NOLA BOOK AND LITERARY NEWS

from Nathan C. Martin and Friends.
Barbra Nitke shoots herself while the band plays on in the background. All photographs from AMERICAN ECSTASY.
Barbra Nitke shoots herself while the band plays on in the background. All photographs from AMERICAN ECSTASY.

By Nathan C. Martin

This interview is accompanied by images that show adult content.

At one point toward the middle of American Ecstasy, a new memoir in words in pictures by Barbara Nitke about the 12 years she spent working as a set photographer on pornography shoots in New York in the 80s and 90s, she recounts a telling scene: A threesome is taking place in the back of a Volkswagen van, being filmed for a porno ripoff of the low-brow 1982 Hollywood comedy Porkies, when the director tells the actors to Cut!—yet, caught in the moment, two of the actors keep going. The director becomes agitated, telling the man and woman they’re not supposed to be “doing it for real,” while the cameraman, along with Nitke and the rest of the crew, just sit there and watch, unsure of what to do. The actors stop only after the woman climaxes with a series of moans. Nitke writes, “I can’t believe nobody shot that. It was probably the only genuine, spontaneous event that happened in the entire shoot. The only moment that would have had an impact on anybody. And not one of us recorded it.”

Only the most oblivious viewers—or those with monumental capacities for suspension of disbelief—fail to understand that pornography is pure artifice. But this scene and others in American Ecstasy illustrate that, while pornography on the screen might be completely fake, the people involved in its production are real, as are their relationships with one another. Many of the images in the monograph tend toward the silly or absurd, betraying the sense of whimsy Nitke often felt working in this depraved industry—this often results from Nitke’s framing her shots wide enough to juxtapose the erotic action happening for the camera with the “off-screen” world around it, replete with cumbersome equipment and schlubby dudes in work clothes. Other photographs capture intimate moments that show that deep camaraderie is forged in any workplace where people spend long days together: two women lounge on a bed in robes, bored and surrounded by sex toys; another pair cuddles tenderly in panties, waiting for a scene to start; a man and a woman yawn and sprawl out on a couch, exhausted after hours of filming. In the stories in the book, Nitke describes finishing a grueling hot day of shooting in a stifling apartment—the air conditioning was turned off so as not to interfere with the live sound—and running out into the Manhattan street to frolic with the rest of the crew in a broken-open fire hydrant. Others relate her entry into the business, through her then-husband Herb Nitke, a gambler and businessman who produced films and ran a chain of porn theaters because he loved the outlaw feel of the business and the tremendous profits it allowed him to reap.

American Ecstasy’s achievement as an art book is in the depth and variety of images it presents, and their subtle portrayal of the panoply of emotions and situations Nitke experienced during the course of her work. There are heroes and everymen in her photos, sleazy men and cocky boys, empowered women and others working through—or despite of—serious psychological trauma. The book is funny and touching, thought-provoking, and, of course, oftentimes sexy. Nitke does not glamorize pornography, but she seems to relish capturing moments of real beauty—human beauty—in a context many would consider debased.

Barbara Nitke will present her work in American Ecstasy during a Happy Hour Salon from 6 – 9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). An exhibition of photos from the monograph will be on display, and she will give an artist’s talk at around 7 p.m. DJ Brian Boyles will provide music, complimentary libations will be on hand, and, as always, the event is free and open to the public. The exhibition at Press Street HQ will only be up Nov. 30 – Dec. 2, for PhotoNOLA, but more of her work is currently on display at Barrister’s Gallery (2331 St. Claude Ave.) through Dec. 2. In case you hadn’t gathered, Nitke’s work deals with adult content, and is not appropriate for babies.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Nitke via Skype last weekend, while she was at home in New York. She and I first crossed paths more than five years ago, when I interviewed her for a grad school paper I was writing about online obscenity law—Nitke had been involved in a court case, which dealt with body of work she made showing sadomasochism, that challenged the puritanical measures the Bush administration had set in place to restrict online speech. She and I had a lot of catching up to do, but mostly we just talked about her wonderful new book.

Mitch and Tiffany Clark, 1983

Room 220: American Ecstasy is interspersed with transcriptions of interviews with people you were working with on set—actors, directors, other people on the crew. Where did those quotes come from?

Barbara Nitke: My original concept of the book was that it was never going to be my stories at all—it was just going to be their words and pictures of them. I started taking a tape recorder with me to work, and I recorded hours and hours of interviews, with everybody. But over the years, while I was trying to get the book published, every time I showed it to someone they would say, “No! We want to hear what you think!” So, gradually, I started adding my own stories and trimming back theirs.

Rm220: Where do you think the instinct came from to remove yourself?

BN: I’ve always seen myself as a behind-the-camera kind of person. And, back then, I think I really thought I had to have a point of view and had to be making a case for something if I was going to talk about pornography, and I was uncomfortable with that. I really couldn’t figure out what my point of view was on that whole world, and I think over the last 25 years I’ve finally just accepted the fact that I’m conflicted.

Rm220: I was surprised to have you tell me that you don’t like writing—as I mentioned, I enjoyed a lot of your writing in the book. What is it about writing that you don’t like? And, conversely, what draws you to photography?

BN: I originally wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to make observations about people and share them with the world. Then I would sit down and try to write about something or someone I had observed, and I would just hate sitting there, looking at the page, not knowing how to get started, and then rewriting the same sentence 400 times. But when I picked up a camera, I was at home. Because you’re out there interacting with the people you’re photographing, instead of making a bunch of observations and then gone home to be alone and write about it.

