Life is a book that we study; some of its leaves bring a sigh
August 13, 2012 6:33 PM   Subscribe

In my unending search for just the right vintage images for our articles, I have looked through thousands of photographs of men from the last century or so. One of the things that I have found most fascinating about many of these images, is the ease, familiarity, and intimacy, which men used to exhibit in photographs with their friends and compadres. Male Affection: A Photographic History Tour
posted by byanyothername (41 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Men still show friendship by walking hand in hand, for example, in many parts of the world. I think it is very sad that this has changed in North America, and Britain among other places. Cool post.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:40 PM on August 13, 2012


One day people will gawk over us too in ways we can't imagine since it seems so normal and natural (how gross two strangers stand face to face and talk without a screen between them).
posted by stbalbach at 6:42 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article is really very interesting, but is it wrong to be thinking threesome when I see these dead guys?
posted by Isadorady at 6:48 PM on August 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


In a related vein, any older shower space in a public swimming pool will be communal, while a more recently constructed space will have separate cubicles, just in case someone's willy might get seen. It's odd, and a bit of an indictment of our culture.
posted by wilful at 6:48 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article is really very interesting, but is it wrong to be thinking threesome when I see these dead guys?

Perhaps more illuminating of modern mores than wrong?
posted by wilful at 6:49 PM on August 13, 2012


Nice find!
posted by HuronBob at 6:51 PM on August 13, 2012


My friend Hank Mandel has a great documentary out about male friendship

http://fivefriendsmovie.com/about
posted by Postroad at 6:54 PM on August 13, 2012


Weird.

A couple of years ago my friend Ain Cocke did a series of paintings and drawings based on found photographs of men in friendship (mostly WWII era).

Ain manages Kehinde Wiley's studio in Beijing.
posted by notyou at 7:01 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Forming pyramids on the beach was a popular pastime for men through the 30s.

Maybe this needs a revival...
posted by smidgen at 7:07 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


In a related vein, any older shower space in a public swimming pool will be communal, while a more recently constructed space will have separate cubicles, just in case someone's willy might get seen. It's odd, and a bit of an indictment of our culture.

I'm too young to have seen it, but I'm told that men's swimming pools didn't generally require swimming suits -- so the move was from nude swimming and communal showers, to clothed coed swimming and communal showers, to clothed swimming and private showers.

Men still show friendship by walking hand in hand, for example, in many parts of the world. I think it is very sad that this has changed in North America, and Britain among other places. Cool post.

I'm theoretically a person pretty comfortable with touch and with different things, but the first time that I traveled to a place where men would want to hold my hand while we walked down the street was pretty mind-blowing, and was hard for me to feel at all relaxed with. We really do internalize the constraints of our culture.
posted by Forktine at 7:12 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of this is culture-specific, and it's dangerous to make too many assumptions based on a random assortment of photographs. My Dad was of the generation that came of age just before and during WWII, and I've never seen a photo of him and his friends touching. At all. That was the kind of thing that would have been seen as Very Weird, both for his generation and mine. If the Millennials are getting all touchy-feely, then that's a huge shift.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:13 PM on August 13, 2012


I think the McKay's larger agenda colors their interpretation of the images. I look at and for images all day long for a living and am not so sure that the McKay's historical research is particularly accurate.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:28 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I was in Ghana, I noticed the men were very congenial in just this same manner.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:44 PM on August 13, 2012


It is such a cultural thing. My partner just came back from a very Korean heavy gaming event and mentioned how different it was to be so physically affectionate with other men; it didn't bother him because it's something he pulls back on in our usual white, middleclass Australian milieu, but he said it was very very different to the usual gaming events he's been at lately. My mother-in-law talks about the differences she saw travelling in the Middle East as well and I know it was somewhat of a shock when I lived in a very Chinese area and caught public transport with the school kids.

That said, the photos didn't really twig anything out of the ordinary for me apart from a few (holding hands and there were a few of the sitting on laps, but not all).

