Words on pictures
Photographer Daniel Nicoletta discusses his storied career
by Sura Wood
A fresh transplant from upstate New York to San Francisco via the Kansas City Art Institute, budding photographer Daniel Nicoletta lucked into a job that gave him the ultimate catbird seat for witnessing a critical chapter of gay history. As a 19-year-old film student in 1975, he was hired at Harvey Milk's camera shop on Castro Street, a job which led to work on Milk's campaigns and, later, a position as the keeper of the flame of Milk's legacy after the Mayor of Castro Street was assassinated in 1978. It also landed him right in the middle of the dizzying highs, political and pharmaceutical, of the turbulent 1970s, an era of hope, despair, social engagement and exhilarating sexual adventure.
In a case of art imitating life, Nicoletta became one of two photographers of record on the set of Gus Van Sant's movie bio Milk, photographing scenes from the film and pairing them with images taken from real life, a deja vu, mirroring experience that's mind-boggling to comprehend.
Nicoletta's latest show of over 50 photographs, More Glitter – Less Bitter, on view at Electric Works gallery through July 10, represents his documentation of SF's LGBT communities over the last 30 years. The show is, in his words, "Milk-centric," with black-and-white pictures of Milk and his cohorts, recreations of historic events and their cinematic doppelgangers, mingled with contemporary work: festive photos of the flamboyant theatrical life that express this photographer's long-term, ongoing love affair with the city and its performers.
Sura Wood: What are trying to convey with your current show?
Daniel Nicoletta: I'm still riding the tidal wave of success of Milk. So I'm working the runway and showing what I've got, which is three years of solid documentation of being friends with Harvey and Scott Smith.
Why are you attracted to the theatrical culture?
When I was a kid, we were constantly putting shows on in the house, and one of my parents came from a theatre background. I had sawdust in the bloodstream. When I rolled into town, I immediately sought out the Angels of Light, which was the next iteration of the Cockettes, and I worked with them for 10 years.
What's the most thrilling photograph you've shot?
In 1978, photographing Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, because Max Waldman had photographed them, and Waldman's work was one of the reasons I got into theatre photography. Ludlam and his company of freaks were considered the bees knees of the avant-garde during the 70s and 80s, until Charles and many of them were taken from us by AIDS.
Was San Francisco a moveable feast when you arrived in the 70s?
The second wave of gay liberation was exploding right before me. It was an exciting, ebullient time. There were lots of public displays of affection, potlucks and art groups forming. We managed to get beers at The Stud and rolled joints for hours.
Do you miss those times?
I'm a little numb to n
How did you get the job at Milk's camera shop?
I was a customer first. I had scoped it out as a place to bring my Super 8 films after I moved to Castro Street. I stopped in there and they were super-enthusiastic about my work and personality. I couldn't believe how friendly these two guys were. Little did I know that I was being cruised by Harvey. He loved being invested in the lives and projects of many people, but I have to say that I was singled out as a protege. A year after we met, they asked me to come work for them. It was my initiation into political activism and freelance photography.
Milk was charismatic, but could you tell from the start that he was really going places?
Oh, yeah. He was hyper-real from day one, and very gregarious. When Harvey spoke with you one on one, his tone of voice became very deliberate and it was like you were the best thing since baked bread, and he was all ears for what you had to say and were about, especially if you were a cute guy.
What was like it like for you on the Milk set, given that the film recreated events you'd actually lived through?
It was profoundly poignant. All of us who were Milk colleagues felt the same vibe. We couldn't get over that we were having our rites of passage turned into poetry. It was something to behold, and we were on the verge of tears many of those days. When the circus left town, we suffered serious post-production blues.
What is Milk's legacy?
He was a gay everyman, yet he became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the world, which he knew would secure a lasting effect on the LGBT civil rights movement. He succeeded against all odds, in terms of business acumen, creativity and political identity. Like many leaders, he was the right person at the right time in the right place, but because he had that weird prescience about his own mortality, he felt a sense of urgency. Once he was killed, you got a deep sense of how great it was and how fleeting. I felt compelled to return the favor and commit to the larger community. Then shortly thereafter, we were hit with AIDS. We all figured out what it takes, and it took a lot. For want of a better way to say it, I became the family photographer for the San Francisco LGBT community. I still have such a great romance with the city. It's as clear and as fresh as the day I set foot here.
Electric Works, 130 8th St. Info: (415) 626-5496 or www.sfelectricworks.com.