All photos by Barbara Nitke
To say that photographer Barbara Nitke shoots porn, although accurate, grossly underestimates what she does. In the early 80’s she began taking publicity stills on porn sets; however, what began as a lark grew into a serious passion. Over the years, Nitke has dedicated herself to using photography to humanize sex workers, fetish communities and porn stars. She spoke with Our Town about her new photo memoir, American Ecstasy.
Our Town How did you get into shooting on porn sets?
Barbara Nitke My ex-husband produced a famous porn movie in the 1970's called The Devil in Miss Jones. In 1982, when he produced the sequel, I asked him to let me have the stills job. I had just taken up photography as a hobby and thought it would be fun to work on the shoot. He talked the director, Henri Pachard, into taking me on. I became Henri's preferred still photographer from that shoot on.
OT What was it like for you to shoot on a set for the first time?
BN The first day we worked around sixteen hours, and it went by in a blur. Actors forgot their dialogue - one of them couldn't produce the money shot - it was boiling hot on the set - the crew people made jokes - everything that happened just piled onto the next thing. The shoot was ten days long (which would be unheard of in today's porn world) and I was sorry to see it end. I was scared, but also exhilarated, and I knew I had been given access to an underground world.
OT How did your experience change over the years?
BN As the years went by I became comfortable around all the sex, and I gradually got to know the "talent.” I would chat with the girls in the morning while they were getting their makeup on, and listen to the actors gripe about how much dialogue they had to learn. I'd give new girls advice about which producers to look out for, who was cool. I got to know them all as people, and not sex machines. I'm still friends with a lot of them.
OT You write that shooting on porn sets made you realize you wanted to be a photographer. Why?
BN I was hired to shoot enticing pictures that looked hot and publicized the porn movies, which was pretty straightforward and easy. I'm sure I would have gotten tired of shooting just those images in a couple of years. But what I realized was that there was so much happening on a very human level when the cameras weren't rolling. I'd look over and see a couple of girls huddled up together, gazing off with thousand yard combat soldier stares, and I could just quietly press the shutter and hold onto that look forever. I wanted to be a photographer in order to do justice to those moments.
OT In creating a photo memoir, how do you decide which photos to include?
BN I really just went through all the work I had collected over the years and pulled out only the shots that still said something to me. Then I went through and narrowed it down again. I didn't think at all about what other people would think of the images, just what they meant to me on a very personal level.
OT What sort of narrative were you trying to create with American Ecstasy?
BN I wanted to give the reader a sense of what it was like for me, at that time, in the moment, as a photographer on the sets. I felt that sharing my personal impressions and experiences would be a small way of helping to remove the stigma of sex work, and let people see the real work-a-day world of the business. I had started out kind of scared that I might be corrupted by being around the porn stars, and in the end I was enriched. I hope that readers will see the complexity of the porn world and the humanity of the people who work there.
OT You write that you admired some of the porn actresses you shot and felt guilty shooting others. What do you think enables some women to thrive in porn while others are humiliated by it?
BN I admired the porn stars who were proud of their sexuality, loved being female, and enjoyed male attention. I have personally never had that kind of sexual confidence, but I think it's fabulous that some women do. And I think that's what makes them thrive in the porn business. They aren't ashamed of being sexual, and they are not ashamed of their bodies.
OT In retrospect are there any scenes or actresses you regret shooting?
BN That's a good question, and I've been thinking about it a lot. I don't think so. I know I said I felt guilty for helping provide a stage for the types of girls who were degrading themselves by working in porn. But those scenes and those actresses also taught me a lot about how complicated we all are sexually. And also how insidious and debilitating sexual shame is. I feel that every experience I had, everything I witnessed and photographed, added something to my knowledge of people and sexuality.
OT About the photos in your earlier book, Kiss of Fire, you’ve said what fascinates you most about S&M couples is the love they express. Was it the contrast between their actions and the motivating feelings or what made that so compelling?
BN Part of what was so compelling to me was the huge difference between what SM scenes look like, and what's really happening on an emotional level between the people. You'll see what you think is a viscous flogging, and then notice that the two people are laughing in between swats. Or the one being flogged is saying something like "Oh gee, you hit like a girl. Go harder!!!" But I was also fascinated because I came into the BDSM world from the porn business, where people performed sex but love was never a factor. I had also worked for a while in fetish porn, where people were often performing scenes that they had no interest in. So I was used to a certain cynicism around sexual performance. It was so different to suddenly be in a world where everybody was experimenting with their sexuality with people they really loved. Or going on a first date with say, a knife play master who might be "the one.”
OT You ended up using Kickstarter to fund American Ecstasy, what was that experience like?
BN I just loved every minute of running my Kickstarter campaign. It was a lot of work, but really fun work. It's fabulous that you can present a project like my book directly to the people without going through any corporate filters. And especially in the case of American Ecstasy, where publishers had said for years that they didn't know who the market was for the book. The big response I got on Kickstarter was really gratifying because there were so many people who heard about the project, and really wanted to be a part of making it happen.
OT Who are your influences?
BN The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe's work, I was bowled over. I couldn't believe that he had managed to do sexual work and be taken seriously as an artist. That was incredibly inspiring to me. I was also inspired by Helmut Newton and Joel Peter Witkin for the same reason. And of course by Diane Arbus, because she was able to reveal so much about people on the edges of society, although I think my agenda is much different from hers. I always felt that she wanted to reveal the crazy side of people, where I'm looking for what makes them normal, if there is such a thing as normal.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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