Thursday, October 25, 2012

Exclusive “Leather Life” interview: Barbara Nitke, author of American Ecstasy

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #454, October 25, 2012)

Photographer and activist Barbara Nitke recently published her second book: American Ecstasy. The book is a memoir in photographs and text of her years as the on-set staff photographer for many of the porn films shot in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Kiss of Fire, Nitke’s first book (published in 2003), is a collection of photographs of couples involved in BDSM scenes.

In 2001, Nitke (along with co-plaintiff the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom) initiated a lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking to overturn the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which many people felt was unconstitutional.

When I recently had a chance to interview Nitke by phone, we discussed her new book, her previous book, the lawsuit, and much, much more.

How did you get into photography?

I took up photography as a hobby when I was in my late twenties. I was married to a guy who was a porn producer. He was an entrepreneur type, and in the 1970s there was a lot of money to be made in porn.

I was a housewife. I used to play tennis a lot. I took up photography as a hobby. One thing led to another and I was able to turn it into a profession.

Actually, I originally wanted to be a writer. I took a lot of writing classes and found I don’t like the process of writing. I don’t like sitting down and, you know, looking at the blank page, or the blank computer screen. So later on in my twenties, when I picked up a camera, I was so happy, you know?

No blank page.

No blank page! You’re out in the world. You’re relating to people. You’ve got your camera, you take pictures. It’s very immediate. It’s spontaneous. It just felt right, almost from the beginning.

I must say, though, I very much enjoyed the writing in your new book—the way you tell the stories that go with the pictures.

Oh, thank you! I think if I had enjoyed writing, I probably could have been a decent writer. But I’d so much rather be hanging out with people with my camera, you know? I think the reason I wanted to be a writer is because I love observing people, and I thought originally if I could be a writer I would make these insightful, penetrating observations of people. And I find that’s where I want to go with my photography. I just found a better medium for what I want to express.

Did you have any training, or are you completely self-taught?

I have taken three photography classes in my life, and other than that I’m self-taught—the irony being, I teach photography at the School of Visual Arts here in New York. And I once admitted to my class that I was almost all self-taught, and two guys in the back of the class stood up and said, "Yeah, what are we doing here?"

I hope they were joking.

Well, they kept coming to class sporadically, but they were brothers, and they eventually got in the car with their cameras and crossed the country—which is what they should have done.

Who would you say were your influences? Did you have any influences?

Oh, yeah! Robert Mapplethorpe, of course, of course.

Did you know him?

No. I went into a bookstore one day and I saw a really compelling front cover of a book, and I picked up the book, and on the back was an image—it was a very kind of butch, tight image of a guy in a leather jacket. And I turned the book over, and on the other side was the same guy in drag. And I just was like, Do Not Pass Go. I bought the book immediately, took it home and fell in love with it. And it was Robert Mapplethorpe! I mean, I didn’t even know who he was. And when I really looked at his work and realized what he was shooting, it was just—I can’t even find the words—I was just awestruck that this guy could be recognized as an artist, and actually get to take the pictures that he was taking. So, he was probably my big first influence. And then there are a lot of them, I could name a whole long list. But he was big.

How would you describe yourself as a photographer?

I think I’m always evolving and changing. But I started out as a social documentary photographer, which would be like a Mary Ellen Mark or Diane Arbus. You’re uncovering moments, you’re finding moments, but you’re not directing what people do—you’re capturing something they’re already doing.

I started out that way, but as my career goes by, I’m changing over to the other side where I set up a scene and people act it out. Kiss of Fire was kind of a hybrid, because we would discuss what we were going to do upfront, and then I would come in and light it and stage it, pick the location, look at wardrobe—so it was a lot of planning. But then I would step back and not direct as people did their (BDSM) scene. Whereas the earlier work, American Ecstasy, the book I’m coming out with now—that’s pure documentary. I haven’t picked where we are, I haven’t done any lighting. I’ve blended in enough so that people would reveal themselves with me present with my camera, but I’m not really staging and lighting and doing any of that stuff.

Let’s talk about what you photograph. Why do you photograph kink/sex/porn? What draws you to it as a photographic subject?

Wow! You know, I’ve been in therapy for almost thirty years, and I don’t think I can answer the “why” part of that question.

