The following interview conducted by Leslie Mann with photographer Barbara Nitke, author of the book American Ecstasy, originally ran in the October issue of AVN magazine. Click here to see an digital copy of the issue.
Many people think that porn is just a bunch of orifices being pleasured and penetrated, and to the uninformed it really does look like that. However, porn is a multifaceted industry. There are many technical and administrative aspects to adult entertainment that are usually overlooked. Sure, there’s the sex and people fucking. But there are very important people on a movie set who appear in the credits; without them, the movie would not be the product we enjoy using to pleasure ourselves. I’m referring to the set directors, lighting people, gaffers and the still photographers, among others.
The subject of this interview is probably the coolest lady I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to and getting to know. Her name is Barbara Nitke, and she began as a photographer in the porn industry more than 30 years ago. If anyone has seen the changes and evolution of porn, it is certainly Nitke. Her photography captures some of the most human and interesting moments I have yet to see on a porn set. Her subjects are names that most people in their late 20s and 30s have heard before: Peter North, Nina Hartley, a young Ron Jeremy, Vanessa Del Rio—the list goes on and on. These are the people who first introduced us to porn, and of course our first porn movies, especially those of us who used to borrow or steal them from our parents’ bedrooms and porn stashes.
Currently, Barbara Nitke works in the mainstream television world where she is a stills photographer on noted fashion reality show Project Runway, and she has worked on numerous other television sets, including Dr. Oz’s show. Now, you may be questioning why you should be interested in reading about Nitke. Simple, very simple. Barbara is releasing her second book, American Ecstasy, which chronicles her work during the golden age of porn. I’m a fan of looking back where we came from to see where we’re headed. There would be no Tera Patrick or Sasha Grey—or any of today’s host of porn stars—if it hadn’t been for the people who came before them (pun thoroughly intended).
So without further preface, here’s Barbara Nitke. To see a sampling of her photographs, go to AmericanEcstasyBook.com.
Leslie Mann: What was it like being a woman in the adult industry during what we consider porn’s Golden Age?
Barbara Nitke: I started working on porn sets in 1982, which was just at the end of the Golden Age of Porn. There was a lingering feeling of sexual liberation permeating the industry back then—which was really inspiring—but there were also a fair amount of sad stories and rampant drugs. Those were the two poles that we bounced between constantly. Were we making movies about empowered sex stars, or lost souls being used and tossed out in a couple of years? I’ve realized over the years that there is no answer to that question, and that was part of what made it all so compelling to me.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the porn stars or people you met in the industry back then?
I’ve kept in touch pretty well, and am happy to say that most of the people I knew have landed up very well. I often think that the bond we share is similar to the one you have with people you were close to in college. You’ve shared intimate details of your just-forming lives, and it connects you forever somehow.
What made you decide to leave?
I never really left the business. In the mid-1980s the producers and directors in New York gradually moved out to L.A. I could have moved also, and probably had a great porn career there, but I didn’t want to leave New York. I love this town. So I stayed here and struggled with working on mainstream films and television. Then in the early 1990s fetish porn started to become very popular around the country, and there were a couple of small companies here making that product. I went to work for them and resurrected my porn career that way for a few years.
You had a landmark case in court—can you tell us a bit about it? What prompted it and how did it end?
In late 2001, I sued our government over the issue of free speech on the internet. It’s a felony crime to post obscene material on the internet, but the definition of obscenity is based on what’s considered unacceptable in each geographic community. For example, I live in liberal New York City, where a lot of imagery is acceptable that would not be in a small community on the Bible belt. I felt the law was unfair and put many artists in a position of not being able to show their work, or having to risk jail time to do it. Bizarre as it might seem, we lost the case in 2006 at the Supreme Court level. I always felt that decision was politically motivated in keeping with the Bush administration.
What first intrigued you about the BDSM community?
I worked on about 200 fetish porn movies over the course of a few years, and after that I felt that nothing could surprise me. But when a friend brought me to my first meeting at the one of the big SM groups here in New York, I was honestly bowled over by the people I met. They were so fresh! They weren’t been-around-the-block porn actors getting ready to yawn through another bondage scene; they were real people who were in love with each other. They were exploring all kinds of new ways to express their love, and I was enchanted from the first day.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this, but what do you think about E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey? Have you read it? If so, what did you think? I just read an article by Pamela Stephenson Connolly in the Guardian where she says the book is actually demonizing the BDSM community. (Connolly did the first extensive psychological study of people in the BDSM community.)
I hate to have to admit that I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. I also haven’t read Story of O, which really amazes people! But here’s what my friend Susan Wright, national spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, had to say about Fifty Shades:
“The big con is that the top has a history of being abused as a child, and we don’t want people to think that people are kinky because of abuse. But if you read all three books, his psychiatrist makes the point that he does consensual BDSM—he’s not mentally ill nor is his abuse the reason he is kinky.
