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The Milk Issue: Now and then in the photography of Daniel Nicoletta
Dan Nicoletta at Harvey's shop
Photo by Harvey Milk

Harvey and Scott also had a second Nikon that was their primary camera, and I did use that one quite a bit. We both passed film through the same camera, which was kind of cool — kind of incestuous."

This radical sense of brotherhood informed both Nicoletta and Milk's photography. "Harvey took great joy in photographing people," Nicoletta observes, noting that a chance to take aerial photos of Christo's Running Fence was one of Milk's artistic and free-spirited moments as his political duties increased. "If you look at Harvey's body of work, one thing that comes through with political potency is that a presiding aesthetic in his life was male-to-male love. You can then zoom out even further and say that the stimulus for his political activism was the sanctification and preservation of male-to-male love."

It's characteristically modest of Nicoletta to turn an interview about his photography into a discussion of Milk's endeavors with a camera — everything he says about Milk's photos is true of his own work, which captures Milk and Smith's relationship, for instance, with great warmth. He gives vivid background to some of his best-known Milk photos, such as an image of the inaugural walk to City Hall in January 1978. "We were just arriving at the steps," he remembers. "What's great about that photo is that it's just one of so many details of the history of the queer community that have unfolded on those very steps. I think I could do a whole book on the steps of City Hall at this point."

The prospect of a Nicoletta monograph is something to savor, even if he jokes that his friends "all roll their eyes to the back of their head and say, 'There she goes again about her book'," whenever he mentions the prospect. As a documentarian of history, Nicoletta understands the necessity and gravity of a book of his work. He has other excellent ideas, such as an era-based collection that would bring in stylized images by Steven Arnold — like him, one of the chief people to visually capture queer artistic forces such as the Cockettes and Angels of Light. "I loved working with Reggie [of the Cockettes] because the first photo I ever saw of him was in Gilles Larrain's [1973] Idols," Nicoletta says. "That book just rocked my world. I thought, 'Who are these people, and where can I find them?' And I found them."

Nicoletta found those people — the evidence is in books such as Gay by the Bay and Adrian Brooks' new Flights of Angels (Arsenal Pulp Press, 224 pages, $24.95), and in the photo collection of the San Francisco Public Library. As a chronicler of gay life, he can be seen as a West Coast public counterpart to East Coast photographers such as Peter Hujar, Mark Morrisroe, and David Armstrong, and Nan Goldin. "In a sense I've sort of stayed provincial. That's a little bit self-preservationist," he says, after mentioning the direct influence of the Bay Area studio photographer Crawford Barton on his work. "It's so great to have a 30-year arc and be mindful of where you are and grateful for things like the mentorship of people like Harvey Milk and Scott Smith, and the inspiration of people like the Angels of Light. I'm for slow growth."

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