Saturday, June 1, 2013

Pretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese Men

Two Chinese Men in Matching Traditional Dress, c, 1870s 
While this image of two Asian men does not portray the men as having a particularly intimate relationship, it does show men who usually don't find their way onto websites chronicling intimacy between men. The vast majority of vintage images that bloggers post depicting intimate relationships between men are of white men. It's rare to find images of men from other races.  

This image is also also an excellent example of how our unconscious associations with certain symbols shape the meaning of what we see. This picture on the left of two Asian men with pink robes--they must be gay, right? 

The pink robes worn by the two men in this picture read to many bloggers as something that constitutes gayness. It's not necessarily a signifier of sexual orientation or attraction. Beyond the pinkness, I can't fathom why people listing this image on blogs and Tumbler would see this picture as one that depicts a vintage gay relationship.

The thousands of observations we make about people in our silent and mostly unconscious process of categorizing and stereotyping people into easily understood categories aren't any more accurate that are assumptions about the color pink in this photograph. Our categories and stereotypes are useful heuristics--but they need to be constantly evaluated and checked with actual data.

In all probability, thes
e men are not gay. It's unclear whether or not they even have any sort of relationship (intimate or not). 

Perhaps a reader with knowledge about 19th century Chinese history might come upon this blog and share some thoughts (anyone read Mandarin? The text in the background might say something interesting). 

The men in the image, the story about why they were captured on film, and who the photographer was are currently unknown. It's fairly easy, however, to find out a lot about some basic identifying information about the image. 

This albumen silver print from a glass negative, produced sometime in the 1870s, is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The image, not currently on display in the museum, is one of 8,500 photographs from the Gilman Paper Company Collection. If you want to do some very deep research on the people who collected this photographs, check out these two articles about the rise and fall of the Gilman family fortune: here and here

Beware of what you think you see when you look at photographs. We easily see what we want to see in vintage photographs. It's much more difficult to stand back and let the image tell us the story it has to tell.

This goes for viewing people in your day-to-day life, too. It's always more challenging--and rewarding--to stand back and let a person tell their own story rather than to hear the story we think they should tell.

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Two Men and Their DogAdam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between MenA Man and His DogThe Beasts of West PointVintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William GedneyIt's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford BartonThese Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | DisfarmerDesire and Difference: Hidden in Plain SightCome Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser BushHugh Mangum: Itinerant PhotographerTwo men, Two PosesPhotos are Not Always What They Seem,Vintage Sailors: An Awkward RealizationThree Men on a HorseWelkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex MarriagePretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese MenMemorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor LoveMemorial Day: Vintage Dancing SailorsThe Curious Case of Two Men EmbracingThey'll Never Know How Close We WereVintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert GantHomo Bride and Groom Restored to DignityThe Men in the TreesThe Girl in the OuthouseTommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.


  1. Hi.. Nice blog you've got here.mI do speak and read Mandarin. The words behind are not readable, but Chinese often have these rolls of "banner" like things attached on walls of the houses. Most likely for deco.

    1. Thanks so much! How sad that the words are not readable. I guess for now our men in pink will remain mostly a mystery.

      It does look like the men are in a photo studio of some sorts. The backdrop appears to be a large piece of canvas that stretches from the front of the picture all the way up to the ceiling. The banners are hung on that. That bit suggests the men had this picture taken at some event, or to commemorate some event.

  2. Certainly this picture can be interpreted in multiple ways!

    The robes are painted, right? Who painted pink? Did the painter use the color what those two guys were actually wearing? Or did the painter use his (I assume it's "he") imagination?

    Those robes look like they are Buddhist monks. The color of robes (Kasaya) contains lots of messages to signify their identities as monks.

    I can't read the banner, bummer.

    1. I was hoping you'd see this, Shuko. I figured you might point me in some interesting directions.

      The robes were most definitely hand colored. Since this photograph has been invested in at least twice (the original buyer, and then the Met), I'm going to assume curators have determined the coloring to be original.

      I should have looked into the meaning of the robe color on first posting the image -- thanks for pointing it out to me.

      So the kāṣāya is called jiāshā (袈裟) in Chinese Buddhism. A quick review online suggests that the common color of the robes were red. Later, the color of the jiāshā corresponded to the geographical region of the monk.

      What of the color pink? I can find one image of a woman in a pink kāṣāya. That's about it.

      I ventured into some Chinese language websites--there are numerous websites that have this picture listed. Here is an example:

      Of the 7 or 8 websites in Chinese that I looked at, all identified Baron Raimund von Stillfried as the photographer of the image. Stillfried seemed to, however, mostly work in Japan. I'm going to e-mail the curator at the Met to see if she/he might have some more information on this image.

      Inquiring minds want to know.

    2. Also of note, the record for the photograph at the Met notes that on the reverse side of the image is a mostly illegible pencil marking with the initials B.R. -- wonder if that might be Baron Raimund?

    3. What an interesting person Baron Raimund von Stillfried is. All the photos are curiously beautiful.

      Aren't we a bunch of detectives? I'll be looking forward to hearing the replies.

    4. Yes. It's a good mystery. It will be interesting to see what turns up about the image. It showed up on the cover of a book of photography that was published in Europe (Germany? Netherlands?) a few years back.

  3. IMHO, I think your conjecture vis a vis pink robes and "gayness" is really a stretch. First off, the picture were taken in Black & White, as there wasn't any commercial color process in the 1870's. Secondly, whoever painted the robes (we naturally assume it's the shooter, but often it's not) chose that particular color for reasons that will be forever lost to history. It may have as much to do with artistic expression as visual accuracy, or to technical limitations of the craft of hand tinting. For example, dark hand tinted colors never really look good, so the artist may have chosen a lighter color instead. Moreover, if one looked upon the entire set of photographs in the Met collection, then the context dramatically changes; it now is apparent that these were all taken as representations of the "types" of Chinese people. The subjects in this case, were monks or other clerical workers. I don't see any convincing evidence that there was any forethought or intent by the photographer to record or depict gayness at all.

  4. Oh, and BTW, the exact same calligraphy hangings behind the two monks also appeared in several of the other photos from the Baron Raimund collection. Thus, I suspect they're nothing more than simple cultural props. IMHO, sometimes we look and want to see meaningful things that really aren't there in the first place.

  5. Ralph,

    Thanks for your comments. It's somewhat ironic that you encourage me to look at my implicit responses about an image in a post where I encourage the reader to look at their implicit responses to images. As I wrote, many people assume these men are gay because they are wearing pink: they are likely not gay. I am left to assume you read the first paragraph or two and responded to what you experienced before really reading what am wrote.

  6. Ah... yes, and Thank you, Jason. After reading the rest of your article, I'm a bit embarrassed and I humbly apologize for jumping to conclusions. I also agree with you that the good Baron did most of his image work in Japan, where he documented a much wider variety of "slice of life" a la orient. Cheers!

    1. Hi Ralph,

      I can't tell you the number of times I've gone on and on in a comment about an article, after having read the first paragraph, only to discover that had I read the article I wouldn't have been so fired up! :-)

  7. Oh boy. They were monks! Simple as that.

    1. Yes, they were. The interesting thing is how historical photographs communicate with us both what the photographer saw then as well as what we'd like to see now.