Even though I'm a 'no-touchy' kind of a person, it does make me kind of happy that it seems to be a cultural shift. It's a language of love and it's sad to remove it entirely from one's friendships based almost entirely on the overwhelming sexualisation of culture.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:45 PM on August 13, 2012


Er, which part is inaccurate? I'm not sure about the specifics as to when and where the shifts changes, but I don't think the general thesis "men in American culture used to display more physical forms of non-sexual affection than they do now" is in any way controversial. They did (which usual caveats for cultural / regional variation of course). There's no shortage of visual or textual evidence for this.

What's startling about this series is that it makes clear that shift in a particularly vivid way.
posted by feckless at 7:46 PM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've noticed this in a lot of WWII photos of soliders. They are often shirtless and draped on each other with easy smiles. I've also seen it in older sports team photos.
posted by cccorlew at 7:55 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure about the specifics as to when and where the shifts changes, but I don't think the general thesis "men in American culture used to display more physical forms of non-sexual affection than they do now" is in any way controversial. They did (which usual caveats for cultural / regional variation of course). There's no shortage of visual or textual evidence for this.

I'll take your word for it, I guess, particularly for back into the nineteenth century. But for what it's worth, the old people I know -- the oldest of an age to have served in WWII -- are big time not touchy-feely; the increased comfort with nudity, touching, and fluidity of my parent's generation (1960s-1970s youth culture, hippies, etc) was a total reaction against the rigidity of their parents.

So while it's great that they are finding these photos of WWII guys hanging all over each other, those guys had absolutely lost that snuggly comfort by the time they were producing the baby boom generation.
posted by Forktine at 8:03 PM on August 13, 2012


I also wonder about how cultural mores shift in the absence of women. I'm thinking of frontier towns and military service, where the lack of women perhaps cause a sub or semi conscious relaxing of standards about men platonically touching men. And in these groups of photos in particular I wonde how much contact was more because the photographer posed them. It seems like a lot of te poses are the same as you'd see in mixed gender family photos. Perhaps, photographers were simply using poses that they knew had worked before?
posted by gofargogo at 8:05 PM on August 13, 2012


I see a lot of resemblance in those old photos. Isn't it possible that a lot of them are of brothers/related in other ways?
posted by mannequito at 8:06 PM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Of course this article and our commentary here is all Western European-specific, and of course male friend intimacy is culture-specific.)

I would attribute this phenomenon the photo-essayist puzzles about to two things: (1) the widespread conflation of erotic love and platonic love among the men and women in Western culture in the last century, and (2) the more particular, male-specific rise of homosexuality as an identifiable "thing" in the early part of the last century, and especially to the acceptance of it now.

He seems to hit on this as a factor at the end of the article, but I think he gets it a little backwards in saying that acceptance of homosexuality is what is making millenial teen males more "huggy," as if hugging males and females in the hallway is in any way on the level of the camaraderie--a sort of philia--seen in these photos.
And it [rise of juvenile huggy-ness] may also be traced to the culture’s greater acceptance of homosexuality, although that has in turn solidified being gay as an identity, and it seems unlikely that men will cease wanting to communicate to others whether they are homosexual or heterosexual anytime soon.
Sorry, but what is depicted in those pictures is, in Western civilization, completely gone for a man's fear of being seen as a homosexual (or, even for those men who don't care, concern for being mis-identified). It is simply a fact that practically only homosexuals or male blood relations behave like that now.

Before the recognition of homosexuality as a thing, or an identifiable lifestyle to which one belonged or an identify which belonged to oneself, there was no fear of a strong male friendship being mistaken for being--in a time where we're constantly told that everyone's having sex amirite--a homosexual relationship. I'm not denying the obvious evidence for some males having homosexual relationships in the past. It's just that there used to be another type of male relationship that was as emotionally strong as any relationship we'd call "homosexual" today, but without the -"sexual" aspect, because that activity

Rather, what's in these photos is the love of Shakespeare's sonnets, or Brideshead Revisited, where Lord Marchmain's girlfriend explains the lost, ancient form of male friendship, when recognizing it in Charles and Sebastian:
"I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long."
Everyone who reads Brideshead today assumes Charles and Sebastian were homosexuals, when there is no evidence of that in the novel, though there is plenty of sex. In reality, you could put half of those photos from the post on the cover of any reprint of the novel and it would encapsulate their relationship perfectly. How our culture has changed.

