34 years ago Harvey Milk ushered in great political change by becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US, and did so with a definitively gay agenda. Thanks to Gus Van Sant’s recent movie MILK, it’s a story that’s finally being told to a much wider audience. To honor both the man, the film, and the upcoming book “Milk: A Harvey Milk Pictorial Biography”, we asked photographer Dan Nicoletta, a friend and photographer of Harvey Milk and the Castro of the 70s, and of today, to dig into his personal archives and share some less-publicized images and stories with us. -Editor

Now, 34 years later after my rite of passage into the Queendom of Queerdom, I wonder what stands the test of time, which ideas remain essential and which cease to have gravity? Through Gus Van Sant’s film MILK, my work has made it’s way onto people’s radar and the results run the gamut. The most telling moment was when a 20-year-old boy living in Orlando called to thank me for helping to make the world a better place – he had just snuck out of the house to go see MILK. I veered the conversation to the notion that he too could make a difference, and then he shyly vanished. Harvey’s mythical boy from Altoona still exists. The Orlando boy reflects a broader reality, and that the film does reach and inspire is the one of the great successes of the project. It carries forward an essential theme of Harvey’s – the right to love who you choose, visibly, without fear of harm.

Many of us were the embodiment of the boy from Altoona, Pennsylvania, spoken about in Harvey’s “Hope” speech. When I came to San Francisco in 1974 and landed on Castro Street, I barely had my toe in the waters of being out. Goofy and wet behind the ears would be an understatement. It helped that a stroll down Castro Street to buy a loaf of bread was a kissing and hugging fest – there was little room for uncertainty. Ebullience was in the air, and my last traces of self-doubt were replaced by more glittery ways thanks to the environment we were co-creating, and I documented my wonderment the whole time.

The era started as laconic times of pot luck dinners, the Stud Bar and Sylvester’s music, but it rapidly transformed into a epic opera in 1977 after Anita Bryant and her legions decided that a life of same-sex pro-sexuality had to be stopped – and they would stop at nothing. But once provoked, neither would we. We had lived in the shadows of hate for too long. In retrospect I am grateful for having experienced self-loathing first-hand because the echo of that self-knowledge, though but a vague memory, informs my enormous respect for the LGBT civil rights movement. I feel outreach remains an essential challenge of the movement. We have a tremendous responsibility to engender a sense of self-worth, vitality and safety in the cities and in the hinterlands – and we all get to invent what that looks like in 2009 and beyond.
(top of the page) Harvey’s ashes wrapped in Doonesbury – his favorite cartoon. The bear bubble bottle was a nod to Mr. Bill, a silly skit on Saturday Night Live, and the grape Kool-Aid was an irreverent nod to the People’s Temple mass suicide when more than 900 Bay Area Temple members died in a murder suicide ritual just two weeks prior. On December 2, 1978, 30 or so of Harvey’s pals sailed out to sea on a 50-foot vintage sailing vessel named the Lady Frei, and just past the Golden Gate Bridge we gave him a canon salute and scattered his ashes, along with the grape Kool-Aid and peach colored roses. The roses were in honor of his favorite opera, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

(above) Castro Street cruising, August, 1976. This was after the Castro Street Fair, though on many an average weekend day, certain portions of the street would be lined with guys cruising for camaraderie and sex. It was convenient living only a block away. Guys would file down the denim on their jeans so their crotch bulges would show off better. Thus the humble beginnings of the distressed denim look.03_12_nicoletta.jpg(above left) Gay Freedom Day, 1975. I think this is Johnny Bonk’s butt. Christopher, aka Amour Starr, is on the sidewalk below. Their galaxy was a Castro neighborhood household called The Bourgeois Palace. These were some of the most inventive drag queens with the biggest hair and headdresses, and they were defying the more classic notions of drag, to pass as women. Their predecessors The Cockettes had disbanded by this time, but they still peppered the scene and their influence was lasting. I built my career chasing certain of these queens around like a little puppy dog, always trying to get the definitive shots of these fabulous and known community personalities. How fleeting fame is and yet how enduring the rite of passage remains. The players change but the ritual of discovery and exhibition is still essential.

(above right) Castro Street Fair, August, 1975. Artist Violet Ray’s moving art piece. Violet plunked this sun-tan lotion billboard piece down all throughout the fair that day and people used it for photo ops. Exhibitionism was king.04_14_nicoletta.jpg
(above) Harvey Milk shares the daily comic strip with friend Denton Smith, Spring 1976. Denton and I have remained emotionally connected all of these years. There are some of us that had a special place in Harvey and Scott’s hearts, and the shared knowledge that we were close to the heart of things continues to gives us strength and comfort in ways that are unmatched.