What happened was, as I said before, my ex-husband made porn movies. I eventually asked him to let me shoot stills on one of his shoots. And then the director of that shoot hired me to work on his next shoot, which wasn’t my ex-husband’s movie. So it was on the second porn shoot, I was there with my camera—I’ll never forget—I was back in the makeup room, and everybody was getting dressed, made up, and complaining and gossiping and whatever. And I looked around and I thought, wow, here I am, I have my camera here, this world is completely open to me, and I get to shoot anything I want. And I realized in that split second that I had found my subject. It was like, wow, it just came to me—this is what I’m supposed to be shooting.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m drawn to sex for some reason—maybe you could say sex is the subject. Or maybe you could say that really it’s the people that are my subject, not so much the sex acts. I don’t know. I had more clearly defined goals for Kiss of Fire. That book was about people who were couples, who were expressing love through sadomasochism. I really had a better definition of what I wanted to shoot at that point.

Maybe it’s the most intimate part of people, and that’s what draws me to it. I don’t know. There have been so many moments in my life when I think I would have been better off with a different subject—I mean, certainly career-wise, it would have been better to have subject matter that was more widely accepted. And I’ve often felt that the subject picked me more than I picked it. You know, whatever it is, however it happened, I’m proud that I’ve always followed that inner voice that tells me I’m on the right path.

The photos that are now in American Ecstasy—what were they originally shot for? What use would they have been put to back when they were shot, when the films were in production?

The shots you’re seeing in that book are shots I shot for myself. But the way it worked was that I was always hired to work on the porn movies, and my job was to shoot publicity shots that would sell the movies.

What we’re seeing in the book is not those?

No. What happened was, I was shooting on slide film. And once I realized on that second shoot that I wanted to shoot this for me, then I was easily able to shoot what the producers needed, what I was hired to shoot. And then when I saw my moments, I would shoot those, and I would pull those slides out. So I gave the production the shots they had specifically asked me to shoot, and I kept my shots for me.

The images in American Ecstasy were shot from when to when?

Starting in 1982, and American Ecstasy goes up to 1991, so it’s a nine-year period.

And why are we just now seeing the images? What’s taken so long?

Well, that is a very good question, because I have been looking for a publisher for that work since 1985.


I know. My first literary agent took on my book in 1985, and then could never sell it. And then I went through another bunch of literary agents. And throughout all those years, some publishers would be insulted, but others would say, wow, this is good material, but we wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. I mean, they would compliment me on it, but no one would publish it.

So, I’m self-publishing American Ecstasy. I raised the money, or most of it, on And what’s cool about that is there’s no filter of an editor or publishing house or anything. It’s not edited, it’s unabridged, it’s exactly the book that I wanted to have. So maybe things happen for a reason, you know what I mean?

When did you give up trying to find a publisher for the book and decide to self-publish it? How recently?

I never gave up. I never ever gave up. The first three or four agents eventually gave up, but then I would go find another agent. I mean, I just never gave up.

So when did you decide that, okay, this is not going to happen, I’m going to self-publish it?

I decided that this past year.

So, even as recently as this past year, your book was considered too hot for publishers to touch?

Well, there’s a longer story. In 2005, my literary agent, Jane Dystel, actually got a publisher, and that was Judith Regan—


I don’t know if you know who that is—

Oh, yes!—

Judith was at Harper Collins, and she was the most powerful editor—she had her own imprint, and she really had carte blanche, because she was just really successful. She took the book on. And I was beyond thrilled—I mean, she appreciated the book, totally understood it. She really liked the book, and she was all set to publish it. Literally, I was just trying to FedEx the model releases out to LA where her office was, when she got fired.

I mean, it was the most bizarre thing! I had all kinds of trouble that day, and I couldn’t get the model releases into FedEx before 9:00 at night. And I think it was right after FedEx closed that I got the news that she had been fired. It was just the weirdest thing.

So, Judith got fired. I didn’t want Harper Collins to do my book without her, but we had to wait a year for them to release it, and then my agent went back out looking for another publisher. God bless that woman! And no one else would touch it.

So, then, two and a half years ago, I got a call from this young couple, they were publishing a small, kind of a soft-porn magazine. They had published some of my work in the past, and they said, you know what, we’re gonna publish your book. So I got all set for them to publish it. We had some disagreements over how the layout should be but we were heavily involved in getting it published, when all of a sudden they disappeared. No one would answer my calls, nobody would answer my emails, I didn’t know what happened to them. But by then I was so far along in the process that I decided to do the campaign and just publish it myself.

