A friend, knowing my fondness for photography and men, sent me an article concerning photograph collections of men being “affectionate.” There are actually a number of books in this genre. Two books dealing with the subject that I have reviewed in Lavender are Evan B. Bachner’s At Ease: Navy Men of World War II and Men of World War II: Fighting Men at Ease (Abrams 2004 and 2007).
Culled from the National Archives, many of the images were by men of the stature of Edward J. Steichen, Wayne Miller, and others. They were not taken as part of an exposé, or to ferret out “unnatural” behavior, nor were they combat photos. On the contrary, the opposite of sensationalism, they were commissioned by the military to document day-to-day life among America’s enlisted men.
A given image may show one young man lying with his head in another’s lap, or two men with their arms about each other. Nothing, either implied by the men or superimposed by the photographer, has overt sexual implications, yet the imaged relationships are obviously pleasurably physical.
Other volumes, like Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918, make it clear that from the birth of photography, American male friends have celebrated their relationship by having their likenesses captured by the camera’s lens.
Why and how these displays of fraternal bonding and affection became stigmatized is more a subject for a PhD dissertation than this small essay. The Cold War? The McCarthy hearings?
There has never been an unequivocal acceptance of homosexuality, but at some point after these World War II photos were taken, the mere bestowing of a touch or embrace was forbidden to American males.
We’ve not yet solved the admittedly crucial issues of equal rights, gay marriage, and tolerance for transgender individuals in the workplace, but consider today’s burgeoning “bromance.” This portmanteau word, according to Wikipedia, refers to a “man-crush,” a “close but nonsexual relationship between two men, a form of homosocial intimacy.” A blending of “brother” and “romance,” the neologism was coined in the 1990s by Dave Carnie in the skateboard magazine Big Brother.
The recent Humpday, dealing with two straight buddies deciding to film themselves having sex together for a local porn festival, is but one example of the genre.
It is perhaps a small breakthrough, but I hope that bromance, allowing for intense bonding between two straight buddies—or even a straight and a gay—will have an incrementally salutary effect on the spread of tolerance and visible affection between males of any persuasion.