“Otherwise, it’s not a bad representation of two people figuring out how to play sex games together. They talk a lot about what they want, and that’s what’s good about the books. They really show that to have a great sex life, you have to talk to each other. The best thing about the impact of this trilogy is that this general acceptance means that we won’t face as much persecution in the future. It’s a very very very good thing for our community.”
I also read Pamela Stephenson Connelly’s piece with great interest. She made some great points—especially the cable ties—but I agree with Susan. It’s not perfect, but the book should be good for the SM community.
What, if any, were things that you wanted to get into the book but were unable to due to space constraints?
The book is exactly as I wanted it, believe it or not! Judith Regan at HarperCollins was originally going to publish it, and what’s so wonderful about her is that she was leaving all the hardcore shots in! She would have been the perfect editor, but sadly she was fired from Harper just as my book was being finalized.
I’m now publishing it myself through a very successful campaign on Kickstarter.com. I had always imagined a format that mixed my uncensored photographs with my short stories of life on the sets, and my book designer came up with a beautiful layout to incorporate that mix. The book is beautiful; it is edited down to my very best 68 pictures from that era, hardcore and all. I am so proud to have achieved the dream of seeing it in print after all these years.
You had mentioned that no publisher wanted to publish this due to the material. How did you get around that?
I always felt there was a market for this book, even if it won’t be in mainstream bookstores across the country. And that is what’s so wonderful about the Kickstarter phenomenon. You can take your dream right the public, and if they want to see it happen they will support it. I’ve been so gratified by all the people who contributed money toward making this book happen!
American Ecstasy is your magnum opus; does this mean that we won’t be treated to another collection of your work? I certainly hope not.
There’s more to come, of course! I have a large body of SM work and did publish a volume of that work called Kiss of Fire in 2003. I’d love to expand that, add more text, and come out with a new version of it.
Do you have any new projects in the works or planned for the future?
I have been playing around with a series of photographs called Smooth Hotel that is my next project. I write little scripts and have people act them out for me to photograph. It’s been a wonderful collaboration to date, and I’m hoping to get back to work on it very soon.
What if anything would you have liked to do had you not become a photographer?
I originally wanted to be a writer. I love and admire great writing, and always wanted to be able to make pithy observations about people and tell poignant stories. But I really don’t like the process of writing. Sitting alone in a room with a blank piece of paper—or blank computer screen—it’s just not fun for me at all. Once I picked up a camera that was it. I knew I was home.
I have a couple more questions unrelated to the book, because I’m always curious to hear the opinion of an artist, and most importantly a woman’s view on the porn industry. What was the first porno movie you saw?
The first porn movie I saw was called He and She. It was 1969, and my friend Sidney Levine was distributing it. It was playing in a big movie theater on Broadway, and Sidney gave me a pass to go and see it. I remember we talked about how they had gotten around possible obscenity charges by having a doctor in a white lab coat discussing in a clinical manner all the things that the naked couple on the screen were doing. The doctor was kind of campy actually. And I remember the whole movie was a huge turn on!
What’s your take on porn?
I think porn will become more and more mainstream. Well, it is mainstream—people just don’t want to admit that. But I also think that Hollywood movies will become more porn, if you will. I think they will continue to incorporate more and more sex into their movies. And I believe that someday the two will meet, which is as it should be. Sex is part of life, and why shouldn’t it be a subject for serious art? I think porn will eventually be absorbed into the culture.
Lastly, what do you think about the law forcing porn stars to wear condoms? Do you think it’s about time, or that it takes away from porn’s fantasy aspect?
Well, here’s what drives me nuts about that: The same people who are dead set against regulating business are fully in favor of regulating everybody’s bedroom in one form or another. But in fact, I think it’s just a way of trying to get the porn industry out of California. It’s a harassment law, and it’s ridiculous.
Three decades after Nitke got her start in the industry, the porn industry is in the headlines more often than not, whether it’s Jenna Jameson giving her vote to Romney, or Sara Jay and Angelina Castro blowing their Twitter fans because the Heat won the NBA Championship, or the countless stars and their “leaked” naked photos and sex tapes (c’mon, we all know that Kevin Blatt has a role to play somewhere in there). Porn is everywhere, yet prudes and Bible-toting Jesus freaks claim it’s the devil’s work, and attempt to ruin the lives and minds of those who enjoy it. But whatever one thinks of the current state of the industry, a sense of gratitude is due to those who came before and have now passed the torch to a new generation—and the hurdles they leaped so that sites like Pornhub and YouPorn could supply the masses with that which they crave … porn and more porn.
For those who want to further explore the Golden Age of Porn, Nitke’s website is AmericanEcstasyBook.com. To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.
Click here to read more about how Nitke funded the book through Kickstarter.