American Ecstasy - A Chat About Porn with Barbara Nitke
Barbara Nitke began her career as a photographer taking stills on the sets of porn films. This was the 80s, however Nitke’s photos didn’t aim to further the extravagant facade of the big budget shoots of the day. Her behind-the scenes images showed a more raw, intimate side of the industry, catching a porn hunk yawning between takes, or a starlet taking a mid-gangbang nap. In the 90s, when the hardcore porn industry moved from New York to LA, Nitke began shooting on the NYC sets of fetish and BDSM movies. Soon after, though her involvement with the The Eulenspiegel Society—the country’s oldest support group for sadomasochists—she began documenting the sex lives of real couples within the S/M community. These powerful, romantic images lift the veil, showing the human side of people often written-off as piss drinking, scary monsters in leather masks. More than anything, Nitke’s work enlightens us about the true nature of people who dare to be sexual deviants.
How did you start working on porn sets?
Well, I was married to a guy who owned a chain of movie theaters around New York. In the 70s he figured out that you could make a lot of money showing porn, and he also produced a famous porn movie called The Devil and Miss Jones. I had taken up photography as a hobby, so when he was making The Devil and Miss Jones Part II he got me to take stills on the set. One job led to another, and then I got divorced and had to make a living.
What was it like being on a porn set for the first time?
I was pretty desensitized, actually. By the time I was on the set I had seen over 100 porn movies. See, somebody had to screen the movies at my husband’s theater before he played them to an audience, but he didn’t want to bother most of the time so he would send me to do it. The first few I watched were a huge turn on, but after a while I’d seen so many that I’d just bring a magazine. But then on set, getting to watch sex in a live environment, ignited a whole new cycle of excitement. I felt so honored to be in such intimate situations with other people like that.
I wanted to talk to you about this new generation of porn stars—people like Sasha Grey and Stoya—who are recognized as women who love sex, who are intelligent, feminist, and who seem in control of their careers. This feels like a change from the way porn starlets were perceived in the past. It feels less exploitative.
I couldn’t agree more, and I think it’s fantastic. I witnessed that change happening in the 90s—suddenly this new wave of girls were showing up with clipboards, with business plans and lists saying, “These are things I’ll do, these are things I’m not comfortable doing.” They really had it figured out. In the 80s it was different—there was more shame around it.
So you think people got into porn for different reasons back then?
I think it was a mix. At the very beginning, in the 70s, some of them were trained actors who, post-sexual revolution, decided to move into the porn business. Then in the 80s things changed and there was more of a “lost soul” vibe. Not everyone—a lot of the people I worked with were sexually free, were exhibitionists, and had they been born ten years later would have been more in charge of their careers. It’s just that the culture around them hadn’t caught up yet. But there were also a lot of people who were drugs addicts or who were generally just down in life, and that was difficult for me because I would think, “Am I supporting someone’s downfall by being here?” Especially as a woman. And then AIDS came along, and no one was using condoms in the beginning, so then I was going, “Am I standing here watching people who are going to die?” I had a lot of emotional ups and downs in the 80s.
If people stayed in the business, fucking without condoms during the AIDS epidemic, it must have been out of desperation, right?
No, they were in denial. Most of the people could have made a living doing other things. They were usually bright people who had college degrees, and it almost never felt like they had no other choice.
But since we live in a culture that doesn’t honor or celebrate sexuality, there is always going to be an element of shame that one working in the sex industry has to overcome.
But going back to intelligent feminists, we can’t forget to mention people like Candida Royalle, Nina Hartley, and Annie Sprinkle, who were early porn stars who were totally in control, and who helped to ignite that shift that we’re talking about.
Just yesterday I was looking at photos from Annie Sprinkle’s performance piece, Public Cervix Announcement, where she opened her vagina with a speculum and invited the audience to look at her cervix with a flashlight.
Oh yeah, I was there for one of those performances. It was so hysterical! Men are so fascinated with those spread vagina shots in porn, and I guess we should all be honored that they love the vagina so much, but she just took it to the final frontier of extremes and said, “Here guys, look all the way in, look at my cervix! In fact, here’s a flashlight!” Only Annie could pull that off.
What made you move away from hardcore in the 90s?
