via Zoom after many phone calls during pre-production while directing them during our shoot in NYC from my home in LA…it was the pandemic, after all!” The project took roughly six months to come together before any editing took place and was conducted right as NYC had been shut down. While not ideal, it did give everyone plenty of time to focus on 100 Years of Men in Love.
As for why David got involved with creating a documentary, his story of finding obscure photos of LGBTQ+ couples is quite similar to Hugh and Neal’s. “As a kid, I grew up looking at pictures of my family in albums and boxes. I found an old tintype of two handsome young men sitting very close to one another, legs and arms crossed…the sign they were holding stated the Bourbon, Indiana Fair, 1908. This old tintype gave me such a sense of wonderment… who were these guys?” From there, he discovered Loving and it dawned on him. “These were my gay ancestors and I wanted to find a way to honor them and celebrate their courage.” The specific photo in question appears during the end credits of 100 Years of Men in Love.
1908 is more than 100 years ago, but it’s hardly the oldest photo that Hugh and Neal have seen. When I asked what the oldest possible photo they had was, Neal said, “The photo doesn’t have a date stamped on it, but it’s probably from around 1845 to 1850.” That is nearly approaching 200 years old and is close to being as old as the dawn of photography, in general (most reports put that historic event at 1826-1827).
The two only know the age of the photo because of what it was printed on. Hugh explains, “The only reason we know that it’s that date range is that the photo is an ambrotype. Those were printed on glass.” This wasn’t touched on in the documentary, but Hugh and Neal wound up meeting with different photography groups to learn the specifics of ancient film. Tintype photos -which do feature in the film- were when photography started to become more commercially available, meaning these even earlier photos were likely taken in complete secrecy.
That lack of commercial availability is also why both Loving and 100 Years of Men in Love do not feature a large selection of minority and interracial couples. Hugh joked about throwing out a number like 30 photos in various interviews, but the reality was actually much smaller. When assembling everything for their book, the two only had maybe 10 photos of black couples. Even a few years later, that number is still below 30.
“The only two that are in the book were photos that had enough clarity and sharpness to be reproduced in large format,” Hugh said. “Since the publication of the book, there are a lot more photos on the market in general. That means more photos of African American or interracial couples, but it’s still a very tiny number comparatively.” One such that the two have found came from Poland in 1890 that was printed on a cabinet card, a type of hard stock card that was roughly the size of a wallet photo.
Obviously, my next question was how the two went about scanning these photos for the book and the film. While you could use a commercial printer/scanner purchased from Staples or Office Max, it would likely crap out long before you made a real dent in the collection. You would also lose a lot of detail in the photos, negating the point of compiling them together for publication. Thankfully, Hugh and Neal weren’t doing this in a fly-by-night capacity.
“The guy who has scanned all of our photos to the book, the lens he uses is the same one included in spy satellites,” Neal explained. “He has a stabilizer that holds everything still while he’s zooming into it. There are only five of these devices in the world.” The precision and definition of this type of scanning is so clear, you could blow up a tintype photo to the size of a seven-story building and not lose any clarity.
Getting the photos to this device wasn’t exactly easy. Hugh said, “We had to hand-carry them. We took around 350 photos from our collection to Milan, Italy. Then color separator [used for scanning] was driven in from Brussels.” This was the first time the photos had left their home, and the couple was extra careful to not damage anything. Scanning commenced over two-to-three days and then processing of the images took another few months to clean them up for publication.
“All of this happened in the first week of February . Then in the second week of February, Italy shut down. It was just after we left,” Neal recalls. “COVID broke out,” Hugh added. “We had just gotten back to New York. Two weeks later, New York was shut down.” Talk about bad timing. At least the project wasn’t sidelined and even managed to publish later that year in November.
From there, reception to the book was extremely positive and the publishers were eager to get a second volume out. That was my last remaining question from the documentary: what about the rest of the photos Hugh and Neal have collected? “The second volume was supposed to be published in 2021,” Hugh told me. “The publishers very quickly put it off to 2022 and now it’s 2023. But there was always talk of a second volume when we were doing the first one.”
Neal then explained how launching a book during the height of COVID was probably not the smartest idea around. As unlucky as the situation was, the publishers all wanted to move forward with the project as they believed it was too important not to. While publication of volume two has been pushed back a bit, that’s actually less to do with COVID and more because the first volume is continuing to sell well.
It’s not hard to see why, either. Both Loving and 100 Years of Men in Love put a spotlight on a part of history that many people still want to deny existed. You need look no further than current politicians in Florida, Texas, or Indiana that are attempting to pass bills into laws that will strip LGBTQ+ citizens of their rights. They want to plug their ears and act like homosexuality is some curse upon the world, but that’s simply not true. It has always been and will always be a part of life.
Summing up our discussion, Hugh said, “This book is about a subject that was never reported on during its time. These photographs were taken and then hidden for their very survival. Our collection is kind of the missing link for these couples. It stands to reason that two men loved each other at some point. We now have the photos to prove it.” Director David Millbern added, “I feel it’s important to honor those who have come before us. They made the tough, risky decision to capture their relationship and love for each other in a picture. This was a form of activism, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. These pictures are as important now as they were then.”
The book and film aren’t explicitly about gay love or sexuality (the two believe love is more universal than gender), but they absolutely represent a part of history that should not be overlooked. Some people may be more drawn to the documentary, but however they see these photos, it will open their eyes to a beautiful world that has always existed and will continue to exist long after you and I are gone.