Great article, OP.
posted by resurrexit at 8:11 PM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


*...because that activity... was inappropriate.*
posted by resurrexit at 8:21 PM on August 13, 2012


I think there are two (related but distinct) things going on when we look at these photos.

First, there was in the past a greater comfort in general with hugging, hand-holding, and etc. between men than there is today (in the U.S. at least, with the caveat that this may not be starting to swing back the other way). This has probably been ebbing for a long time, and was always more in evidence in all-male environments (still true today: think frat houses), but there was a big drop in at least the acceptability of public displays of friendship after WWII.

Second, and this is something which crops up more in 19th-century texts and I think would be largely gone by WWI, is the concept of romantic friendship -- very strong non-sexual same-sex friendships . Friendships where, if you read the letters back-and-forth between two men or two women with a modern ear, you'd assume they were (sexual) lovers. (See, for example, the whole Lincoln / Speed thing). And, of course, some of them probably were sexual. But just as interestingly (to me at least), some of them probably were not.

Which is one of those cultural shifts that makes the whole past-as-a-foreign-country thing really ring true for me -- since there was a whole style of relationship, culturally understood and acknowledged as such, which simply ... isn't, now.
posted by feckless at 8:25 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some of my fondest memories of international travels were sights of men walking casually in public, holding hands, arms linked or wrapped around each other's waists. It was beautiful and touching. Thank you for sharing this convivial homage to male friendships.
posted by loquat at 8:37 PM on August 13, 2012


This sees like a conclusion looking hard for supporting evidence. I mean, one picture of soldiers and a team photo as the evidence of a decline?

With the exception of the hand-holding and hands on thighs, I've probably got dozens of photos from the 80s and 90s that would apparently be considered exemplars of "male intimacy"

The arm over the shoulder, the dog-pile, the fireman's carry, these are all staples of my teens and twenties through several states and different social groups.

I will say though, that with friends I've made later in life (say 30s onward), we are decidedly less physical, but that I think has more to do with age and "maturity" than with any sort of repressed emotion.

Also, I'm not entirely on-board with the new-found hugging obsession. In my day, you shook a man's hand and looked him in the eye. Grumble, mutter, now get off my lawn.
posted by madajb at 9:12 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Wait, it's like I skipped a whole paragraph--paragraph 5 of the article (which I'm reading again, sort of, so if you're just reading comments you really should read it) kind of teases out the point I believe I myself to be making above.)
posted by resurrexit at 9:15 PM on August 13, 2012


I don't think the general thesis "men in American culture used to display more physical forms of non-sexual affection than they do now" is in any way controversial.

I think it's a fairly meaningless thesis in the sense that "American culture" is almost impossible to pin down even in the present, much less 100 years back. At least you could take a look at all the pictures posted to the web in the last year and come up with some sort of zeitgeist... The sample size for the pre-internet era is miniscule.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:21 PM on August 13, 2012


Everyone who reads Brideshead today assumes Charles and Sebastian were homosexuals

I thought they were slashy but didn't assume Charles in particular had a homosexual identity; his sexual relations with women militated against that. I thought that was one of the real misfires of the recent remake: it took what had been ambiguous in the miniseries (I haven't read the book) and really pushed it to resolve in a way I personally found a touch anachronistic in precisely the way addressed in the OP link. Male intimacy doesn't have to be sexual.

(I've seen this same question of "are they or aren't they?" posed about pairs of women who are emotionally intimate friends, so I'm not convinced it's just a male problem, although it's probably a more frequent set of assumptions about male friends than it is about women friends.)
posted by immlass at 9:25 PM on August 13, 2012


This is fascinating and awesome, byanyothername.
posted by kengraham at 9:33 PM on August 13, 2012


On my first visit to my newly married sister's home in a small town in southeastern Minnesota (I think this would have been around 1987), we were in the car driving the few blocks of the town center and passed a couple of gentleman walking hand in hand. They looked like retired farmers, maybe in their sixties or seventies or so, and were dressed in farmer's bib overalls. The only other time I'd seen men holding hands was in certain parts of Minneapolis where out gay men didn't have to hide their affection. But this appeared to be something different. Perhaps a throwback to a different age and, as this post points to, a complete lack of self-consciousness when it came to expressing affection between male friends. Have never forgotten them. Though I spent many, many weekends there, I never saw them again.
posted by marsha56 at 9:58 PM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


