Herbert Mitchell, a librarian at the Columbia University Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library from 1960 to 1991 was what you might call an “extreme collector” (or maybe a hoarder, depending on your perspective). He couldn’t resist the ephemera of history, collecting everything from photographs to architectural hardware by scouring flea markets and estate sales. In his NY Times Obituary from 2008 his lawyer describes the things he collected in his apartment as his “children”, saying, “If he liked it, he bought it…and he bought everything. That’s why he ended up with no money. He said, ‘I just like having beautiful things around me.’ ”
Mitchell’s collections have been a boon to archives and libraries, with many of his photographs going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Photo Collection in 2007, including nearly 4,000 stereographs of Central Park and New York City.
In addition Mitchell collected countless portraits in the form of tintypes, daguerreotypes, and ambrotypes. Among these are several photographs from the Victorian era of men displaying unusually close body language that the online magazine Mashable recently published a story on. Although the photographers, origin, and sitters identities are all unknown, Mashable’s cheeky subhed is “brotherly love” and the story is clearly trying to imply a whole lot while saying very little.
To be sure, these postures would have been considered unusually intimate for portraits between men and women too in Victorian times, when rigorous formality dictated everything. The expense and time required to make a photograph was significant and photography was considered more a scientific “copy” of a person’s likeness than an art form. The casualness and affection displayed in these photos would not have been common under any circumstances, but “heteronormative” images would probably not draw the same scrutiny as these images do.
However, the Victorians were more inconsistent in their attitudes toward sexuality than they have a reputation for. What’s more the very word “homosexual” didn’t yet exist. In History Magazine, Emma Mason writes, “The key problem when considering Victorian sexual morality, however, is the poverty of language that the society of the time had to conceptualise, and therefore decry or celebrate, sexual diversity. The concept of gay men did not properly exist in Victorian England, for instance, because there were no established words to describe them.”
It is difficult to look at these images with modern eyes and not read the sitters body language with modern culture for reference, to interpret anyone other than a child sitting in an adult’s lap as anything but intimate. However, it seems equally presumptuous to interpret any clear messages about the sitters sexuality or relationships to one another in a larger context outside of the picture itself. The poses in these images immediately made me think of the infamous photo of Donna Rice sitting in Gary Hart’s lap that brought down Hart’s presidential bid overnight in 1987. That’s some serious 20th century baggage to bring to 19th century images.
Is it possible that modern times have effused a man’s every move with even more puritanical inference than the Victorians did? After all there are cultures where male family members hold hands when walking down the street, where men greet each other with kisses on both cheeks. And if these were photos of women instead of men would we approach them differently? Is jumping to conclusions about a subject’s sexuality as oppressive as denying it?
How should the Metropolitan Museum of Art handle their classification so they may be most relevant and accessible to those who might want them? Assigning classifications based on sexuality is complicated and speaks not only to how we see the past portrayed but how we think our society has “evolved” to view it in the present. The question is do we try to classify these photos as we imagine the subjects saw themselves back then or do we classify them as we see them now?
As for Mitchell’s collecting these, I have found no information as to whether he associated these photographs with each other as a collection of if a curator found their commonality after the fact while sifting though piles of photographs. I think knowing this could be informative, but certainly not decisive, in knowing what to make of them.