LGBT: San Francisco- the culture of the Castro, in images

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Photographer Daniel Nicoletta documented Harvey Milks rise to office 40 years ago. In the consequences of the his assassination, he continued to capture the queer community as it survived and thrived

Daniel Nicoletta was 19 when he pitched up in San Francisco, young, gay and racked with self-loathing. It was 1974, the Castro was in the process of becoming the LGBT mecca it is today, and the apartment Nicoletta rented was one block up from Castro Camera, the shop and campaign headquarters of Harvey Milk, who would go on to become one of the first openly lesbian people in the US to be elected to public office. Nicoletta took his movie there to be developed and objective up discovering his tribe, his political consciousness and his vocation.


Harmodius and Hoti, Castro street fair, August 1975. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta

They were super gregarious, recalls Nicoletta of Milk and his partner, Scott Smith. I was enchanted with how friendly they were. So enchanted, in fact, that he didnt realise he was being cruised. I was new to all that, Nicoletta chuckles. I had grown up in an environment that was not pro-gay. There was a lot of disarray around Catholicism. I was pretty vulnerable. Suddenly I was in this kissing and hugging fest, surrounded by people who were in the process of creating a better world for LGBT people. I quickly discarded the self-loathing.


December Wright( middle) and friends, Castro street fair, 1976. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta

A year later, Nicoletta was working in the shop and sharpening his craft as a photographer. He documented Milks struggle to be elected to public office, taking many of the famous shoots of “the mens” he describes as his mentor and gay mother. The most recognisable photo of Milk outside Castro Camera, all trademark saucy grin and flapping tie is one of his. Nicoletta was there in the grief- and rage-stricken aftermath of Milks assassination by fellow city supervisor Dan White a year later. Ever since, he has continued to point his lens at his community.


Ananda Johnopolous and Tahara( Angels of Light ), Castro street fair, 1977. Photograph: Daniel Nicoletta

More than 40 year later, the first collect of Nicolettas photographs is ultimately being published. LGBT: San Francisco is a joyous, poignant and occasionally sombre record of the citys lesbian, lesbian, bisexual and trans people, taken from an extraordinary archive. It is at once a festivity, training exercises in visibility and a timely reminder of how lately the battles for lesbian rights were won and how fragile those rights remain. It is another call to action. The message of the book is that people should not give up hope, Nicoletta says. And the way to manifest hope is to take action.


Castro street fair, circa 1976. Photograph: Daniel Nicoletta

There doesnt seem to be an event, cultural flashpoint, protest, riot or handlebar moustache that Nicolettas lens hasnt captured over four decades in the Castro. Like all great reportage, his run tells the story of an entire motion. There are photos of Milk campaigning, alongside stills from Gus Van Sants biopic, Milk, on which Nicoletta ran as define photographer, consultant and actor. Images from countless Castro street fairs and Pride marches, of drag queens and kings, cruising and Armistead book launches, revolutionary faeries and queercore artists, White Night riots and Aids vigils, anti-censorship demos and equal-marriage protests. Sylvester, Divine, Grace Jones and Allen Ginsberg are all here, but so too are hundreds of unknown and otherwise unsung LGBT people.


Harvey Milk as Ringling Brother, Barnum and Bailey Clown for a day, May 21, 1978. Photograph: Daniel Nicoletta

Does Nicoletta have a favourite period or photo? I love the one of Harvey garmented as a clown by the sea, he tells referring to a monochrome shot taken in May 1978, only six months before Milk was murdered. We were at a mental health fundraiser, watched these hang gliders and decided to walk out there and cruise them. The scene just happened. Harvey was being the ham that he always was and I got the lucky shot. Its my gift from Harvey.


Club Chaos and Klubstitute float in the San Francisco Pride parade, 25 June, 1989. Photograph: Daniel Nicoletta

How drastically has the Castro changed since he started photographing it? Its more difficult for radicalism to survive in San Francisco now, Nicoletta tells. But it is there. You cant survive on a dime like we did in the 70 s, but the creation of a ghetto for LGBT people is a core thing. It will always be a place of pilgrimage. For a young lesbian kid get off the bus from Newark, it could still be magnificent. And young people are galvanising in San Francisco again. The city is relentless. Its not going to take[ persons under the age of Trump] lying down.


Castro Street Fair, 1977. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta

Nicoletta has changed, too. He is no longer on the frontline of documenting LGBT life. I simply shot the Mermaid Parade in New York and it killed me, he says. My back is on fire today. Three years ago, he left San Francisco for rural Oregon and what he describes as a monastic life with his longterm partner. So exactly what he he photographing now? Well, it turns out you cant hide from your history, he laughs. The rural fag community has found me. I shot a faggot forestry camp lately and it was one of the best days of my life.

LGBT: San Francisco is published by Reel Art Press( 40 ). To buy a copy for 34 inc free UK p& p, call 0330 333 6846 or visit

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