But after moving to San Francisco and experiencing my first pride event, everything changed. Suddenly, I saw gay and lesbian families with gaybies, activists fighting to end HIV, and transpeople marching proudly – a very public display of community diversity and activism.
It was at last year’s pride parade that I first met legendary photographer Dan Nicoletta when he snapped my picture. I knew that he was the Super 8 filmmaker and photojournalist whose creativity was nurtured at gay political leader Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera store, as portrayed in the 2008 film Milk. After researching Dan’s body of work more carefully, I discovered that his images – which have captured the queer community both publicly and privately – shed a deeper light on our creativity, passions, and politics. His photos are the antidotes to the poisonous visual contrivances of our opponents that I’d been searching for.
A year later, Dan and I are meeting again, this time at Electric Works gallery in SOMA to discuss his current photography exhibit, More Glitter – Less Bitter. The show provides an overview of his work from the mid-1970s through today. I’m here to view his photos, and also to reaffirm my sense of pride by uncovering the images’ inspiring backstories at the exact locations where they were shot.
Dan waxes nostalgic about this golden age for gays in San Francisco. It was a time when Harvey Milk had just been elected city supervisor, one of the few “out” politicians in the country. Queers were winning civil rights and experiencing a pre-AIDS sexual revolution. As he reminisces, Dan’s youthful optimism is infectious. In many ways he’s still “Danny,” the wide-eyed teenager, excited to live in and shoot the big lavender mecca.
We walk by photos of Milk and images from the Milk movie set, shots of local Castro characters in festive poses, and the now iconic picture of the suit that the political leader was assassinated in. Considering the season, I’m most interested in pride photos.
Dan, who’s had a bird’s-eye view of the movement for decades, presents some eye-opening Gay Freedom Day photos as part of his exhibit. One particularly colorful shot, taken at a 1975 march, features Angel of Light member Lichen in theatrical makeup, a pink wig, and black head scarf. A black-and-white image of a makeshift hip holster with a toy gun peeking out, taken during the 1995 Pride Parade, catches my eye next.
To truly understand the moments that Dan so eloquently captures requires a trip to the Civic Center and the Castro. I want to take a deeper look at the places where his art took shape in order to uncover a truer, more accurate queer identity by way of our history.
We enter City Hall, where Dan recalls attending the Milk memorial in 1978. He has since returned for plenty of pride parties and LGBT weddings. After climbing up the grand marble staircase, we reach the Ceremonial Rotunda, home to the Harvey Milk bust, which the photographer helped implement in 2008 as part of a grassroots, four-year project to recognize the slain leader.
As I stare at the stately bronze sculpture of Milk – a bust complete with wind-blown tie, a design inspired by one of Dan’s photos – I’m hit with the importance of having a gay public figure recognized in such grand fashion. Its placement in a political arena, where both straight and gay couples have married, serves as a constant reminder that we do not yet have the legal right to tie the knot. I am also reminded of the wedding photo Dan took of a gay couple by this very bust. When we were discussing the image back at the gallery, he offered prophetic words about the importance of legalizing same-sex unions, calling the issue a “watershed for whether or not we’re equal in society.”
Walking up toward 19 th Street, we stop at Thai House Express – formerly Castro Cabana, where Dan worked as a busboy back in the ’70s. It’s here that he fought injustice for the first time. He joined his co-workers in taking the bankrupt restaurant to court for not paying its employees, and won.
As we continue along the block, Dan points out other personal landmarks. There’s the apartment above Buffalo Whole Food and Grain Company on 19 th Street where he remembers attending exciting queer performance shows, and another one, further up on Castro Street that served as a gay commune. Finally, we reach the photographer’s first San Francisco home at 639 Castro Street. When he moved into the two-bedroom apartment in 1975, rent was $165 a month, which he split three ways and could still barely afford.
Gazing at his old building, Dan says he’s reminded of his earlier incarnation as a teenager with internalized homophobia. “Before I moved here, I had a lot of shame about being gay,” he says. “I was told that it was something to be ashamed of.” But he quickly adds that living in San Francisco, at the center of gaydom, really helped to reshape his self-image. “It was hugely transformative to not hate yourself for being gay,” he tells me.
“What happens externally doesn’t matter as long as it directs people toward personal acceptance,” he continues, as happy hour barflies begin to pile into bars and clubs around us. “There’s a rite of passage through partying. But I’d like to see more street activism arise out of it.”
Listening to Dan speak, I’m captivated by his fiery eloquence. I don’t want him to stop talking, but our time together is almost up. I can’t let him go, though, before addressing an issue that’s weighing heavily upon me. Partying on pride is fine, but I want to know if the racy and raucous photos taken of the debauchery are helpful or hurtful to our cause.
“Some thought that we should tone down our images, but what about people who can’t tone it down?” he answers. “Whatever we do will be appropriated and propagandized negatively, so why modify yourself to placate a political context? Just be yourself.”
We say goodbye, and as I head up toward Market Street and see the Twin Peaks Tavern sign off in the distance, I’m reminded of Dan’s 2006 helicopter shot of the pink triangle atop Twin Peaks. The symbol honors gay Holocaust victims, many of whom died voiceless. But as I get closer to the bar, with large glass windows that permit outsiders to peer in and older men inside to look out, I think about all the “out” gays over the last four decades, whose struggles and celebrations have been given expression through Dan’s photos. I take immense pride in knowing that he continues to document my journey.
Develop your pride by checking out More Glitter – Less Bitter: Photographs by Daniel Nicoletta, 1975–Present at Electric Works San Francisco (130 8 th St.), through July 10. You can also view some of Dan’s photos as part of SF Pride’s current advertising campaign, which honors its 40 th anniversary with historical Pride shots in magazine and bus advertisements around town. To see more of Dan’s images online, visit dannynicoletta.com .
You can also visit the Harvey Milk Memorial at City Hall (1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlet Pl.), and see the Milk memorabilia in the windows of the former Castro Camera space (573-575 Castro St.) before settling onto a bar stool at Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.)
The photo of Juanita MORE!, second in sequence, was styled by Todd Hartnett, hair by Brent Haas, couture by Mr. David.