Paying It Forward
Photographer Daniel Nicoletta offers wisdom to a new generation of artists and activists
by Brent Calderwood
Daniel Nicoletta began his career as a freelance photographer in 1974, shortly after moving from his native New York to San Francisco.
That same year, Nicoletta met Harvey Milk and Milk’s lover Scott Smith; it was a meeting that would change Nicoletta’s career, and life, forever. The couple hired the nineteen-year-old Nicoletta to work in their camera shop on Castro Street, and he soon found himself running the store. He also assisted on several of his employer’s famously theatrical political campaigns, including the 1977 race that won Milk a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors—and an indelible place in history as one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country.
As a primary visual documenter of the last three years of Milk’s life, Nicoletta has also seen his name added to the historical record. He even recently became a “character” in the Oscar-winning 2008 film Milk: months after serving as an advisor and production stills photographer on the set, Nicoletta was able to watch himself portrayed onscreen by actor Lucas Grabeel. It’s a rare and uncanny honor for anyone still living, especially for one who makes his living behind the lens; even Diane Arbus, one of Nicoletta’s primary influences, was not accorded that particular tribute until long after her death.
Since the 1980s, Nicoletta has concentrated on studio portraits, providing an ongoing
record of LGBT culture and history. This record includes plenty of famous faces—Lily Tomlin, Allen Ginsberg, Divine—but also rare images of artists and performers whose careers were cut short by AIDS, such as Sylvester, Miss Kitty, and members of radical San Francisco performance troupes like The Cockettes and Angels of Light.
While Nicoletta’s fame and “importance” have skyrocketed over the past several years, his warmth and humility remain firmly grounded. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Nicoletta, who had much to say not only about the life and times of Harvey Milk, but also about the roles of artists and young people living today, in these very different times.
Brent Calderwood: How did you get started as a photographer?
Daniel Nicoletta: I originally started out as a filmmaker. I had won a Kodak teenage movie award when I was seventeen in Utica.
Filmmaking was my primary creative pursuit, but then after I moved to San Francisco, still photography took the place of moviemaking.
In 1985, after several years of photographing Harvey Milk and the LGBT community, you got your degree in photography from San Francisco State. Why did you decide to go back to school?
The reason I never finished school before was because I got the job in Harvey Milk’s camera store. He and Scott were very pro-education, so they were reticent to let me quit school, but it was very clear that the campaign was on fire….The reality was that there just wasn’t room for it. I permitted myself to drop out and then my life took off and I never looked back for almost ten years.
But I had always held out that I would return to college and get my B.A….About this time I met my lover Michael, and now it’s been twenty-eight years that we have been together. He made it possible for me to re-enter school as an adult without having to work simultaneously. I did all studio courses for two-and-a-half years and it was fantastic.
Your photographs from the early nineties of Miss Kitty in angel wings and later in the hospital are so moving. Who was Miss Kitty?
She was an international performance artist. She had worked in many other countries. She arrived on the scene [in San Francisco in the mid-eighties] as a fairly unknown commodity and before long she had enchanted everybody, myself included. And she basically came up to me and said in no uncertain terms, “We’re going to work together.” She enrolled me in her vision, and that evolved into her invitation to document her struggle with the issues of AIDS. That was her direct invitation.
When we did the Angel picture, she was really sick—she could barely make it up the rickety old stairs to my studio. So god bless her for being so driven about doing drag and about being in the visible realm as a creative artist, as a person with AIDS.
When you photograph people living with HIV and AIDS, do you worry about the issue of exploitation?
Even though I’m aware of the possibility of exploitation when there’s collaboration, I’m generally an insider in the first place. Generally there’s a lot of consent. Obviously there’s a challenge in the second phase, when you’re exhibiting. The first phase is creative, but the rest is informed by a mutual trust that will always carry over to those considerations in postproduction that I would never do something that’s distasteful, either to the living spirits of those that are still alive or the deceased spirits of those that have gone on….I’m definitely really big on honor.
You’ve talked a lot in the press about your involvement with the film Milk. Did working on that film change the way you view your career as a whole?
It was ten of the best weeks of my life—it was surreal, and poignant. It was validating because, don’t forget, when I was nineteen I thought I was going to be a filmmaker and move to Hollywood. So here I was finally getting to work on a feature film and it was very much a full circle on that level. And they were incredibly gracious.
After more than thirty years of doing portraiture and art photography, how do you feel about your photos of Harvey Milk being your most famous work, especially following the success of Milk?
It’s a mixed blessing because it’s helped me achieve the whole arc of my career in a way nothing else could have ever done. It’s accelerated my visibility tenfold—that in and of itself is a gift.
I’m not an ingrate by any means, but at the end of the day, I do do this other work, and a lot of times it has to take a backseat to the diplomacy issues. What’s ironic is that the circus left town in March . They went and made their film and delivered their film, but those of us that were primary sources from the Milk family, we continue to have to respond to the culture’s interest in Harvey Milk’s legacy, and it’s a full-time job for many of us.
The only thing that makes it a balanced experience for me is an essential gratitude to Harvey and Scott and their mentorship. So when I reach a sense of frustration about its dominance in my life, the answer that always comes back is, “This is what you were being taught for, this is what we had in mind, and it is a kind of activism, and that is what we wanted for you. Here we gave lip service to reaching out to the youth demographic all these years, and now you are actually getting to do it, so buck up.”
What do you say to the young people who see Milk and want to find a way to connect to Harvey Milk’s ideals of personal and political liberation?
There’s a sense of longing that arises from a romanticized view of early queer liberation. It’s a challenge to your generation. That longing has got to be parlayed into your own contemporary struggles because if it’s not, then it traverses the area of sentimentality, and it’s completely out of reach….It can be a source of inspiration, but it can also be a source of dismay—anesthetization in its worse case, or apathy.
If people can foster a sense of engagement from each other without the baggage of obligation, then I think the exciting synergy that is creativity can happen….It isn’t about how many precincts did you walk, it’s about what is it that you want to do to make a difference, and then, come on, do it!
To learn more about Daniel Nicoletta, visit www.dannynicoletta.com.
Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based activist and writer. His Web site is www.brentcalderwood.com.