DAN NICOLETTA
PHOTOGRAPHER

Dan Nicoletta is a photographer who has documented LGBTQ culture since the mid-1970s. In 1974, when he was 19 years old, he met Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, at his camera store, Castro Camera, in San Francisco. The following year, Harvey hired him as an employee. Dan also worked with Milk on his campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and took many now well-known photographs of him.


In 1977, Dan, David Waggoner, and Mark Huestis founded the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (now the Frameline Film Festival). They and others began screening their 8mm films in the back of Castro Camera. Dan later reflected that his work “maps my romance with San Francisco history and its people, especially lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender people, and our allies, and is built upon the shoulders of our elders and ancestors.”

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Dan Nicoletta by Amron, November 19, 2006.

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Harvey Milk in front of Castro Camera by Dan Nicoletta, 1977.

“I didn’t have San Francisco as a specific target. When the time came to transfer from Kansas City Art Institute, where I was a freshman, to a second college on the West Coast, I flipped a coin and ended up at the San Francisco Art Institute. I immediately fell in love with the city. I had a strong feeling that I would spend my life there.

I made haste to do the hard work and find out who these underground people in San Francisco were and what they were up to. I read that Pristine Condition from the Cocketes was doing things around town at the Stud bar. I was a fledgling photographer and not a very good technician, but I would chase these people around like a puppy dog, trying to get their definitive shot. At the same time, I got to know the Angels of Light troupe at their commune on Castro Street. 

Later, I started working at Harvey Mik’s Castro Camera as a clerk. I had a 40-hour workweek. I fundamentally was required to wait on customers, answer the phones, take messages and refer the phone calls back to Harvey or Scott Smith, his partner and campaign manager, if he was around. I would help curate the window displays and stuff like that. Harvey’s supervisorial bid campaign had already started during this time, so it was super busy.

During the White Night Riots that followed his death, there was an uptick in police arrogance. I experienced that the police were more willing to push people around after Dan White, who assassinated Harvey Milk and Mayor Mascone, had had his moment. On the night of the riots, of course, there were lots of, yes, brutality against gay people, but it was a riot setting, so it’s harder to call it anti-gay police brutality because the police were technically doing crowd control even though their nightsticks were out. I had to get out of there because it was a very dangerous situation. I didn’t want to get my head bashed in. What is significant about that night is when they were done and cleared Civic Center, they all got in their cars and went to the Castro neighborhood and bashed heads in. It was a different time in the sense that there wasn’t accountability like there is today. The officers turned their badges over so people couldn’t identify them by their numbers. It was before the idea that something like this might be videotaped. Of course, the White Night Riots are now a very famous moment—the police proactively went to gay bars to bash heads in retaliation for what happened at City Hall in retaliation to Harvey Milks's assassination.”