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Chris Brickell's Two-by-two

Posted in: Books
By Jacqui Stanford - 20th October 2013

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The man behind Mates & Lovers and Manly Affections, Chris Brickell, has produced another gorgeous book filled with elegant pictures of New Zealand men through 80 years of our history. This time the photos are of men in pairs, or “Two-by-two”.

Titled in full, Two-by-two: Men in Pairs, the work includes 100 photos, many of them never before published, of pairs of New Zealand men from 1880 to 1960, everywhere from at work, to at home and play, to photographers’ studios.

Brickell came up with the idea when he was researching Mates & Lovers. “I found a lot of photos of men together, which were really ambiguous. Some of them suggested themselves in a gay context, and others didn’t … But I started looking at them and I just thought ‘there’s something really interesting about the rhythm of lots of photos of men in twos.’ And when you start to put them all together it becomes curiously intoxicating, and sort of intriguing.”

He finds pictures for his books everywhere. A fair few are of course from the Alexander Turnbull Library. “There are some other little curious finds as well,” he says. “My family photo albums were one source, particularly a set of negatives which was found when my grandmother moved into a home, and my mum and dad got them.”

This is also the first time he has used his own family pictures. “It’s quite nice. And it underlines the idea that our own family materials can have something really interesting to say about broader social questions and social patterns.”

The beauty of his book is that the pictures could be taken by a professional photographer in a studio, or they could have been taken by a grandma on a lawn.

Many pictures are rural and rugged, many are of men who came into town from the sticks to have their pictures taken together.

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Some of the golden pictures in Two-by-two come from the West Coast. “For ages I had been thinking there must be interesting material over there, and I’d never looked for it. Because the West Coast was of course a very male-oriented society, particularly around the extractive industries.”

He found many great pictures at the Hokitika Museum, many taken by a man who lived in the area around 1905 who museum staff ‘have a feeling’ was gay. He took shots of men working, playing sport and hanging out on the West Coast, images which were one of Brickell’s favourite finds.

People who caught wind of the project also emailed their favourites through. And while its source is a ‘rather controversial’ secret, the book includes a previously unpublished 19th Century picture of two men kissing – only the third such image Brickell even knows of.

Brickell admits he bent the boundaries and had fun setting out the order of the book, dropping genuinely gay historical images in amongst more sedate pictures of gold miners, bushmen, baggage handlers, factory workers and guys just hanging out outside pioneer cottages.

On one page there are two men looking at each other fondly, and on the next page two men are play-fighting. “There’s something really interesting about that juxtaposition of an intense look on one page, and then an intense play-fight on another. There’s a shared intensity, even though they’re different forms of intensity.”

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He says it’s about: “just mixing it up really and seeing what happens when you mix it up, and what you can get away with.”

It’s not explicitly a ‘gay book’, the researcher explains, but plays on the idea of a continuum. “If gay men are at one end of the continuum, how far can you push it in the other direction?” is his underlying question.

Brickell found it interesting that as he researched and spoke broadly to people, often quite intimate images of two men together were assumed to be two brothers. “Why would people think a more intimate image is likely to be two brothers, than two friends? Or two partners? It made me curious about, if you put family connections into the picture, what are the boundaries and differences between family members, mates, workmates and partners?

“It kind of gets hard to see the differences. So those ambiguities and complexities and things are kind of interesting. And arguably I could be accused of over-gaying things, but maybe that’s not a bad thing!”

The book opens with an introductory essay which Brickell says puts some of the images in context, or suggests ways they can be thought about as a body of images. The rest of Two-by-two is the stunning pictures, with some captions with info. He describes it as being like a walking tour of the photographs.

The 120 copies which have been made so far have been hard bound in black cloth by Dutybound of Dunedin, a craft bookbinder, who Brickell says does incredibly beautiful work. “One of the things about this as a publishing project that I have really enjoyed is that the whole thing has been done in Dunedin, not in China like most books now, printed and bound locally.”

He says creating the book as an ‘object’ in the era of ebooks has been rewarding.

All the copies in the first edition are signed and numbered. Unity Auckland and Unity Wellington both have copies, otherwise they can be ordered online here


Jacqui Stanford - 20th October 2013

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