This Is What Queer Relationships Might Have Looked Like in the Early 20th Century


Kris Sanford

When Kris Sanford came out as gay in the early 1990s, she didn’t have any friends or family members who were also gay. “That left me feeling like the other for a long time,” she wrote via email.

While growing up, she said she had crushes on friends and created imaginary relationships. Partly because she was searching for some type of history that spoke to and included her, Sanford began the series “Through the Lens of Desire” that creates implied narratives through found snapshots from the 1920s–1950s.

“I’m specifically looking for some kind of affection and intimacy,” she wrote about the images she selects. “Either through touch or expression. The images I create … are more about sensuality and attraction than about sexuality.”

Sanford works with the found images by intentionally cropping off a chunk of the top. As a nod to early Kodak snapshots, she also creates circular frames. She said these techniques are way of removing the subjects’ identities to turn them into fictional characters and an invitation for viewers to take a closer look at what they’re seeing.

“I’m not suggesting that the actual people were gay or lesbian, because in all likelihood they were not,” she wrote. “They become stand-ins as I create an imagined queer history.”

An early inspiration for the work came from a box of snapshots Sanford inherited from her grandmother that included images of parties she hosted where people would dress up. One photograph in particular of two women dressed as flappers and dancing together struck Sanford.

Flowered Dresses. 

Kris Sanford


Kris Sanford

Like Spoons. 

Kris Sanford

“To my modern eyes, as an out lesbian, the pictures looked so queer,” she wrote. “So I started experimenting with that collection in graduate school, changing the scale by enlarging them or adding text or cropping them.”

Once she had gone through the family collection, she began a broader search for photographs that were a fit for the project. “Collecting source material is much like treasure-hunting,” she wrote. “It just takes time to get to the good stuff.”


Kris Sanford

Bathing Suits. 

Kris Sanford

Sanford admits that a lot of the images she uses in her series weren’t initially intended for public consumption. Over the past decade, however, as family photos have leaped from the pages of photo albums to the online world, the lines between what is public and private has become a lot fuzzier.

“I don’t think the people in these vintage photographs could have ever imagined that,” she wrote. “The project is also meant to remind viewers that queer love isn’t new; it was just previously hidden in plain sight.”

Sanford says the work is ongoing (she would like to turn it into a book), and her motivation is partly due to her love of the “idea of preserving something ephemeral, such as a moment or feeling.”

“Of course we can’t preserve those things, and the photograph of the moment becomes something else entirely,” she wrote. “I’m playing with what a photograph can be when divorced of its context and projecting my own ideas and desire onto old snapshots.”


Kris Sanford

Folding Chairs. 

Kris Sanford

“Through the Lens of Desire” in on view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York through July 24.