American Ecstasy: A Photographic Memoir of the Golden Age of Pornography

October 02, 2017

Watching the latest episode of The Deuce, David Simon's new HBO show on the early days of the sex-trade industry in NYC, reminded us of Barbara Nitke's series and subsequent book, American Ecstasy, a visual memoir of the twelve years she spent working as a still photographer on porn movie sets in New York in the 1980s. "It was at the end of the Golden Age of Porn," recalls Nitke, and I thought the porn world was the most exciting, boring, stomach-turning, splendid subject I could ever hope to photograph."

"We shot real 35mm film and huge movie cameras, unheard of in the business today. The shoots lasted anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, with a crew of at least twenty people. A lot of care went into the script, the acting, the lighting, sound, editing – all the aspects of real movie-making. We worked twelve to eighteen hour days, at very low wages, with no overtime pay. Lunch was a loaf of Wonder Bread laid out on a table with a bunch of cold cuts in sweaty white deli paper, followed by pizza for dinner eight or ten hours later. We usually shot in the summer, and then couldn’t run air conditioning because the sound mics would pick up the noise.

We bitched and complained about the working conditions, but in the end most of us didn’t care. We were filled with dreams of our future glory as famous artists, directors and producers – and of course the thrill of our current outlaw status. We were part of an elite corps who shot live sex for a living, in all its natural, dysfunctional glory. We were cool beyond words.

Our days and nights were punctuated by directors shrieking instructions to the cast. “Come on, fuck her face like you mean it. Make it nasty, nasty, nasty!!!!”

There were girls who reveled in the whole sex-is-dirty trip. They could dominate a scene like that to the point where the guys were nothing but walking dildos, props to showcase their ravishing beauty. I admired them and enjoyed watching them. Other girls brought up a whole different thing. They’d gag on the guy’s cock, looking hopelessly humiliated and lost, like wounded orphans. I prided myself on always getting the shot, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty for my own part in providing the stage for their degradation. A feeling of shame would eat away at me all day. Looking back, I think part of my compulsion to be a part of the porn world was that emotional roller coaster ride, which made normal civilian life seem way too tame.

The shoots often turned into frazzled, Twilight Zone marathons. Around midnight we’d find ourselves packed like sardines in a slimy men’s room, overwhelmed by the heat and the stench and the lack of sleep. The last scene of the day would always be one where the guy couldn’t produce the money shot. I’d glance around the crew and we’d nod to each other, knowing that now it would be hours before the day’s end and those magical words, “That’s a wrap!”

And then somewhere in the slap happy middle of the night I’d see a couple of naked girls huddled up together, their eyes glazed over with thousand-yard combat stares. That was the shot I’d take for my private collection. And it was the power to capture that fleeting glimpse into someone’s soul, and preserve it forever, which convinced me I had to be a photographer."