(below top) Castro Street Fair, circa August 1976. Taken from Harvey and Scott’s apartment above the camera store at 573 and 575 Castro. Harvey and his lover Scott Smith helped start The Castro Street Fair in 1974, and by the 1980s the fair grew a few more blocks down Market Street and the side streets, attracting thousands of people to San Francisco for their vacations – and it still does. The various fairs have been dubbed “The High Holy Days”.

(below middle) Etta James at The Stud Bar, circa 1976. Note the boy in the foreground sucking down poppers – kids, don’t try that at home. Etta James and poppers what else is there to say? The Stud was and remains a favored grassroots boho watering hole. It’s where I instinctively went the night that Harvey was killed.
Me in the Fall of 1976. I was determined to make a mark in the world as an artist. Before I started working at Castro Camera I could barely afford a few rolls of Tri-X and beers at the Stud Bar, but the scarcity didn’t phase me, we all loved being in San Francisco and we never worried much about what our next adventure would be. Of course getting asked by Harvey and Scott to work at Castro Camera was one of the great chances of my lifetime. Castro Camera was an amazing experiment. The gay film festival essentially started out of there, I met a lot of the freelance photographers in town there, and my political activism began there. Harvey registered me to vote – I said sure, not because of any sense of activism, but because my friend had asked me to do it. I in turn registered hundreds more.10_15_nicoletta.jpg
11_17_nicoletta.jpg(above top) November 8, 1977. Harvey Milk running towards supporters that were gathered in front of Castro Camera on the night of his victorious election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as one of the first openly gay candidates in the world. For years I was annoyed that someone stepped in front of me just as Harvey jumped off of his motorcycle an ran towards the crowd, but now I love that this is out of focus… this was quite possibly the best night of my life…

(above bottom) November 8, 1977. Harvey Milk addressing the crowd outside his Castro Street Camera Store on the night of his victory. This is the moment that follows Harvey jumping off the motorcycle. It was a night of revelry and joy. We had attained the seemingly unattainable.

(below left) December, 1977. Harvey Milk clowning around at Castro Camera. Someone gave him this battery operated hat with an emergency light in case he ever needed to get the attention of his fellow Board of Supervisors. He would turn the light on and feign beseeching Madame President’s, Diane Feinstein, attention. He was ever the class clown and humor kept us buoyant during the hard times. 12_19_10_nicoletta.jpg
(above right) April, 1978. Audience members at a free Angels of Light show, Sci-Clones. Left to right: Esmerelda’s daughter Lavender, John Apple, Beau and Miss Tiddy and others. The audience was as much a part of the show as what was happening on stage. There was a segment of the Angel’s following that partied hard. Acid and pot were augmented by angel dust, heroin, speed and MDA. Those party-boys fascinated me – they were stunning and always loaded. Sadly, many didn’t live long. The show was an amazing sci-fi epic drama featuring music by members of the celebrated band Tuxedomoon. Check out their book.

(below left) Puss print pajama party, May 1978. I left early but I hear that several quaaludes later it got pretty touchy-feely for those that stayed for the sleepover. There were a lot of my friends from the Angels of Light Theatre milieu there, and early rumblings of the Radical Faeries too. Teddi Matthew is in the left foreground – he was a lovely and brilliant activist and can be heard in the groundbreaking documentary film Word Is Out.

(below right) Divine terrorizing the Trockadero Dance Club, October 29, 1978. He had just thrown an entire cake into the audience, nailing many, and was on his way to the other side of the stage to tear down the Trock’s other white and silver faux palm trees. I guess he didn’t like the decor. This was just after his starring role in John Water’s, Female Trouble.
(above) The legendary North Beach Black Cat Bar performer Jose Sarria, Supervisor Harvey Milk and beloved drag Diva Mavis at the Emperor and Empress Coronation Drag Ball, October 28, 1978. They are presenting a check from an anonymous donor to purchase uniforms for the first ever Gay and Lesbian Freedom Marching Band. After Harvey was elected, there was roaring applause for him at these drag balls. He had always respected the old school drag scene, and they were a significant dimension of his constituency. His election was a reflection of their growing power in local politics, so they loved it when he showed up to pay his respects.

