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“LOVING: A Photographic History of Men in Love” portrays romantic love between men in hundreds of moving and tender vernacular photographs taken during the 100-year period between the 1850s and 1950s. The photographs and the book were produced by former Denton residents Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell.

For married couple Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell, an award-winning short film and a coffee table book now in its fifth printing started at Love Field Antique Mall 20 years ago.

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Hugh Nini (left) and Neal Treadwell are the pair behind a coffee table book and related short documentary about men in love. “I guess my hope is that, with this project, people see that love is universal. It belongs to all of us. When someone falls in love, they don’t have to tell you,” Nini said. “You can see it in their face.”

“I still remember it,” Treadwell said. “We were at church and I was flying out of Dallas. My job took me out of town a lot. We were at Love Field Antique Mall to kill some time before my flight. I found this box of photos, and I was like, ‘How interesting.’

“I found a photo of a man embracing another man from behind. It stopped me. I showed it to Hugh and we were both just fascinated by it. I think the guy said [he’d give us] all the photos for $5. The box sat on the office table for a year, and then we found another photo. That first photo was 80 years old. It’s not in the book, but that photo started all this.”

Treadwell and Nini lived in Dallas, but both of them were very well known to Denton dance students and their families. Nini opened Denton Ballet Academy decades ago, and founded Denton Civic Ballet in 1981. He went on to create the Festival Ballet of North Central Texas, but he’s best known in Denton for choreographing and staging the local production of The Nutcracker, a tradition that has given hundreds of young dancers their first major ballet performances. Treadwell’s career in the cosmetics industry took the married couple to New York City about 8 years ago.

The photos — they’d found three or so — moved with them.

Today, Nini and Treadwell have more than 3,000 photos of men in intimate, affectionate moments. The photos picture men between the 1850s and the 1950s. The photos are now the subject of a coffee table book, LOVING: A Photographic History of Men in Love, and an award-winning film, LOVING: A Short Documentary.

While they don’t have any information about most of the men pictured, or the relationships between them, Treadwell said they collect photos that communicate something deep and abiding. Some of the photos capture unmistakable romance, like stolen kisses or interlaced fingers. Almost all of the photographs depict men who lean into one another, who touch one another with a shoulder or hip. But some of them might be more ambiguous.

“We have a pretty simple criterion to collect a photo, and that criterion is that you look at these photos and see two people who look like they matter very much to one another. Some of them, you can tell by the way they look at each other. Others, it’s hard to describe if you aren’t looking at it, but you can tell by the way they look just being together.”

Nini said that as they found more photos, they refined their filtering process.

“We call it the 50/50 rule,” he said. “When we looked at a photo, there has to be a 50-50 chance there was a romantic relationship.”

One such photo led the couple to a living relative of one of the subjects. They found a group World War II photographs, five pictures of a pair of men. Treadwell said he and Nini knew there was something between them. Then they found an image of them in an intimate embraces. They learned that the men — named John W. Moore and his companion, man named Dariel — were lovers from Texas.

“John was from Longview. Dariel was from Dallas,” Nini said. “And get this: They were in the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, which was called Rainbow Division. What are the odds? They were pictured together with a giant rainbow painted on the side of a building. It’s a famous division in the Army because they liberated Dachau.”

Dachau was the longest-running Nazi concentration camp of the fearsome regime. Nini said that another chilling connection was that, though the bulk of the Holocaust was borne by Jewish people, the disabled and homosexuals were also captive and killed in the concentration camps. John’s nephew was given the photographs with a request that he not share them with John’s sister, and revealed a love affair that was as true as it was hidden.

After their book was published, Nini and Treadwell received a parcel from Sotheby’s, a book that detailed the relationship between a baron and a prince who survived Dachau.

“They were to be executed four days before the Rainbow Division liberated the camp, but they were rescued,” Nini said.

The couple said they figured they were archiving the photos because they enjoyed them. But they wondered what the world might make of their discoveries. When they discovered that one of the sellers they’d been working with lived in New York City, Nini and Treadwell suggested meeting for the next purchase. The couple brought both photo albums to the cafe and the seller poured over them with a magnifying glass. He told the couple they should publish them. It took some time and connections, but they eventually met Eric Ghysels, the Italian founder of 5 Continent publishing. The art book publisher took on the project.

It was painstaking. The couple flew the photos from the home they still owned in Dallas to New York. The publisher put them through a careful photography process that would enlarge and clean up the images using a rare technology. Nini said the photos were never left alone. The result was LOVING, a thick coffee table book of couples from all over the world, taken between 1850 and 1950. That century was difficult for gay people, and Nini said most of his research reveals that gay people were seen through a lens of criminality until the late 20th Century. Nini said their collection has some images where lovers were in the presence of friends or family, which might seem surprising to some.

“Really, it wasn’t until the Hays Code of 1930 forced Hollywood to avoid any kind of same-sex romance that really put a damper on the way gay people have been depicted. The Celluloid Closet explains how and why gay characters were treated the way they were in the golden age of cinema,” Nini said.

The book was published last October in five languages. The first two printings sold out quickly, and the title is now in its fifth printing. Friends and family have spotted the book in unexpected places — under a clean, contemporary staircase in a home owned by Australian pop singer Troye Sivan in a recent edition of Architectural Digest. Actor, and writer Will Wheaton shared a CNN story about the book.

The couple didn’t foresee the book becoming a film.

“I was visiting my mom in Wichita Falls, and I visited a friend of mine Jackie Hoegger, who has a communications firm,” Treadwell said. “We were already deep into the publishing process. But I was telling her about this project. Within in two minutes, she said, ‘What can I do for you guys?’ I said, ‘Jackie I don’t know, I was just telling you about this project.’ But we were also looking for a video promotion for the book, and Jackie said, ‘Let me do that for you.’”

Hoegger Communications filmed the couple in their Dallas and New York homes, and told the story of their discoveries by presenting the photos and projecting the images onto the sides of New York City buildings. The effect is of the long-gone couples both haunting and guarding the city, where countless windows frame the intimate lives of the people living there. The film has picked up five awards, and the couple said a longer project is possible.

In the meantime, Nini and Treadwell continue collecting. They have noticed a dearth of images of men of color, and hope to find some photos that depict same-sex romance in those communities. In June, some of the images will be in an exhibit in a 20,000-square-foot gallery and event space. Some of the images will be life-size.

Nini said that he and Treadwell married in Massachusetts when the state legalized it in 2004. He said the couple has been together 30 years, and they have felt married for decades. The couple said they’ve been surprised to get feedback from self-described social conservatives who say they have been moved by the images and the men in them.

“I guess my hope is that, with this project, people see that love is universal. It belongs to all of us. When someone falls in love, they don’t have to tell you,” Nini said. “You can see it in their face.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.