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DAN NICOLETTA
PHOTOGRAPHER

I must have started communicating with photographer Dan Nicoletta when I was 19 or 20 years old. I first learned about him from Rumi Missabu, the ex-Cockette whom we have profiled extensively. My initial trove of interviews was San Francisco heavy. Dan has really been invested in The LGBTQ History Project and has given me much support over the past ten years. While my juvenile sloppiness raised his eyebrows, his feedback and dedication to LGBTQ history has shaped my work and inspired my personal growth. I am grateful for his presence in my life and his contributions to my development. One time I put out a newsletter that he thought was in poorer taste, and he sent me a message like, “We can and should talk about this on the phone, but it will have to be quick.” 

Dan is primarily remembered for his relationship with and photos of Harvey Milk, whom he met three years before Milk’s assassination. When I interviewed Dan for the second time, I asked him if it was a burden to be one of the stewards of Milk’s legacy. I think it’s an interesting question. Knowing someone for just three years and then preserving their legacy for the rest of your life. Dan’s photos of Harvey Milk grace San Francisco International Airport’s Harvey Milk Terminal. One of his photos of Milk was also used for the Harvey Milk Forever Stamp, and the list of Milk related projects is epic in scale and reach. However, I am more interested in his relationship with the Angels of Light, the free theater performance troupe that sprung out of the gender-bending hippie Cockettes. I recently talked about Dan and said, “He is the greatest, but he always uses words I don’t understand.”

—August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project

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Dan Nicoletta by Amron, November 19, 2006.

Dan Nicoletta is a photographer who has been documenting LGBTQ culture since the mid-1970s. At the age of 19, he crossed paths with Harvey Milk at Castro Camera in San Francisco. This encounter led to a close working relationship, with Dan capturing numerous memorable photographs of Milk and collaborating on his campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Upon his election to the Board of Supervisors, Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California.

In addition to his association with Harvey Milk, Dan co-founded the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (now the Frameline Film Festival) in 1977. The festival provided a platform for emerging LGBTQ filmmakers, nurturing artistic expression and celebrating diverse identities.

Dan's photography serves as a heartfelt tribute to the LGBTQ community and their allies, as well as a visual record of San Francisco's history. His work captures the spirit of activism, resilience, and joy within the LGBTQ movement, showcasing demonstrations, rallies, and intimate moments of connection. By documenting these moments, Dan Nicoletta immortalizes the struggles and triumphs of LGBTQ individuals, honoring their legacy and inspiring future generations to continue the fight for equality and acceptance.

“I have a strong theatrical background because my mom used to put me in talent shows and make costumes for us. We did one or two theatrical events in my parents' cellar that could be described as dressing up but in the tradition of putting on a play.

One of the plays was actually a protest directed at my parents and their peers. I had a placard listing my demands. I wanted to go to the public high school because there was much more creativity afoot there than at the all-boys jock Catholic School. My mom was staunch about having me go to a Catholic high school.

My friends and I rallied, and we did this little protest. We all got dressed up in costumes, and I just so happened to put one of my sister's tutus with a mod-type of adornment. I was a closet case, so I didn't really think of it as doing drag per se. I was combining the best of both worlds: my mother's show business background and my father's union background, and there I was with my little placard.

I wanted to get as far away from Utica, New York, as possible. Utica is a pretty backward town. It's a big city, but it's very town-like. At this point, I'm starting to wrap myself around my queer identity, even though I was not out yet. I had had a couple of sexual experiences and a couple of quasi-boyfriends.

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Dan Nicoletta (center) forms a festive picket line at his parent’s cocktail party. Pictured with Dan are neighbor kids (Kathy & Billy Creedon) and Dan’s siblings (Mickey, Lorraine and John Nicoletta), circa 1969.

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Pristine Condition in the play The Passion of Barbara Martinez  by Daniel Nicoletta, 1975.

I knew I had to go West and was not accepted at Cal Arts, where I wanted to go. Kansas City Art Institute was as far West as I was accepted. When the time came to transfer from Kansas City Art Institute, as a freshman, to a second college, I flipped a coin and ended up at Cal Arts in Oakland. I immediately fell in love with San Francisco. I had a strong feeling that I would spend my life there.

It only took two months to adapt to the gay scene after I moved to the Bay Area. There were art projects, and I wanted to be involved with the Angels of Light theater group. My boyfriend Steven, who later joined the band Tuxedomoon, was my introduction to the Angels of Light. The two tributaries of my personal life thesis are the Angels of Light and Harvey Milk.

The Angels became family to me. They often dressed in styles of the 1920s and lived a life that the Cockettes had fostered. I was a fledgling photographer and wasn’t a very good technician, but I would chase around these people like Cockette Pristine Condition. I was like a little puppy dog, trying to get the definitive shot of her. They would produce at least one show a year, and I was enthralled on a personal level. I was in the trenches. I was there photographing and showing my work in slideshow form to the group after their productions were over. 

The Angels fabulous and fun to photograph. They were wild—we loved going to the shows. From 1975 to 1982, I shot them. They figured heavily into the evolving aesthetic of the times. It was radical politics. It was multiculturalism. It was gender fluidity—a strong sense of feminism and allyship with the feminist movement and our lesbian sisters. 

 

Then, in 1982, I bolted from the Angels. They did one or two shows after that, and then they folded. It was soon the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Many of the players were getting sick and passing on. We started doing benefits for them. We were back doing shows, but they were benefits for our sick friends. It just became deeply poignant to stay focused on that family from them on.”

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