15_06_nicoletta.jpg(above left) May 21, 1979. A demonstration protesting the manslaughter sentencing of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s killer, Dan White. Seven years for the murder of two city officials. Known as the “White Night Riots”, this is on the Steps of City Hall just before the demo erupted into rioting. That night was the closest thing to martial law that I have ever experienced. I walked home that night through back streets, afraid of being victimized by roving police officers

(above right) White Night Riots, May 21, 1979. A row of 11 or so parked police cars burned that night – they were an easy target once the rioting started. People milled around mesmerized until the civic center area was cleared by formations of riot cops grunting unearthly, unforgettable sounds, in unison.16_08_nicoletta.jpg
(above) San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, June 1980, from then Mayor Feinstein’s balcony. (1982 brought the addition of “Lesbian” to the name of the event, and 1997 saw the addition of “Bisexuals” and “Transgender”.) This was the year a carnival mid-way was booked for the festival. That thrilled the carny in me, but many felt this was the beginning of the Disney-fication of the movement, which by and large did not keep them off the merry-go-round.

(below left) Dan Nicoletta today.

(below right) The Harvey Milk City Hall Memorial Sculpture by Daub Firmin and Hendrickson Sculpture Group. Unveiled in City Hall, to much fanfare, on May 22, 2008, Harvey’s 78th birthday. Curation and fundraising for the project took over four years, partly due to the pre-MILK film cultural disconnect that existed about Harvey’s legacy – even in San Francisco. I was part of a consortium of devoted people who would not rest until this memorial was completed. It is the shining beacon of hope that we imagined it would be, in the breathtaking building that directly inspired Harvey’s own sense of hope. To know and taste this first hand requires your own pilgrimage to the ceremonial rotunda where the sculpture is permanently housed. And don’t forget to walk up the grand staircase to get to the sculpture… Harvey would insist.
All images © Dan Nicoletta

Also check out “Milk: A Harvey Milk Pictorial Biography”, foreword by Armistead Maupin, introduction by Lance Black, the screenwriter of the film “MILK”, and a “making of the movie” section produced in conjunction with Focus Films. It features many photographs by Dan Nicoletta and other notable photographers of the era, and also includes historic photos from The Milk-Smith Collection at the Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Published by Newmarket Press. First printing of 5,000 copies in the US only.



  1. box of birds wrote:

    wonderful photos of exciting times and sad times. thanks for posting.

  2. Anton wrote:

    Thanks EVB, I love the images and words. It serves as a reminder that although we have come a long way there is still much work to do. I salute all those guys and girls who had the courage and love to get us to where we are…big love

  3. paul wrote:

    WOW…thanks for this.
    Recently discovered your site, have seen familiar faces in pics…fuckin love it.

  4. pickles wrote:

    Beautiful. Thought provoking. I live in SF, still see sexy Danny around. Still shooting sweet photos of trannies singing, getting the feeling of San Francisco down to the precise surprise of the reality. He is one of America’s treasures. Thank you.

  5. playing catch up {from alexander} « www.andwelove.com by: suzanne & alexander wrote:

    […] with much interest in this story and this film, do take a look at this amazing collection of photos and stories by photographer and friend of Harvey, Dan Nicoletta.  Stunning.  Amazing […]

  6. todd wrote:

    brilliant!! (like so much on your site)

  7. Patrick Santana wrote:

    Dan, your words and photos are a moving testimony to the times, the love, the loss, and the meaning of it all. Those of us who are too young to have seen those days in San Francisco are indebted to you for sharing this part of history. Our history. I hope you find the time and energy to bring more of your past to light in this way. *gush*

  8. dr dick wrote:

    Gosh, what a great flashback. Thank you so much for the great photos. I came of age then, in San Francisco, and I’m still here to here to recall that time. I was particularly struck by the photo of Harvey and Denton. I knew Harvey some, but I knew Denton very well. He and another dear friend, Ron Keller were lovers till Ron’s death in the mid-80’s. Say, do you happen to know what became of Denton?

    Thank you again for your amazing posting.

    – richard

  9. Dmitry wrote:

    Superb photos of times of change. As a fairly new gay immigrant into the country, and after just having watched Milk, the feature film, I’d like to see more photographs of the era.

    Can anybody suggest any books or online resources? This is the only page I managed to find some photographs on, and great photographs they are indeed. Thank you Dan!

  10. David wrote:

    Thank you for posting this. I am excited to see the film, and it’s invigorating to hear a first hand account of this moment. The passion of one can inspire a revolution….

