In 1974, barely out of his teens, Daniel Nicoletta moved to San Francisco, where he got a job in Castro Camera, Harvey Milk's camera shop. Almost immediately the young man began photographing his community – and he's still taking photos over forty years later.
During his youth, Nicoletta interned as a photographer at The Advocate and co-founded the LGBT Film Festival — now known as Frameline. He worked on Harvey Milk's political campaigns — photos he took during this period were used by filmmaker Gus Van Sant as inspiration for the making of the Oscar winning film "Milk."
Nicoletta ultimately documented the history of the LGBT equality movement as it happened in San Francisco. For Nicoletta, his subjects were his people. San Francisco was the place he called home. And so his photos are not only a political history lesson, they're a living record of neighborhood people going about their daily lives.
Now, hundreds of Nicoletta's photos are available in “LGBT San Francisco: The Daniel Nicoletta Photographs,” a newly published coffee table book. The book's cover photo might raise a few eyebrows: a younger man has his arms around an older man. The older man is wearing a tank top which proclaims "Faggots are Fantastic." Nicoletta explains his feelings about LGBT people using a word which has long been considered an anti-gay slur.
''For every Matthew Sheppard we must continue to fight to make the world a safer place for LGBT people and our allies," Nicoletta said. "Reclaiming words like faggot is all part of those power struggles. We set the terms for our historical trajectory, not the haters."
Nicoletta also shared some of his personal memories of Harvey Milk.
"Harvey was fiery," he recalls. "Especially about politics. But he also loved laughter and tempered his passion with humor. He loved a good joke, he devoured the daily comics in the newspapers and shared them readily with friends, and he was genuinely interested in you, especially if you were cute!"
Nicoletta also told the story of how he came to work in Milk's camera shop.
"I moved to San Francisco in 1974," he said. "I was a film student at California College of the Arts in Oakland the year before —- a boyfriend and I and another acquaintance moved to Castro above 19th Street because we heard there were gay bars and gay restaurants in that neighborhood and we wanted to check that out. It was a stroke of luck for me because I was barely out and the new 'gayborhood' was in full swing! I was overjoyed to be in this extraordinary supportive environment. Harvey and Scott's [Scott Smith, Milk's partner] camera store became a regular hang out for budding artists like me and a year later they asked me to come work for them at the shop as a clerk and I did and stayed three years."
One of the photos in LGBT San Francisco is a shot of a cute young Nicoletta behind the counter at Castro Camera. Other photos include Pride Parades from years past, colorfully outrageous drag queens walking around the neighborhood, and Milk's run for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.
Most movingly, the book features a shot of longtime activist Cleve Jones standing next to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which Jones co-founded. That photo is a sobering reminder that many of the smiling faces in Nicoletta's book are no longer with us. People who lived in San Francisco three decades ago might recall the late drag queen Doris Fish, who was a wildly popular performer of the period — Fish died of AIDS in 1991. We can only imagine how many others in the book were lost to the plague.
More recent photographs include housing activists fighting for their homes and for affordable rents as San Francisco's tech boom of the past decade caused rents to quadruple. Nicoletta said that he hopes looking at the photos will "distill the hope nested in its pages and turn it into constructive action."
Nicoletta believes that in spite of gentrification and other changes to the gayborhood, which he now calls an LGBT Disneyland, there is still much inspiration to be found in the Castro.
"If people who come to LGBT Disneyland take some of the fire back home to their own front lines then the gay ghettos — and not just SF — will continue to inspire action instead of anesthetization," he said. "At least that is the hope. I believe we are seeing some of that cause and effect. Hopefully a result will be broader rent protections elsewhere and the other obvious take-aways. Protections for seniors and the environment etc. For those who remain in the ghettos there are some things to figure out."
“LGBT San Francisco: The Daniel Nicoletta Photographs” is now available at Amazon. The book includes a forward by filmmaker Gus Van Sant and an introduction by Chuck Mobley, former editor of SF Camerawork Publications.