American Ecstasy

Passion vs. practicality in NY photographer, Barbara Nitke's X-rated porn memoir

American Ecstasy
"PT & Blair" Barbara Nitke

Working as a stills photographer on New York porn sets for 12 years during the '80s has left Barbara Nitke with a lot of stories. On the hunt for a publisher to release her X-rated stills since 1985, last year, she finally launched a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish her hardcore memoir that goes behind-the-scenes of porn. Now, with her target goal raised, American Ecstasy is available to buy. Featuring notable porn legends like Ron Jeremy as you've never seen them before, Nitke's work fuses the fantasies and realities of porn – capturing passion versus practicality with shots of directors instructing performers in between takes and bored co-stars on nap breaks mid-orgy.

With exclusive images from the book below, read Dazed's talk with Nitke about why the performers were more than sex machines and how stigmas feed her dark side.

Dazed Digital: How young were you when you were first introduced to porn?

Barbara Nitke: I was 19 when I saw my first porn film, in a movie theater in Times Square. It was a turn-on. Within the next couple of years, my husband-to-be went into the business of exhibiting porn films in his theaters. I got the job of screening them all and they quickly became a huge bore. Then when I was 31, working on my first set, I discovered a whole behind-the-scenes world that was much more interesting than the movies themselves.

DD: Why the title American Ecstasy?

Barbara Nitke: The title is an homage to a subscription satellite television channel called American Exxxstasy. A small time conservative politician in Alabama, who needed an issue for his run for office, put them out of business in the late 1980’s. He got a lot of press for “running the pornographers out of Alabama”. A lot of my friends lost their jobs when that happened, and the title is kind of a remembrance of them and other people who have suffered from our insane obscenity laws.

DD: Having had an inside view how would you say the porn industry differs in real life from how it is portrayed?

Barbara Nitke: The industry likes to portray their shoots as endless orgies where everybody involved is a sex addict, in the best possible way. I have nothing against that marketing, but the truth is that it was just a job for everyone concerned. The days were at least 12 hours long, and more if an actor couldn’t produce the money shot. We usually shot in the heat of the summer, with big hot movie lights all over the place and no air conditioning because the audio track would pick up the sound.  Some people were into the sex, but usually everybody just wanted to know what was for lunch. We were like a big dysfunctional family, and I loved being a part of it. I always say that I learned everything about photography there, and that my inspiration was to capture the beauty and humanity of all the people I met. I thought it was wrong that they were depicted as sex machines, when they were so much more complex.

DD: Why do you describe the period you photographed as the Golden Age of Porn?

The Golden Age of Porn was from the '70s into the mid '80s. During that time there was a general feeling in the industry that porn was eventually going to merge into the mainstream and that was exciting for all of us. A lot of care went into writing plot-based scripts, creating beautiful lighting and all of the elements of Hollywood. We often felt we were on the set of a low budget independent feature rather than a porn film.

American Ecstasy
"Brooke Fields" Barbara Nitke

DD: You mention the surreal silliness that you often captured on set – can you elaborate on that? What was the most ridiculous moment you witnessed?

Barbara Nitke: We were all packed into a bedroom in somebody’s house, about to shoot a sex scene and the actor was having trouble maintaining his erection. The cameraman said something to him – “can you move a bit to your left?” – and the actor went ballistic on him. He was naked on the bed, enraged and lunging at the cameraman. The cameraman was about to slug him in the face when the lighting guy jumped on top of him to stop the fight.  We still had to shoot that scene, with the actor complaining the whole time that his concentration had been ruined. There were moments like that every day on every shoot. Viagra hadn’t even been conceived back then, and our days revolved around waiting on wood.

DD: Do you recall a time when you ever felt too uncomfortable to photograph on set?

Barbara Nitke: Not really, but there were some performers who I knew were ashamed of working in the business - they had bad drug habits and were there for all the wrong reasons. I sometimes felt uncomfortable in their presence because I felt bad for them, but I was never in a situation where I felt anyone was being coerced or exploited, that would have been a red line for me.

DD: Have you received any criticism for the photos?

Barbara Nitke: No I haven’t. I find that galleries want to make sure that children don’t wander in and see the images, but that’s not criticism, they're just being careful. Most people are curious when they see the work and have lots of questions about the porn world back then. I have many of the images hanging in my home and love living with them. I’m looking forward to the day when everyone will feel they need a humanistic porn shot above their fireplace. I‘m pretty open and love exploring all the gender-bending and other oddities of young people today, but can also fully relate to older characters. I adore noir situations that explore our dark sides, so I think if there is a stigma it’s working in my favor!

DD: Why do you think you learnt so much about photography on those sets?  What was it about that environment and the subject theme that made you learn so much?

Barbara Nitke: I was very inspired to become the best photographer I could because I felt that I had discovered my subject behind-the-scenes in the porn world. I wanted to do it justice, so I spent a lot of time with the lighting guys and cameramen asking them questions. They were all fresh out of film school and brimming with knowledge about film, lighting, exposure, depth of field, lenses, filters – all the technical things that I wanted to learn. I got the benefit of all of their expensive educations and have been forever grateful for that.

American Ecstasy is available to buy online now

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