You know the book I love—Dispatches by Michael Herr. I think that was one of my touchstones for writing my part of this book. Herr had gone to the Vietnam War, barely having an assignment, and he was, like, 26 years old. He wrote about what it was like being there as an observer. I related to that, because I had chosen to go into the porn business as an observer. He talks about how weird it is to be in that position. He would say things like: All the soldiers are here to kill people, but I’m not here to kill people—I’m just here to watch them.

Rm220: After so many years of trying to get this book published, it seems almost like a time capsule—the photos, in particular. You have the hairdos, the costumes, the bulky film equipment, all of which make the photos feel very much like things from another age. This has mostly to do with changes that have taken place in the pornography business, and how porn went away from these big sets and big productions. The films you worked on were so much more elaborate than porn films today, with high degrees of spectacle and narrative, and they were also shot on film for the cinema, as opposed to being shot on video for the Internet. I was wondering what your opinion was of this transformation. Do you think something important was lost?

BN: Oh, absolutely. I felt that while I was there, when the gradual change over to video was happening. We all felt that it was going to change the industry in a bad way—at least from a film technician point of view—because switching to video, you don’t have the beauty, the intricate lighting. A lot of us had felt that it would have been really cool to see porn movies transition more into the mainstream and become more elaborate, instead of turning into just a piece of jerk-off material for the bedroom. Maybe I’m a romantic, but when I see the porn of today, it just so leaves me cold.

Rm220: The images in the book that I think characterize this body of work are the ones that show the peripheral view—of the director standing there in his baseball cap coaching the actors, or the mic boom, or people loitering in the background. But then there are other images that are just of sex scenes—I’m thinking in particular of the Nasty Girls scenes in the bathroom with Sharon Mitchell—that don’t have any of the outlying context that makes the other images clearly not typical porn images. And I was wondering why shots like this—that look an awful lot like images you’d see in a girly magazine—should be in an art book.

BN: Over all these years, as I kept sifting through the images, there were certain images—that Sharon Mitchell series is a good example—that really were what you would see in the movie, or in a porn magazine—and yet, for me, they transcended the usual porn, they said something more to me. I think with Sharon Mitchell, there was just something about her. She was very cool, for want of a better word. It was her attitude. She had a sort of, “I’m here, I’m doing this, I like what I’m doing, and Fuck You” feeling about her. Not angry, but just a statement of that’s just who she was, and I admired that so much. I never had that sexual assurance she had, and I looked up to that. Certainly, most sex scenes we shot were just trite sex scenes, but every now and then there would be an angle or a moment or a person like her that I would think made it a little beyond porn.

Rm220: Another type of image in the book is that in which the naked actor is framed in such a way that the sculptural elements of his or her body become the focus of the image, and not necessarily in a sexual way. The one that stuck out to me was of Damien in Sweet Revenge, where he’s having sex with a girl from behind but then the light is such that you can see all the lines and contours of his skinny body, and the immense mole beside his nose. It made me think of the human nude as a subject for visual art, which stretches back to the beginning of art history. Did you have this in mind when you were taking the photos and putting together the book?

BN: I did have that in mind—the sculptural aspects of bodies, sometimes the beauty of genitalia during the sex act. But that particular image of Damien, for me, was more about his swagger. A lot of people will kind of chuckle when they see the image, because he’s such a kid, but, to me, he’s just trying so hard to be cool. He knew I was shooting and he was posing for my camera, and not at all thinking about the scene or the girl. That’s what that image is about to me. I see it as humorous. But there’s another image that’s called “Nina Hartley and Eric Monty,” and it’s a close-up of her butt and his cock, and there’s a hand in the bottom of the frame that you barely notice. That image is more about sculpture to me. Every now and then I would see the bodies just as looking beautiful, and I would take a picture that wasn’t so much about the people but was more about the lighting or body, or the beauty of it all. I don’t think they would be the same today, without the good lighting, and when you talk about classic nudes, a lot of that is the lighting.

Rm220: At one point in the book, you mention feeling guilty for participating in a process that degraded women—and it’s a process that potentially contributes negatively to the way women are treated in the larger scope of society. Do you think that everyone involved in porn—from the producers to the actors to the people who watch it—is complicit in this degradation?

BN: The short answer would be no. But it’s so complicated. That was a lot of what I struggled with and a lot of what I felt like I had to have an answer to, when trying to figure out my own position. It’s a huge question, especially as a woman. I don’t even know after all these years how to answer that question, because I think so much of it has to do with the attitude of each single person involved. What I’ve realized over the years is that we all bring our own feelings about sex into viewing porn, and that extends to the producers and the actors on the set and the viewers of the movies—we’re all bringing our own shit to it. I think a lot of people could be in the same room watching the same scene being shot, and have all kinds of different reactions, and I think there could be a lot of actresses acting out the same scenario and feeling different about it. There are women who will say it’s empowering. It’s just hard to formulate a one-size-fits-all answer to the question about the degradation of women, and I think it’s a crucial question.

I do think one thing, though, and this is important to me—I think if there was some way to eradicate the sense of shame around sex in general, that would change everything. That would be a complete shift in our attitude. If there was no sense of shame around sex or people’s sexual desires, there probably would be things that people wouldn’t even be interested in watching because it wouldn’t push a button. And I think that people would just have more of a positive response to sexual imagery. It would change pornography. It would be an interesting world to live in.

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