Barbara Nitke is a photographer to the stars...porn stars, that is. She's been one of the most dedicated and talented chroniclers of the world of XXX (and later, BDSM) since the early 1980s, and her work provides a rare glimpse into the offscreen lives of these larger-than-life sexual icons.
Barbara is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for her new book, American Ecstasy, a look at her life as a set photographer during the "Golden Age of Porn". We caught up with Barbara at her home in New York City, where she gave us some valuable SKINsight into her process, her favorite nude movie, and why kinksters get a bad rap:
Skin Central: What’s the first onscreen nudity you ever saw? What were the circumstances?
Barbara Nitke: I was 19 and a friend became the distributor for a movie called He and She. He gave me a pass to go and see it. It was 1969, and that was one of the first porn movies to play in a movie theater. They got around possible obscenity charges by having doctors in white lab coats who discussed what was about to be shown. Huge turn on!
SK: Who do you think is the most SKINspirational celebrity of all time?
BN: Hmmm, I’ll go with Marilyn Monroe, and Vanessa del Rio as a close second.
SK: What's your favorite nude movie?
BN: My favorite movie of all time – and it has nudity and sex – is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). Everybody should see that movie at least twice!
SC: How did you get involved with photographic porn sets? What was your exposure to XXX movies before you started?
BN: My ex-husband, Herb Nitke, was the producer of a movie called Devil in Miss Jones (1972) which was a big hit in the early 1970’s. He also owned a chain of porn theaters. I helped out by screening movies before he booked them into his theaters. They quickly got boring and I would usually bring a magazine to the screening. I went to work on the sets in 1982 after taking up photography. Herb was producing Devil in Miss Jones, Part II and I got the job as still photographer. I found that working on the sets was vastly more interesting than watching the movies.
SC: In the artist's statement for your collection Resurrection, you talk about being shocked at first by watching BDSM and fetish scenes being filmed, but over time "I began to see them as just another form of sexual expression." Can you talk a little more about your process of coming to this realization?
BN: I had a long conversation once with a famous underground writer named Marco Vassi. We were shooting a movie in an SM club. He explained to me that people negotiate their scenes up front, have safewords to stop the scene if needed, and develop trust with each other slowly. Once I knew how BDSM worked I wasn’t so shocked by it. And then as I talked with more people involved in the SM world, I realized that they were just making love with each other in their own way.
SC: Do you think that fetishes and fetish porn are misrepresented and/or misunderstood in the culture at large?
BN: Yes, I think people find fetishism scary and they usually think fetish porn is sick. But I also think that’s changing. I love the way people in their 20’s find it easier to just embrace all forms of sexuality and gender. They are so much more fluid in their sexual identities, and so much freer. So I do think change is coming!
SC: Your work captures people in some really intense, intimate moments, especially the series Kiss of Fire. How do you establish trust with your subjects?
BN: I went from working on fetish porn shoots into the real SM scene in New York. I have been a member of the Eulenspiegel Society since 1994. I established trust and rapport by being just gradually getting to know people. I’ve never tried to coerce anyone or talk them into anything. I just let things evolve. When I eventually started photographing people, they liked my vision of them and the word spread. It’s been a great honor to be given that amount of trust from so many people.
SC: What do you have coming up in 2012?
BN: I’m in the process of self publishing a book called American Ecstasy. It’s a behind-the-scenes view of my life working as a photographer on hardcore (vanilla) porn sets in the 1980’s.
The pictures show the way I saw the porn world then - great beauty, tinged with sadness, punctuated by surreal silliness. I loved ironic moments when, in the middle of an orgy, they’d have to cut to put more film in the camera. Everybody would yawn and look at their watch, hoping against hope there would be something decent for lunch.
The people in the book are Ron Jeremy, Vanessa del Rio, Nina Hartley, Sharon Mitchell, Sharon Kane, Siobhan Hunter, Jeanna Fine, Damian Cashmere, Tasha Voux, and many more. Directors include Henri Pachard, Candida Royalle, Lasse Braun and others.
Barbara is offering all kinds of cool rewards for donors to American Ecstasy, like prints of her photos and signed copies of the book itself, so if you're as intrigued by Barbara's work as we are, make sure we get to see more of it by DONATING to her Kickstarter fund!
Also, be sure to check out more of Barbara's photography at her personal site, barbaranitke.com