Who's a Pretty Boy Then?

What makes a photograph gay? Is it the subject matter, or in the way it is perceived? James Gardiner trawled public and private archives to find out

Seeing is believing. Written history can document and argue, fiction can evoke and describe, artists can give us vivid re-interpretations; but only the camera can provide us with proof. More than 150 years of proof that, whatever the official history books may say, whatever your mother told you, whatever the tabloids pedalled as the truth either in 1895 or 1995, we were there. Flirting, posing, kissing, dragging up, stripping off, holding hands, getting caught and (more often) getting away with it.

What makes a photograph gay? How can you have a photographic history of something that was, until very recently, something to hide, not photograph? And for a great many men, still is. After all, the relationship between gay men and being looked at, never mind being photographed, has never been an easy one. We were (and are) either invisible ("I had no idea till he told me") or too visible ("you can spot her a mile off"). Many of us devote enormous energy to making sure that our appearance does not betray us in the wrong place - but does announce us in the right place. The camera, which denies us this flexibility, which fixes everything for ever in a frozen image, in black-and-white, can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Fine if the hand on the shutter is a friendly one, and this is how you want to be seen; not so if that hand belongs to a newspaper photographer, or worse, a police photographer (by then it's too late).

And where did I find them - in such numbers? Well, the actual mechanics involved did not differ very much from the pursuit of any other obsession. You have to put in the hours, do your homework, know where to look. Over a period of many years, I have combed junk-shops and flea markets, auctions and postcard fairs, raided the private albums of friends, trawled archives and libraries and collections both public and private. Perhaps more important than knowing where to look was knowing how to look; as my eye became more educated, it became easier to answer my own question - what makes a photograph gay?

The easiest to identify were, paradoxically, the hardest of all to find. Although gay photographic pornography has been commercially produced at least since the 1880s, little from this early period has survived, and I count myself lucky in owning a handful of examples. Slightly easier to find - not pornographic, but nonetheless containing a definite erotic charge - are the classical semi-nudes produced from the 1890s onwards by Van Gloeden and his followers in Sicily.

Provenance can also provide a clue. One illustration, a late 19th-century photograph of a naked youth in classical pose, though innocuous and innocent enough in itself, takes on a whole new significance when one knows it was once owned by Oscar Wilde, who gave it to Robbie Ross, who gave it to Duncan Grant who, as an old man in the 1970s, gave it to Aids activist and writer Simon Watney. Sometimes collections of photographs of unknown provenance turn up, but it is perfectly clear from their contents that that provenance is a gay one. Examples of Victorian erotica disguised thinly as "art" and often (at least officially) marketed as reference for artists, mixed with photographs of popular Edwardian bodybuilders, all lovingly preserved in an album, alongside images of the pre-historic gay divas of the music hall, (like Marie Lloyd and Gaby Deslys) are a dead give- away.

Also included in the explicit category must be photographs of famous men now known to be gay. This is a truly enormous category: from Whitman and Carpenter, Wilde, to Forster to Maugham, down through the decades, Dolin and Diaghilev, Beaton and Isherwood, Rattigan and Turing, Liberace and Britton, Clift and Orton and Laughton. Sometimes it's a bit of a shock to see a less expected face outed after death. I mean, we all knew Frankie Howerd was a bit, well, camp, but "headmaster" Jimmie Edwards? Even Gilbert Harding, the BBC panellist of the Fifties, whose gruff and irascible manner was the very antithesis of camp? Surely not! The news that he was gay came as more of a surprise than learning that Lady Isobel Barnett was a shoplifter.

After all those thousands upon thousands of publicity pictures, those brave professional smiles beneath those frightened eyes, those arranged marriages, putting on a front for their public, those decades in the closet, it is thrilling to find unofficial pictures of these men actually being gay. Ivor Novello, matinee idol of the Thirties, hero to a million shopgirls, but this time snapped camping it up by the pool of their luxurious home by his lover Bobbie Andrews; Cecil Beaton actually in drag rather than designing it for Audrey Hepburn.

Whether the subjects are famous or not, it is these ordinary private snapshots, the ones which never made their way into the newspapers, nor the family photograph album, which are the most moving and extraordinary of all. These are the shots that belie all the myths we have come to believe about gay life in this country. Who said gay lovers could not live together before 1967? Here is a photograph of millionaire art dealer Ned Warren and his lover John Marshall, identically dressed, each holding one of their dogs at their grand Sussex home in the 1890s. Who said there was no overt homosexuality in the forces? Are those two soldiers in World War One holding hands because they're just good friends? And I know the two sailors embracing in Malta in 1945 were more than good friends; because the man who took the picture told me so. Who said that all gay men in the 1950s lived with their heads in the gas oven for fear of the law? These 1952 sea-queens in drag seem to be having a fabulous time.

I had been collecting this material for years before I even realised there would or could be a book. Postcards and snapshots, theatre programmes, cartes-de-visite, newspapers cuttings, film stills, all were stored, largely unsorted, in boxes and drawers. I did not really know what I had got, or why I felt so compelled, in the difficult times of the 1980s and 1990s, to preserve and cherish these otherwise unloved and unnoticed pictures. When the time came to sort them all into a book, I was surprised and shocked by their quantity and diversity, and by how far they went back, and, most of all, when I came to choose modern images to bring the book up to date, by the similarity between photographs separated by almost a century and a half.

Monsieur Leotard's leotard in 1851 seems to bulge as intentionally as the identical garment worn by a competitor in the 1995 gay games. The drag queens in their crinolines from 1860 are neither more nor less outrageous than Divine or Lily Savage; of course Henri Labouchere (author of The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, known as the Blackmailer's Charter, which criminalised all homosexual acts) does not look remotely like Mary Whitehouse, but they both stand as enemies of our freedom; Gaby Deslys bears a striking resemblance to Madonna, yet she was a gay diva almost 100 years before her. Chorus boys still act like chorus girls, muscle boys still pose like muscle boys.

The invention of the camera changed forever the way in which history is recorded, complete with omissions, secrets, falsehoods, surprises, the familiar made strange and the strange made familiar, the black-and- white and the in-between, the invisible made visible. Every picture tells a story; and these pictures tells ours.

`Who' s A Pretty Boy Then?' by James Gardiner is published by Serpent's Tail on 30 January, pounds 25

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