  11. Dan Nicoletta wrote:

    Hi Everyone, thanks for the love…I just saw a copy of the Milk A Pictoral History book and it is beautiful… so for those that asked…

    i hear it is already in Different Light SF, so it must be hitting the book stores right about now… only 20.00 bucks for softbound…
    Dan Nicoletta

  12. Dan Nicoletta wrote:

    For Dr. Dick… Denton is doing great… still lives on 14th street… there is a neat pic of him with the actor playing him in the movie in the new book… and its great to think about Ron Keller too… what a sweetheart…

  13. dr dick wrote:

    Dan: would it be possible for you to tell Denton that Richard Wagner says hey? feel free to send him my email address. thank you so much for responding to this. – richard

  14. scooter laforge wrote:

    Danny…. I am just now seeing this and some of the photos are my first time seeing them…. you know I used to work across the street from the camera shop at mainline gifts when I was a wee lil lad :)

    you words and images are so moving… I stare at the photographys I have of yours on a daily basis which means I think about you everyday!!! I am so glad I know you…

    big kiss and hug from NYC



  15. Rene Schaller wrote:

    thanks for sharing the memories with me. saw the film yesterday and being deeply impressed by the story and the characters behind it.

    best from berlin, rené

  16. Allen Young wrote:

    Many of us who were active in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in New York and elsewhere are currently planning to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall Riots, or Stonewall Rebellion (choose the title you prefer), and the 40th anniversary of GLF. Your San Francisco memories are truly in sync with what we are doing. Congratulations and thank you.

  17. jerry pritikin wrote:

    Danny Nicoletta is a good guy… we both photographed that era in the early S.F.gay rights movement. I was in my 40’s and Danny a teenager…
    and we were both at the right time and place, with our cameras. Our paths crossed at historic events and times… for those who would like to get more images of Nicoletta’s and hopefully mine,too. I urge you to visit
    http://www.thecastro.net/ and visit my blog for some of the stories behind photographic footnotes in gay history

  18. Richard La Rosa wrote:

    Re: Gay Freedom Day, 1975. I think this is Johnny Bonk’s butt. Christopher, aka Amour Starr, is on the sidewalk below. Their galaxy was a Castro neighborhood household called The Bourgeois Palace…

    You don’t KNOW how grateful I am to you, Dan, for writing that. For a brief time, I lived in The Bourgeois Palace, and the experience has stayed with me for 33 years.

    In the Spring of 1976, I was an eleven-year-old runaway – ardently heterosexual, by the way – and I was taken in and protected by the folks at The Bourgeois Palace and treated like a son. I had hitch-hiked from Tuscon, Arizona to the outskirts of Ukiah, California, where I had heard (from a panhandler in front of The Food Conspiracy in Tuscon) that there was a commune with cabins and horses and good people. I was running away from a hippie father that had lost his wits from Peyote, so I didn’t have much to lose.

    Anyway, when I got to the land I found it deserted. Long story short: A group from SF came out to stay there for the weekend and brought me back with them to the Castro and The Bourgeois Palace. I left my tent and fishing pole behind, with a note (for my father, in case he went looking for me) saying. “I haven’t been eaten by a bear. Gone to San Francisco.”

    All these years, I’ve wondered what became of my “foster parents” at The Bourgeois Palace. I want to see them, to hug them, to thank them, for taking a wild hippie child into their home.

    Can you help me?

  19. Richard La Rosa wrote:

    Help me get in contact with them, I mean.

    After I got over the first flush of my excitement about The Bourgeois Palace connection, I finished reading your brief history in words and pictures. Really excellent images and text. Thanks again…

  20. Dan Nicoletta wrote:

    hi Richard, write me at dannnic@aol.com, once you let me know who you met I can let you know who is still alive and how you may fine them, great to read your post, i loved those guys too – dan nicoletta

  21. Dan Nicoletta wrote:

    Richard, having trouble finding a phone number for you… shoot me one or shoot it again – dannnic@aol.com

  22. Richard La Rosa wrote:

    Great talking to you today, Danny. One thing I forgot to tell you over the phone: All this stuff from my childhood came back to mind after I finally got around to watching Milk. It was such a moving film, and such a loving tribute. The re-creation of that whole scene in the Castro area really took me back.

  23. Gabe wrote:

    Hey, this is really a great piece. I only got to know the Castro in 2008 (turning 21, luckily), and still now it’s a real beacon of hope (and good times). Thanks for the pictures!


  24. Clément Grelot wrote:

    Mon époque, ma liberté actuelle…je vous la doit. Tout n’est pas encore gagné. Mais grâce à votre équipe, je peux vivre librement. Prendre la main de mon ami dans la rue est devenu presque anodin…mais trop de personnes oublient que des hommes et des femmes se sont acharnés pour que cela devienne possible. Merci.

  25. AnatteMep wrote:

    Just now examined the topic! great work.

  26. TheSession*ClubMixTv wrote:

    I Love iT! Great Movie! Amazing Pictures!
    Greetings From Rio de Janeiro.

  27. Harcopwar wrote:

    hello all, mi haha

  28. Tony Teano wrote:

    I love these! Thanks for sharing!

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