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Loving: They Love Each Other at RATH Museum

Carte cabinet, United States, c. 1880. 109 x 167 mm. Note: "Mcinturff, Steve Book, Delaware O." Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell collection © Loving by 5 Continents Editions.

Loving: They Love Each Other

RATH Museum, Geneva, Switzerland

June 8 through September 24, 2023 

By DELIA CABRAL, August 2023

Museums are places to behold art and culture; they are also spaces that can transform how we see. Let's look at love, the look of love. 

Loving is an exhibition featuring close to 400 photographs from the inspirational collection of Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

The couple has been collecting photographs for over 20 years. They came across their first photograph at an antique shop in Dallas. It was an image of two men standing outside next to a house, in a 1920s American suburban setting. They stood one in front of the other, in a gentle embrace with the unmistakable look of love on their faces. At that time Hugh and Neal believed the picture to be a one off testament to love between two young men, something that reflected them. Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell, both originally from Texas and currently living in New York, have been together for 31 years. Same sex marriage in the United States was legalised state by state until the landmark decision, Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015, that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Hugh and Neal live in a very different world from that of the two gentlemen in their found picture. Even though there has been much progress and same sex marriage is now legal in the US, there is still a long way to go to towards open acceptance.  In the 1920s, the photograph they found would have been evidence of a crime. As fate would have it, the couple found more photographs; their collection currently stands at around 4,000 photographs and they are still actively collecting. The day I spoke to them, two more photos arrived in the mail. After viewing the exhibition twice and reviewing their book, Loving, I was able to speak with them in-depth to better understand their collecting practice and curatorial eye. 

Delia Cabral: My first question was why focus is on images between 1850’s to 1950’s? they replied:

Neal Treadwell:  The reason for the 1850 to 1950 range is: Photography wasn’t invented until the 1830s or 40s. It wasn’t in common use until around the 1850s. Our oldest photograph was taken somewhere around the early 1850s or late 1840s. We can’t say for certain. That’s how the lower range was established. 

We stopped collecting after the 1950s because it was our assessment that photos taken from the 1960s on, were different from those taken before the 1960s. Equal rights movements had began to emerge on a larger scale in the 1960s. From that time forward it was not uncommon for couples to have their photos taken for the sole purpose of making them public. A stark contrast to the 1950s. 

Like everything else about this project, the 100 year period was not planned. It just sort of felt that way. When we started collecting, we certainly didn’t imagine that it would fall into a neat century. The advent of photography and the social changes in the 1960s more or less decided that for us.

Photograph, 1951, 83x121mm. Note: "1951", "Davis & J.C." Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell collection © Loving by 5 Continents Editions.

DC: For many years you collected purely for your own private enjoyment but around the 13th year, your collection grew in size and significance. It was at that point you decided to go public and started working on a book, Loving, published by 5 Continents Editions in 2020. The book has been an overwhelming success and is now available in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. All this momentum evolved into a world class exhibition at the Musee Rath in Geneva.

What would you like your collection to do/say to future generations?

HN: These photos survived in secret, in some cases, for more than 170 years. Now that they've come to light, future generations will have them at their fingertips, so to speak. These photos will demonstrate to them that love is an even more enduring force than previously thought. They will tell future generations that love is a good bet and a worthy endeavour. And that, even if the outcome sometimes isn't perfect, it's worth the journey. Because you never know where the end is. It could even be 170 years into the future.  

As we stood in the Rath Museum on the day of the exhibition's opening, we imagined these beautiful couples looking down on us from above. What might they have thought or said? "Oh my God, can you believe that that little photo we took together is in a museum? And people love it!" And God might reply, "I wanted to tell you about this when you took the photo, but you would have never believed me." 

Love is always a good bet.

Photograph, undated, 72x115mm. Courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell collection © Loving by 5 Continents Editions.

DC: The exhibition features five monumental enlargements from the collection curated by Swiss artist, Walter Pfeiffer, who assisted in creating the look and feel of the museum exhibition. The actual photographs are displayed under glass in simple wooden cases, small vintage pictures one looks into. There are a few small pictures on the walls, all under low subdued light. Some of the rooms are painted in soft pastel colours evoking a nostalgic mood. You curated the exhibition into groups of photographs categorised by setting or theme: romantic settings you would expect to see your grandparents and great grandparents in, couples in love in military uniform, outdoor settings, like the beach, mountains, parks, farms and staged photos, on the moon or with signs reading, “Not Married, But Willing To Be.”

This exhibition has the appeal of the Wunderkammer, the age-old notion of displaying precious objects to wonder at. I found the images entirely moving. You have perfected the subtle art of identifying the ephemeral look of love. It’s visible in the subjects' posture, body language, and gaze. It is quite wonderful to behold. The exhibition also includes some video installations in the museum's basement level. They are of two black and white videos by Urs Lüthi Swiss artist, from the collection of the Fonds Municipal d’Art Contemporain (FMAC). 

How do you see the project evolving? More books? Exhibitions? Movies?  

HN: In 2020, our collection became a book, LOVING. In 2023 our book became an exhibition in the Muse' Rath in Geneva. We hope that there will be more of both going forward. Then, to take things one step further, I’ve (Hugh) have written a screenplay for a feature film centred on the lives of four of the couples from our collection. It's the story of how love endures, much like our collection,  against all odds. Since we never imagined that we would publish a book or have an exhibition, why not imagine a movie based on LOVING.

DC: What has been your biggest surprise?

HN:  Our biggest surprise in all of this is - all of this. When we found our first photo in 2000, we never imagined there would be a second. But there was. Then a collection, a book, and now an exhibition. Maybe a film one day? We don't know when this will all end. For now, we're just waiting to see what the next unexpected thing will be.

This exhibition is not only of merit artistically and historically, it is in fact a part of something much bigger, a movement, a well thought out and multimedia exposé and exploration of love from the past speaking to us today and tomorrow. Pictures, books, exhibitions and possibly a movie too. Loving has the power to uplift and transform the way we see love. We all need love. WM


Delia Cabral

Delia Cabral is a curator and an international art dealer, as well as an art critic and writer. As an innovative leader in the art world for 20 years, Cabral cultivated her access to an international network of arts professionals and institutions. Having built a reputation in Los Angeles, CA as a gallery owner (Founder, DCA Fine Art), Cabral consistently gained attention for mounting dynamic and critically acclaimed exhibitions. Now based in London Cabral’s experience as an international entrepreneur informs a unique skill set which enables her to access art from global cutting edge to privately held sought after historical works. As a passionate writer and member of the British National Union of Journalists, Cabral is always looking for what’s next in art. 




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