Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together,1840-1918 Paperback – 11 Mar 2005
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About the Author
Born in Montreal, Canada, David Deitcher is a writer, art historian, and critic whose essays have appeared in Artforum, Art in America, Parkett, the Village Voice, and other periodicals, as well as in numerous monographs and anthologies. He was the editor of The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall (Scribner, 1995). Since 1992 he has taught art and critical theory at The Cooper Union in New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I have a friend who served in WWII and he once told me the story of young men and boys waiting in line to eat at Boot Camp --- HOLDING HANDS, with NO-ONE giving it a second thought. (Do that today and see how long you're standing in THAT line!) Not all of the photographs in this book are as innocent and pure as that, but most are.
DEAR FRIENDS was featured recently in a Richard Rodriguez segment of the NEWS HOUR on PBS. If you saw that segment --- you still need to read this book for your own personal closer look. Innocence has such a beautiful face!
I'm also a skeptic, and know that 19th- and early-20th-century American photography was not the outlet of homosociality the author suggests. Among the reasons I find his program suspicious:
-Many of the men in specific photographs bear striking FAMILY resemblances to each other.
-Given the long exposure times required for studio photography of the era, practitioners had to find ways to keep the subjects as still as possible. For individuals, photographers would often use a kind of iron armature to keep the subject from swaying (which would blur the photo). A clever solution to the problem with multiple subjects: have them touch, rest on each other, and general overlap to steady themselves. This is a conventional method of overcoming the limitations of the medium, not necessarily the expression of physical attraction among the subjects.
-Given the fact that the poses for obvious family members do not differ from those of men who do NOT resemble each other, the author would have to retrospectively assume that the photos convey public acknowledgement of incest, if one is to take his arguments to their logical conclusion.
-Humor and irony are not always visible to every observer. The author reads the photos with a kind of literalness that seduce him into back-projection. He doesn't approach the images with (an admittedly ephemeral) objectivity, because he wants these often beautiful and overwhelmingly interesting pictures to express what they cannot.
-Same-sex couples involved in sexual relationships may very well appear in some of these photographs; given what little the author knows about their provenance, it is unlikely we'll ever know which.
Newsflash: We're already reading the book. Stop describing what you intend to accomplish with it and just do it, already.
I liked when he used quotes and excerpts that were contemporary to the times the photos were taken, which give the reader a better idea of what life and society was like then. But there was too little of this, and too much conjecture on his part, and, yes, I know it's his book, but too much personalizing. I wasn't interested in knowing that the author, as a young man, fantasized about the photos of swimmers he saw in American Red Cross "Junior Lifesaving" manuals (page 50). Rather, I was a little creeped out, and unsure why this very personal anecdote is included in his book.
Here's a passage that kind of sums up my problem with his writing - also from page 50:
"Today we can swim in seas of homoerotica and X-rated porn. It should not be taken as a detraction from the pleasures of porn to underscore the guilelessness and ingenuity with which image-starved gay men and lesbians once perused everyday representations for sexual excitement; nor to admit to mourning the passage of such creative strategies for (homo)sexual survival as one of the costs we have had to pay for replacing gay subcultural ingenuity with gay culture, tout court. There are, of course, other related trade-offs in which one thing is lost at the price of another being gained. Ultimately, this book provides evidence of a parallel trade-off that results from the historical transformation of the social meaning of same-sex affection from a nineteenth-century tradition of romantic friendship and comradely love, and its physical expression among men who posed for photographers holding hands, entwining limbs, or resting in the shelter of each other's accomodating bodies, innocent of the suspicion that such behavior would later arouse."
And he goes ON like this! I defy anyone to get any sort of cognizable meaning out of all this academic double-talk. I'm left wondering if the photos came up short and he had a larger page-count to fill because he says basically the same thing over and over throughout the course of the book, and it never gets any more straight-forward or lucid than what you just read above.
So - in short: Liked the concept, loved the photos, was NOT a fan of the text.
The author covers all bases of male intimacy in this book from close and dear friends to the possibility of a closer bond that borders on the physical relationship. He even covers research into the friendships of artists and icons of the time including the great Walt Whitman. This is a great historical analogy of male intimacy through the 18th and 19th centuries!