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Cornell Library receives gay-related photo collection

In the early 1980s, with the gay community in the terrifying grip of an unidentified new disease, New York City lawyer Harry Weintraub started collecting photographs.

"I began this collection in earnest because of the AIDS crisis," he said. "Men were dying all around me. ... I was intent on trying to preserve not only their histories, but the histories of those who came before."

Many families were embarrassed by their gay relatives and would throw out their personal effects, Weintraub said, because "they just wanted to get rid of everything. Many times, I was beaten by the dumpster."

But relatives started finding out about Weintraub's collection and contacting him, ready to donate garbage bags full of their gay family members' scrapbooks, pornography, photographs and memorabilia. He also purchased materials through antique dealers, from the basements of Manhattan sex shops and at antique shows all over the country.

Three decades later, Weintraub's collection exceeds 10,000 items dating to the 1860s. Many photographs are deeply personal, ranging from candid snapshots to formal 19th-century portraits and from Hollywood stars' studio portraits to 1950s physique photos.

The photographs and related documents have come to Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections as the Harry H. Weintraub Collection of Gay-Related Photography and Historical Documentation. It includes 150 years of photographs, magazines, pornography and ephemera -- and even a few Cornell-specific items, including a photo of a man posed in the arms of the A.D. White statue on the Arts Quad.

"This is an amazing gift to Cornell, with tremendous historical value, and it enhances our sexuality, visual and photographic collections in exciting ways," said Katherine Reagan, the Ernest L. Stein Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

How can one tell if people in a photograph are gay without context?

Sometimes it's obvious, Weintraub said, such as when men are in overtly sexual situations or the photographs were donated directly by the families of known gay men. Other times, particularly with older photographs, it's more subtle -- conveyed by an open hand instead of a closed fist, the position of the legs, even a facial expression.

"There are clues, tiny details, if you know what to look for," he said, such as the way the men sit or wear matching rings on their right hands.

Weintraub began collecting with a 1916 sepia-toned print that he found at an antique show. "I found this picture showing two guys in profile, posed affectionately," he said. "There was this moment of recognition, and I thought, 'That's it, that's us, that's me.' I had to start collecting them, after that."

The Weintraub Collection enhances the library's Human Sexuality Collection, which was established in 1988 and has grown to become one of the pre-eminent sexuality collections in the country.

"The new collection ... is a trove of rich and provocative images and related materials. It will provide an invaluable resource to many scholars, especially those of queer life and performance in the 20th century," said Nicholas Salvato, assistant professor of theater, film and dance at Cornell. "I'm looking forward to bringing my students to see a number of intriguing photographs when I teach Introduction to LGBT Studies in the spring."

"I knew the collection would have a good home here, that it would be well taken care of," Weintraub said. "We're a country of diversity, and all the different parts of that diversity deserve to be collected and understood."

Gwen Glazer is a staff writer at Cornell University Library.

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