The Picture Show
12:30 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

Found On Flickr: Vintage Bromance?

Two black men dance arm-in-arm on a beach. Are they gay? Are they straight? Does it matter?

The photos are part of a found photo collection on Flickr called "Hidden in the Open," curated by playwright Trent Kelley. The vintage photos show African-American men in various affectionate poses. Some seem to be friends, others lovers, but for Kelley the specific details aren't important. For him, the possibility that these images depict more than friendships is what matters.

Kelley scours mom-and-pop shops as well as eBay to find images that show "Afro-American male affection and love that were recorded without fear and shame," he says.

By showing that black men — whether gay or straight, brothers or lovers — have always loved each other, Kelley believes the photos might help empower gay African-Americans.

"I want them aware of those generations of black gay men who came before them and showed pride, strength and courage despite whatever circumstance," he says.

Art historian James Smalls, author of Homosexuality in Art, dials it back a notch, explaining that in these photos, "the question of ... sexual orientation is uncertain."

In his words, "romantic friendships were quite common during the late 19th and early 20th centuries." Yet that was understood differently from homosexuality.

"We know very little about the meaning and circumstances of these images," he says.

But Smalls also adds that the ambiguity is part of the fun: "I think these images are great in that they allow our desires and imaginations as viewers to run free."

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