LGBT San Francisco by Dan Nicoletta chronicles more than four decades of Queer joy, tragedy
by Hank Trout
When Dan Nicoletta moved to San Francisco in 1974, it’s unlikely that he realized that he would become one of the preeminent photographic storytellers of the next five decades. But that is only one of the remarkable stories of Dan’s life. He has documented San Francisco’s queer culture from the mid-1970s into the 2000s, from the heady anything-goes days of the 1970s when San Francisco was Mecca to the LGBTQ community, through the political turbulence at the end of that decade, the ravages of the AIDS crisis, and all the struggles and triumphs since then.
Born in 1954 in New York City, Dan moved to San Francisco at age nineteen to attend San Francisco State University. He began his photographic career in 1975 as an intern to Crawford Barton, a staff photographer for The Advocate. He first met Harvey Milk and Scott Smith at Castro Camera, their camera store on Castro Street where they hired him to work. Dan also worked with Milk on his campaigns for San Francisco city supervisor and took many now well-known photographs of Milk.
In some ways, Dan’s story always comes back to Harvey Milk. For starters, there’s that iconic photograph Dan took of Milk outside his camera shop, Harvey’s infectious smile stretching from ear to ear, eyes laughing, tie fluttering in the wind. “Harvey’s campaign didn’t want to use this photograph at first; they didn’t like the fluttering tie,” Dan recently told A&U. “When I look at that photograph now, the wind lifting Harvey’s tie indicates for me the passing of time, the way those years have fluttered away.” Since its initial publication, that image of Milk has been reproduced in countless ways, including the U.S. postage stamp issued on May 22, 2014 and the sculpture by the Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group that has graced City Hall since 2008.
In 1977, while still working for Milk at the camera shop, Nicoletta somehow found time, along with David Waggoner (no relation to A&U’s editor in chief and publisher) and Mark Huestis, to found the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (now the Frameline Film Festival). They and others began screening their 8mm films in the back of Harvey’s shop and called the events the Gay Film Festival of Super 8 Films, which evolved into the yearly internationally acclaimed festival.
Nicoletta’s photographs have been widely reproduced in periodicals, including The Advocate, the Bay Area Reporter, The Guardian (UK), the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Village Voice, as well as in numerous books, including Randy Shilts’ The Mayor Of Castro Street (1982); Jim Van Buskirk and Susan Stryker’s Gay by the Bay: A Pictorial History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (1996); and Milk: A Pictorial History of Harvey Milk (2009), with an introduction by Dustin Lance Black [A&U, August 2017] and a foreword by Armistead Maupin [A&U, June 1998]. In addition to his historic images of Harvey Milk, his subjects have included the White Night Riots, the Castro Street Fair, and the San Francisco Pride Parade, as well as personalities such as Justin Vivian Bond, Divine, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Hay, and Sylvester. His photographs have also appeared in several documentary films, including Rob Epstein’s Academy Award-winning The Times of Harvey Milk.
And now, much of Dan’s archive of photographs has been collected into LGBT San Francisco: The Daniel Nicoletta Photographs, a large-format 306-page tome bursting with stirring images of love and loss, of inspiration and heartbreak, of protests and celebrations that have marked his adopted City by the Bay over the past forty-plus years. It is a remarkable record of a very specific time, place, and tribe.
In keeping with his successful efforts to preserve Milk’s legacy, Dan served as a special consultant and still photographer on Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar-winning film Milk. From that gig came one of the most haunting photographs in LGBT San Francisco—a photograph of Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s and Moscone’s assassin, standing straight and stiff in a darkened hallway, light barely creeping in through disheveled blinds at the windows, an open door at the back of the hallway ominously suggesting the door through which White entered City Hall that ugly day. “We had been filming all day,” Dan said. “When I saw this hallway, it haunted me. There was something dark and sinister about it that I knew would be perfect for capturing what we all felt about Dan White. And Brolin was terrific—he understood exactly what I wanted to capture.”
Perhaps even more than his exquisite portraiture of San Francisco “legends”—e.g., Jose Julio Sarria, Absolute Empress I de San Francisco, aka the Widow Norton, the mastermind behind the Imperial Court System, now a fundraising juggernaut in LGBTQ communities around the world (“Jose changed the rules for drag. The Imperial Court was a communal effort, but it was really Jose’s brainchild. Later in life, his drag became more subdued, what he referred to as ‘male drag.’”); of drag superstar Fauxnique, resting after a Mr. David fashion show at the Castro Theatre in 2013; of a young Cleve Jones [A&U, January 2017] inspecting the 1987 display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt at Moscone Center—it is Dan’s photographs of everyday moments in San Francisco that so precisely document the joy and exuberance of the community here.
Look, for instance, at his photo from the Castro Street fair of August 1976. In a sea of young, healthy, muscled and mustachioed men floats Dan’s friend, Enchantra. “I took this photo because Enchantra looked like she stepped out of a Fellini film and onto Castro Street! She was an important part of a fabulous culture here in the seventies. They didn’t all make art—but they were art! I loved the communal aspect of that culture.”
Looking at this photo now, I cannot help wondering how many of those young men are no longer with us.
For an only-in-San-Francisco moment, check out the photo of Sister Boom Boom (Jack Fertig), one of the original Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, riding in the 1982 SF LGBT Pride Parade in a yellow Beetle with a sign on the side reading, “Boom-Boom for Soup.” The Sister ran for a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors (her occupation listed on the ballot was “Nun of the Above”) and nearly won! “I knew Jack really well,” Dan said. “I loved the way the Sisters brought levity to the city’s politics. The Sisters could have been just a brief moment of performance art, but they have grown into a worldwide movement raising much-needed funds for the community. The fact that they are stronger now than ever speaks to their resilience.”
Of course, no chronicle of the LGBT community in San Francisco could ignore the horrible decimation of the community from the early 1980s through the late 1990s. In a selfless act of generosity, Dan’s friend Danny Celeri, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, permitted Dan to document his experience of the disease. In The Hospital Zone, October 28, 1997, Danny Celeri—an extremely haunting image of Celeri with his back to the camera, walking alone down a long too-brightly-lit hallway at St. Mary’s Hospital toward an EXIT, carrying a large sad-faced teddy bear by the ear—Dan captured the chilling terror we all felt, the overwhelming frustration and looming sense of doom, the many heart-wrenching hospital visits we all made, the cold harsh sterility of those visits. For me, with its stark glaring no-mercy lighting, this photo will always be one of the most gut-wrenching reminders of all that we San Franciscans have lost. And yet, every time I look at this photo, it also reminds me of the redemptive power of storytelling.
When I chatted with Dan recently, I passed along to him a friend’s assessment of his photos as “artful without being pretentious,” an assessment I certainly share. Dan shyly chuckled at the compliment. “That’s nice! If I’ve avoided pretentiousness in my career, I can die a happy artist!” With LGBT San Francisco, I’m sure that Dan’s reputation as a “happy artist” will remain intact for generations to come. He has guaranteed that the story of this tribe, at this specific time and place, will not be forgotten.
Hank Trout is an A&U Editor At Large. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.