The Milk Issue: Now and then in the photography of Daniel Nicoletta
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It was the summer of 1974, when shy, skinny, cute Daniel Nicoletta first stepped through the doors of Castro Camera into adulthood and history. His parents were snapshot enthusiasts. In his words, he had grown up "surrounded by Instamatic moments." But he was about to enter the time of his life. "I stopped in to determine where I would be developing my Super 8 film," he remembers. "I couldn't get over how friendly the two guys [Harvey Milk and Scott Smith] were. I was 19 years old I had no idea what cruising was at that point. Of course, within two months I was completely up to speed."
Nicoletta immediately captured the speed of life. His vérité photos of Milk, Smith, and San Francisco from the mid-1970s onward are often great and sometimes iconic. He soon sold his first photo out of Boys in the Sand (1971)and Bijou (1972), filmmaker Wakefield Poole's hair salon-toy store-art gallery Hot Flash. A regular "Mr. Multimedia," Nicoletta was as interested in half-inch Portapak video as he was in still photography. In 1977, using Castro Camera as one of his chief meeting spots, he worked with David Waggoner and Marc Huestis to found the Gay Film Festival of Super 8 Films, an event now popularly known as the Frameline festival.
Nicoletta's role in Milk's life and role in queer film history provide some of the subtler facets of Gus Van Sant's new film Milk. Those viewers familiar with Van Sant's earlier work know of his focus on the photographic process: for example, a significant sequence within his 2003 film Elephant is spent in the darkroom, observing the efforts of a young photographer who may as well be a 21st century version of the young Nicoletta. "Even though I don't say a lot, Lucas [Grabeel, who plays Nicoletta in the film] is a constant presence throughout Milk," Nicoletta notes, when asked about the interplay between his life and Van Sant's moviemaking. "Gus keeps me there in the film as a cultural observer. In life, Gus has an eye for the role of still photography in culture, and he used my entity as a way of cross-referencing that."
Some of Nicoletta's photos of Milk and Smith inform or inspire the look of particular scenes in Milk, such as a pie fight between Smith and Milk. "The art department was immersed in stills of all kinds," says Nicoletta, who switched to digital photography to document the making of the film. "I was impressed with all the things pinned up to their walls the checkerboard analysis was lovely to look at." Nicoletta also lent his copy of the August 1974 San Francisco issue of the barely-subtextual gay culture magazine After Dark a publication partly defined by the studio portraiture of East Coast gay photographers such as Ken Duncan and Jack Mitchell to Milk's costume designer, Danny Glicker. "He [Glicker] creamed himself over that," Nicoletta says with an affectionate laugh. "There's a postage stamp-sized photo of Victor Garber [who plays George Moscone in Milk] in it. I'd never noticed, but it took Danny Glicker a second to zero in on that. It was hilarious."
The Milk crew's devotion to verisimilitude extended to Nicoletta's camera and to one of Milk's two main cameras, one of the first Nikons ever made, which Nicoletta now owns. "They literally had me take jpgs of my camera and Harvey's camera so they could cast those instruments to the letter," he says. "Harvey's camera has his name engraved on the bottom. Scott's [Smith] mom gave it to me when Scott passed away. It's a real treasure. I never use it, but I saw him use it. 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  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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