Well, around that time the industry moved to LA, but I just don’t like California, so I stayed in New York. But then fetish shoots started to get really popular here, partly because it was a way to have safe sex—the performers would just act out the fetish, so there was no exchange of bodily fluids. Then it was my friend, the porn star Rick Savage, who introduced me to the real S/M scene.
Well, Rick had fallen in love with a woman who was a member of The Eulenspiegel Society. He wanted me to meet her, so he took me down to my first meeting. When we got there there was this big, really domineering black woman at the front desk, and she looked at me and said, "Oh, I’m so glad you could come!" It made me feel so special that she was so happy to see me. It took me ten years to find out she said that to everybody who came for the first time.
What were the Eulenspiegel meetings like?
They were very big on safety, so every meeting would start with a presentation—like demonstrating how to safely do a suspension scene, or whipping, caning, how to use hot wax, that type of thing. And then the second half would be circle where everyone would just talk, like any support group.
Your book Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism documented the sexual practices of many people in the S/M world. On your website you say, “What fascinated me most was the genuine love I saw all around me. Coming from the been-around-the-block porn world, it was a breath of incredibly fresh air.”
Well, I always enjoyed the whole, ‘sex worker, I’m bored looking at my watch’ thing, and I loved being part of the porn world, but I did it for twelve years. So after that, walking into this new group of people who weren’t performers, who were really in love and so passionate, was just so enchanting. People at meetings would say things like "Oh my god, my boyfriend spanked me and it was so amazing!" Where on a porn set it would be like, "Oh, just another spanking scene." So they were infusing everything with their joy and their love.
Some of the work is so intimate, photographing people having sex in their homes. Did you ever end up joining in?
I never did. My friends were always shocked that I didn’t, like, “What is your problem girl!?” I wanted to take pictures in people’s bedrooms, and be like a fly on the wall. But that could never really work because my being there would always inevitably change things, so the energy of it often turned out to be more like a threesome.
So they were still sexual experiences for you?
Yes, there was always a sexual charge. One of the things that scared me along the way, especially when I was getting deeper into the S/M scene, was that I was pushing my own sex drive and into the photos so much that it was taking the place of having an actual sex life. Then I became almost superstitious, like if I got a boyfriend and was having regular sex that my artwork would go down the tubes. I didn’t really want to mix the two though—I didn’t want to compromise my role as the photographer by becoming a participant. However I think the reason why my work was ever any good was because I always felt that charge.
I work as a Dominatrix, and the feeling I get during sessions is strange because although there is a sexual energy, I don’t necessarily get turned on. It’s more about adrenaline. Like I wouldn’t masturbate thinking about a session later on.
Yeah, same for me, but it’s still sexual. It’s hard to explain. I also think being a pro-Domme is a different experience to watching a real S/M couple. I don’t know if you’ve seen anyone play outside of a paid session, but there is this exchange of energy that's really incredible. Whereas pro-Dommes are being paid to provide a service, so that’s still sex work.
Yeah, I’ve actually seen a Domme whipping someone with one hand and texting with the other.
Ha, yes exactly. I was hanging out at Pandora’s Box dungeon once. I’ll never forget it—all the girls were hanging out in the back reading magazines and watching soap operas, and the manager came in and said to one of the Dommes, “So-and-So is here to see you," and she was like, "Oh god, no!” and trudged over to her locker, yanked on all of this leather paraphernalia, and then trudged out the door. I thought, this has to be my next photo essay! I love that the customer is buying into this fantasy of a woman who sits around all day thinking about nothing but dominating him, when really it’s the last thing on her mind. That appeals to my grand sense of irony.
So why, over the years, had you always stuck with the subject of sex?
I’m just fascinated with human sexuality in general, and the diversity of it and the many different ways people find to sexualize things. It’s just unbelievable.
Sex is endless, basically.
It’s true! But my goal was never to titillate. My goal is to make people think about sex and the people who are having these various types of sex in a more human way. Because really they are just people—it’s your neighbor, your lawyer, it’s you, it’s me. For me sex is an art form, and that means all the variations of it: sex work, vanilla sex, private sex, public sex, S/M, whatever. Everyone I've photographed has taught me something new about the nature of sexual desire, humanity, and the fact that no matter how we're wired to express love, freedom is having the courage to be who we are.
Barbara Nitke is currently raising money to publish AMERICAN ECSTASY, a documentation of the twelve years she spent working as a still photographer on porn movie sets.