Walking through Daniel Nicoletta’s Castro neighborhood in the 1970s, it was hard not be overwhelmed by the constant love on display.
‘It was pretty eye-opening. You couldn’t really walk down the street to go buy a loaf of bread without a big kissing and hugging session with all the fabulous people you recently had met,’ says Nicoletta, now 62.
From the time he arrived on San Francisco’s Castro Street at the age of 19 in 1974, Nicoletta has documented life in San Francisco’s large and vibrant LGBT community centered on the Castro District. Soon after he arrived in the neighborhood, which by the late 1960s had become a significant gay village, he became friends with gay rights activist and unofficial mayor of Castro Street, Harvey Milk, and Scott Smith.
The couple operated a camera store, Castro Camera, at 575 Castro Street. In 1975, Milk offered the budding photographer a job at the store.
‘Like many people, I enjoyed hanging out there, shooting the breeze with Harvey and Scott,’ Nicoletta said. ‘I remember him as being a fun-loving guy. His whole thing was, “if you’re not laughing, you’re kind of missing the boat.” And so we had a lot of fun changing the world.’
His first day on the job was that year's Castro Street Fair, and he was sent out to document the celebration. While out taking photographs, he came across two men named Harmodius and Hoti. One wore a tiger-print top, and the other wore a tank-top. Nicoletta snapped a picture of them on a doorstep and, wanting to share it with them and their friends, went to develop it into a postcard. He needed to print a minimum of 5,000 cards, on which he had mistakenly put his contact information, and they were sent out into the world. The image struck a chord with people the world over, and Nicoletta was flooded by requests for more copies.
More than 40 years later, that photograph now graces the cover of Nicoletta's soon-to-be-released book, LGBT San Francisco: The Daniel Nicoletta Photographs, published by Reel Art Press.
‘I became very close to both men, and they really were the embodiment of an idea that later became known as the radical faerie movement. But they were sort of pre-radical-faerie radical faeries if you will,’ Nicoletta said.
Nicoletta moved to the Castro after a year of university at the California College of Arts, located across the Bay in Oakland.
Back then, the gay community faced enormous discrimination. Same-sex sexual intercourse was illegal in California until 1976. Anita Bryant worked to dismantle gay rights with her ‘Save Our Children’ campaign. Gay bars still faced police raids and shakedowns. On the local level, the quest for change meant documenting the citizens of the Castro, from back-up disco singers to drag shows, and its unofficial mayor, Milk.
The charismatic Mayor of Castro Street, Milk, became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk, who opened his Camera Store in 1973, ran for local office three times before being elected and taking office in January 1978. Representing the Castro and its neighbors including the Haight-Ashbury as a City Supervisor, he tried to effect a progressive political agenda affirming LGBT rights. But his time was cut short because he was assassinated by his fellow city supervisor, Dan White, in November of that same year.
His death inspired nationwide vigils that in San Francisco turned violent – particularly after White was acquitted of first-degree murder by reason of insanity, which his attorney argued was caused in part by his Twinkie consumption. White committed suicide in 1985, seven years after he killed Milk.
Regarding Milk, Nicoletta said: ‘I think his position was that, you know, a lot of it was daunting and so the only antidote was to kind of keep laughing and have fun while you’re trying to make a better world.’
Nicoletta continued to document San Francisco’s LGBT community through its lows – the 1980s AIDS epidemic to which then-president Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye – and its highs – California granting marriage equality in 2008. Proposition 8, passed later that year, stymied gay marriage in the state until 2013, when it was declared unconstitutional.
And through the ages, Nicoletta has seen the LGBT community’s visibility in the world go from ‘apples’ to ‘oranges’. The Castro’s vital history got a boost in visibility with Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning 2008 film, ‘Milk,’ in which Sean Penn played Milk and ‘High School Musical’ star Lucas Grabeel played Nicoletta. The photographer himself had a cameo in the film in addition to serving as a consultant and set photographer. Some of the film’s shots were recreated from Nicoletta’s photographs of the 1970s Castro District.
Van Sant, who wrote the book’s forward, said in a press release: ‘Danny’s photos are a treasured artistic record of the people who initiated a movement from within their own neighborhood and this work links that exuberant time to the larger history of LGBT people. This book is a very welcome addition to our enduring collective memory.’
‘Perhaps it is helpful to remember that the majority of the people depicted in Nicoletta’s photographs—especially in the years prior to the digital deluge—did not necessarily grow up surrounded by the kind of imagery found in this book,’ added Chuck Mobley, in writing the book’s introduction.
‘Everything that they were experiencing—the politics, the love, the parties, their activism, their artistic endeavors, and the community they were creating—was entirely new. They were making it up as they went along; they weren’t simply mimicking what they had grown up seeing in films and photographs.
'All the while, Nicoletta was there alongside them, quietly building a sustained practice out of what was essentially a collective enterprise: the life and times around him.’
One way in which this sense of discovery was evident was the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival. Now the world’s largest LGBT film festival, it was founded in February of 1977 by a group of friends, including Nicoletta, with a Super 8 projector and a bed sheet.
Today Nicoletta, who now lives in rural Oregon with his partner, continues to document of Milk’s legacy. He serves as a key point person for LGBT civil rights and Milk-related research. In 2014, one of Nicoletta’s photographs was used on the Harvey Milk Forever US postage stamp.