In the late 1950s, two local men celebrated their love in a ceremony and, like many couples, they likely eagerly awaited the return of their photos of the big day — which they may soon finally receive, nearly 60 years later.
ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives is seeking to identify two men captured in a series of 21 photos, copies of which were recently donated to the archives by a New Jersey woman.
The photos depict two men, who appear to be in their 20s or 30s, exchanging rings before a man who could be a minister, along with two male witnesses. The men are shown kissing, cutting a cake, opening gifts and dancing among other same-sex couples in what appears to be an apartment.
Cherry Hill resident Jackie Madarang came upon the photos when sorting through old family pictures and, not knowing the subjects, asked her father, who explained that her mother, who has since passed, took the prints home from her job at a photo shop at Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia in 1957. The store’s manager, Madarang’s father explained, had a policy that customers would not receive their developed photos if he deemed them “inappropriate,” but he allowed staff to do with the pictures what they liked.
“My mother had a somewhat photographic memory for faces and retained these in the event the customers who dropped them off ever came back to the shop so that she could give them to the customers on the sly,” Madarang wrote in a letter to ONE.
The customers, however, never returned and the photos went into the Madarang family collection. Once they were uncovered, Madarang auctioned them on Ebay to two bidders, giving the profits to her father, and, at the suggestion of one of the bidders, donating copies of the prints to ONE.
ONE project archivist Michael Oliveira said the photos — and their subsequent story — provide an interesting, yet unsettling, look at life for the LGBT community half-a-century ago.
“This gives us insight into what was happening at that time; you can understand in some ways if it was illicit pictures but this is a step far beyond that,” he said. “I’m not sure what it was like to live in the ’50s but I can guess from this. This captures a moment in Philadelphia history and was a fantastic example of a life denied.”
Elise Chenier was introduced to the photos when doing research at ONE for a book on same-sex unions in the 1950s,'60s and '70s.
“That story hurts,” she said. “I think when you think about queer life and the oppression of gay and lesbian people, you think about overt acts of violence, people committing suicide, people being beaten up or thrown in jail, losing their jobs — dramatic things. But I think it’s often the little things that add up that make people so vulnerable. To have your own photographs of your own wedding arbitrarily confiscated by a photo shop owner and to never have that record for yourself ... to have it taken away from you is a huge injury. So the best outcome would be to find the people to whom they belong.”
Chenier noted that the men were young in the photos, so they could still be alive. Or, relatives or friends may recognize the pictures and be able to identify the subjects.
Oliveira said ONE has hundreds of photos of unidentified subjects, often donated by friends and family of late loved ones. But, he said, they have had luck with connecting items with their former owners — such as when a researcher recognized a scrapbook containing dozens of photos of authors taken at the now-defunct A Different Light bookstore in Los Angeles, or when an artist identified her own self-portrait.
“It’s great when you get to see the full story and link things up,” Oliveira said. “That’s wonderful when we get to see that and, for these men or someone surviving in those photos, to find something like this and recapture some of that time would be amazing.”