The physical intimacy in the photos may reflect close friendships or simply a lack of self-consciousness or "innocence" such as children show. At high school in England in the 1960s, we didn't just have communal showers for boys but communal baths -- a rugby tradition as seen clearly in this 1963 movie (at 5.35). This was at a mixed school, not an all-male one. At U of Toronto in the 1970s the athletic facility for men had optional nude swimming and even life-saving lessons in the nude. As I recall it, the atmosphere was simply more relaxed and physical contact was no big deal. I must agree that the sexualization of popular culture since the 70s made men more self-conscious about appearing to be gay.
posted by binturong at 10:24 PM on August 13, 2012


One day people will gawk over us too in ways we can't imagine since it seems so normal and natural (how gross two strangers stand face to face and talk without a screen between them).

Reminds me of whichever of the Asmiov Robot novels it is where people visit via hologram and never in person, and how horrid it was when the detectives wanted to actually physically go see people.
posted by hippybear at 10:33 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyway, I've been reading Whitman's Leaves Of Grass lately, and find myself in this strange state of confusion where I'm not sure whether some of the things he's talking about are casual intimacy with other males or sexual intimacy, and feel convinced that it's kind of impossible for me, living here and now, to truly understand some of the expressions of comradeship and touching and intimacy he describes.

(Some of it seems to be obviously sexual, but not all of it.)

These photos make me feel the same way.
posted by hippybear at 10:35 PM on August 13, 2012


Funny, but even as a young boy I felt there was something "gay" about the relationship between Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. So much touching and kissing and hand holding. But we know Tolkien never meant to imply any such thing, because he was such a stuffy, conservative Catholic that one wonders if he even knew what homosexuality was.

But then it seems very clear to me that the recent film version of The Lord of the Rings portrayed Frodo as a homosexual who was in love with Sam. And yet it was conveyed even though the movie contained much less touching and kissing and hand holding.
posted by Max Udargo at 11:41 PM on August 13, 2012


It is simply a fact that practically only homosexuals or male blood relations behave like that now.

Oh, well if it's a fact then...

Factualness aside, I see (in my work with 16-25 year olds) a lot of casual male intimacy. Most kids aren't that bothered. Some, of course, aren't into it and will shake off a hug or scowl at other guys, but I general it's a lot more laid back and I like to see it. When men are less worried about being perceived as insufficiently masculine, then we all win IMHO.

This is in Sweden, and ymmv, but that's your mileage, not an immutable or universal fact. I would say that part of what helps build on this attitude here is specific work being done at pre-school level with regard to gender roles as well as lifting peer contact and physical intimacy as a positive force.
posted by Iteki at 11:53 PM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


@Max Udargo: Regarding the kissing and hand holding - Tolkien took a lot of inspiration from classic fairytales and northern European myths, where this sort of thing is incredibly normal. Manly men fight manly fights and then find out their enemy is a long-separated brother or ally or whatever and take off their helmets and there's lots of kissing. In some of these old stories in some languages male friendships are described in the same terms as romantic love.

I haven't looked at this in a while, but pulling from Le Mort d'Arthur:
And then when it was past noon, and when it drew toward evensong, Sir Gawaine's strength feebled, and waxed passing faint that unnethes he might dure any longer, and Sir Marhaus was then bigger and bigger. Sir knight, said Sir Marhaus, I have well felt that ye are a passing good knight and a marvellous man of might as ever I felt any, while it lasteth, and our quarrels are not great, and therefore it were pity to do you hurt, for I feel ye are passing feeble. Ah, said Sir Gawaine, gentle knight, ye say the word that I should say. And therewith they took off their helms, and either kissed other, and there they swore together either to love other as brethren. And Sir Marhaus prayed Sir Gawaine to lodge with him that night.
Of course, there's an incident in there where Lancelot about kills a guy who wakes him up with beardy kisses... So watch where you put your bristles, gentlemen.
posted by 23 at 12:45 AM on August 14, 2012


Perhaps because we only take photographs of pleasurable things, things we want to always remember, and the pleasure men took in their work had fallen.

