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Harvey Milk, a life (cut short) in pictures

June 5, 2009 |  4:22 pm

Harveymilk

Photographer Daniel Nicoletta remembers the first time he met Harvey Milk at the Castro Camera shop in 1974. The young Nicoletta was looking for a place to develop some Super 8 film that he had shot for a class when he happened to wander by Milk's modest camera store in San Francisco. 

"He was so friendly and very gentle. Unbeknownst to me, I was being cruised," recalled the photographer. "I was barely out at the time, so I was pretty naive."

So began a friendship that lasted four years to 1978, when Milk was gunned down at his San Francisco office. During that period, Nicoletta took numerous photographs of Milk, chronicling his transformation from a neighborhood business owner to a politician and outspoken advocate for gay rights.

A selection of Nicoletta's images of Milk is on view at Overtones Gallery in Venice in an exhibition titled "Harvey Milk and the San Francisco Scene," which runs through early July. The show also features photographs that Nicoletta took on the set of Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic "Milk," starring Sean Penn in the title role. (Nicoletta will appear at the Pacific Design Center for a panel discussion/slide show titled "The Legacy of Harvey Milk" from 1:15 to 5 p.m. Saturday; and he'll give a talk and sign his book "Milk: A Pictorial History of Harvey Milk" at Overtones from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday.)

"I was in my 20s when I knew Harvey, and I wasn't a very good photographer," said Nicoletta. "Fortunately, I made some good mistakes."

One of those fortuitous mistakes is a 1977 photograph (shown above) of Milk sharing the daily newspaper comics with his friend Denton Smith. Milk would clip the comic strips from the paper every day and show them to his friends, according to Nicoletta.

"It's an important photo for me because it shows intimacy between two men. That was a crucial issue for Harvey, and he fought to have public safety for male-to-male bonding," said the photographer.

Harveymilk2 Another of Nicoletta's favorite images in the exhibition is a 1978 photo of a drag queen and his friends seated at a table during a drag ball (shown right). "It's very Diane Arbus. I like it because it shows an old-school queer identity that seems to pre-date the sexual revolution," he explained.

In early 2008, Nicoletta was invited to be a special on-set photographer for the movie "Milk." (He had previously worked as a consultant on the movie's screenplay, which was written by Lance Dustin Black.) Nicoletta spent 10 weeks on the film set, photographing the actors, crew and the crowds of extras.

In the movie, Nicoletta is played by actor Lucas Grabeel (best known for his roles in the "High School Musical" franchise).

"I think he did a great job playing me," said Nicoletta. "I was quite a theatrical kid back then, and so the role wasn't easy. But Lucas really rose to the challenge."

-- David Ng

Overtones, 12703 Venice Blvd., L.A. Hours: noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and by appointment. (310) 915-0346.

Top photo: Harvey Milk (left) and Denton Smith at Castro Camera in 1977. Credit: Daniel Nicoletta. Bottom photo: Attendees at a drag ball in 1978. Credit: Daniel Nicoletta

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