Yes but you also hear rock groups (a modern site of choreographed male-male affection) always refer to 'working' in the studio, rather than 'playing'. The rear cover photo on The Beatles' 'Revolver' is a good example of this aesthetic - enjoying each others' company, but surrounded by the tools of their trade rather than presented at leisure or in performance.
posted by colie at 12:47 AM on August 14, 2012


Found photos. Who's to say which are photos of brothers, or fathers and their sons? Which might be deliberately risque from actual romantic couples?

Changes after WW2 probably have to do with increased awareness of homosexuality. There were many gay folks relatively 'out' during the war. There was no hard drive to rid the military of gays. I once read somewhere they even had a gay newsletter of some kind, somewhere amongst the US forces. It seems not unlikely that some essentially straight men may have felt they needed to be hyper-straight, to assuage their guilt for some fun they may have enjoyed when no women were around. But there was permissiveness.
posted by Goofyy at 1:07 AM on August 14, 2012


Interesting post, thank you. As many people have commented, the shift to fewer public displays of physical affection is definitely culturally specific, but it's worth noting that many of the countries where men are to be seen walking hand-in-hand today are those which have fairly sharp demarcations between male and female sociability, thus supporting the point made about homosocial environments in the article.

On the other hand, I'm repeatedly surprised and delighted to see the relaxed and uncomplicated physical affection and closeness between my (mainly straight) eighteen to twenty-two year-old male students, in an environment where women are equally present, and which contrasts greatly with the jeering that went on at any sign of physical contact off the playing field when I was a student myself thirty years ago. Being in the UK, I've assumed that this reflects the current prominence of forms of masculinity which eschew the macho/sporty in favour of a less conventionally manly aesthetic and mode of behaviour - cf Russell Brand, Russell Kane - which probably does point to a greater acceptance of homosexuality. However, I also think that this is relatively class-specific in its audience, and most likely to appeal to and be emulated by my neo-Sebastian nerdy middle-class students (many of whom also attended single-sex schools), and I don't know whether such physical intimacy between young men is current beyond these circles.
posted by melisande at 2:44 AM on August 14, 2012


Discussions of male PDAs aside, these photographs are fun to look at. The clothing, the props, and the expressions are notable. This image made me laugh out loud because it is the sort of thing you might see two young boys doing before they start kicking each other in earnest.

As to Brideshead Revisited, what I took from the novel was that Sebastian was a homosexual but one who may have been celibate for aesthetic reasons. Charles was just infatuated with the aristocratic lifestyle and as a college boy more open to experiment. Sebastian ended up living with another man and Charles ended up married once or twice. Did they or didn't they? It really doesn't matter if they engaged in full on intercourse, it was their puppy love that shaped the remainder of Charles' life.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:12 AM on August 14, 2012


Doesn't this thesis overlook the possibility that several of those pictured were in fact couples, or at least homosexuals?

Textual cues would be more informative than these, which I think is why people's arguments above that male PDA's have not necessarily died out from the past.

What kind of textual? Oh, I dunno, something to the tune of, "George has his wife and I am happily married to my sweet Annabelle, and we think nothing of draping our thighs over each other in public, hugging closely. I also make a point to cradle his hand in mine, and sometimes I put my hand in a manly way upon his leg. Why, we were photographed in this position just the other day, to commemorate our wholly uncarnal friendship."

There must be freeze-frames of even vaguely bromantic videos today that look mighty ha-cha-cha-cha as well, so visual information of this kind seems unreliable for the argument.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 6:05 AM on August 14, 2012


Cool to see old photos, but I feel like the analysis in the main link is very weak. One, as gorgor_balabala mentions, it's somewhat erasing, as there is no reason to believe that some of these pairs were not actually in sexual relationships. Two, on the other hand, as others have pointed at, many of these photos are absolute visual verbatim for photos you'd see on many men's facebook pages today. Honestly, you'd be hard-pressed to find "SHOCKING MALE INTIMACY!!!" photos that were any more platonic-seeming than most of those presented here.
posted by threeants at 8:36 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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