I found out that the couple suddenly started going through a divorce, that’s why they disappeared. But because of that— You know, the layout they were going to publish was not the layout I would have wanted, so again, things happen for a reason.

So what you’ve got now is the layout that you wanted.

Yeah. And I used the book designer that they had onboard—who’s amazing! We just revamped the layout to the way it is now. They didn’t like the idea of blending the text with pictures. They thought all the text should be in the front of the book and then all the pictures in the second half.

I like it the way it is.

Oh, me too! By far! I know it’s better this way. I had their designer do it my way, and she agreed with me, and, you know, it just turned out to be perfect.

So that’s the long saga of getting this book published. You have no idea what a great moment this is in my life!

What, to you, makes a good photograph?

To me, a photograph has to tell a story. I mean, you know, it has to draw you in. I think there has to be some depth. I also think a good photograph leaves you wanting a little more. It doesn’t, like, give it all away, there’s maybe a little bit of mystery to a good photograph. That could just be based on the person, the subject of the photo, or some gesture that they’re making. Composition matters, I think all the technical things matter, but I think what really makes a good photo is beyond the technical stuff.

What’s your favorite kind of subject to shoot?

People, people, people! The subject has to be able to talk. I can’t do still-life stuff, or animals. I can do other stuff, but photographing people is what I want to do.

What do you want your photos to do or to accomplish or to communicate?

I want my photographs to make people think, or to ask questions. Ideally, I want to go beyond just simply entertaining someone with my photos. And I want to open their mind if I can.

That’s a perfect segue into the final topic I want to ask you about: the lawsuit. Talk about opening people’s minds—that’s what that lawsuit was trying to do. Was it Ashcroft v. Nitke or Nitke v. Ashcroft?

Nitke v. Ashcroft—we sued them.

When you say we, it was you and who else that brought the suit?

It was me and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. And our lawyer, who ended up pro bono, doing it for free, was John Wirenius. John is a constitutional scholar who has written a book about the First Amendment.

Here’s the story of the suit. I’ll try to keep it simple—because if you ask my lawyer, it’s extremely complicated.

Basically, there is a law called the Communications Decency Act, which makes it a felony crime to post obscenity on the internet. And the problem with this law is the way they define obscenity. First of all, nobody knows what obscenity is. The way it’s legally defined in the Communications Decency Act is by community standards. So, if you post something on the internet that is patently—I forget their words, but appeals to the prurient interest, is completely lacking in artistic merit, scientific merit, based on the values of a specific community, then it’s obscene.

So it goes community by community. So what would probably be fine in New York, for example, might be considered obscene in a small town in Mississippi. And this definition worked fine until the internet came along. Now, if I’m in New York, and I put something up on my website, I can’t control who goes to my website, where they’re coming from, where they live.

So the only way for me not to commit a felony crime is to really not have anything sexual or nude on my website, if you took it to an extreme. We felt that law was unconstitutional because it chills everyone’s right to free expression, so we sued the government to try to overturn that law. And, to make a long story short, after years we lost, and we lost it at the Supreme Court level. And I really think we lost it politically because the Bush administration was in power then, and I think the Supreme Court just didn’t wanna go there. They didn’t want to start overturning laws like that when the Republicans were in power.

If the political tide turns, might someone try again to overturn the Communications Decency Act?

The Democrats are usually a little more reasonable about allocating their resources—for instance, when Clinton was in power and Janet Reno was the attorney general, they didn’t do any obscenity prosecutions because they cost a lot of money and take up a lot of time, so it was not a priority. Then they started doing prosecutions when the Republicans came back in. If the Democrats stay in power they probably just won’t enforce that law, and everybody will probably be okay. But our thinking was that we didn’t like having the law on the books, because you can always get Republicans back in, and you can always have the religious right go nuts again. So we just felt the law was a dangerous tool that they could use.

But the law is still on the books, and what I’ve done is just gone on with my life, and put my images up on my website. But I know that there’s always the danger—the way it works is, it could be one prosecutor in one tiny small town somewhere out there in the middle of America that decided that they don’t like you or they don’t like your work, and they can start an obscenity prosecution against you. So everybody’s vulnerable, really.

There is certainly no shortage of sex and nudity on the Web. How does everybody get around that? Or is everybody just living dangerously?

Well, everybody’s vulnerable. Realistically, from the government’s point of view—we found this out during the course of the lawsuit—the religious right puts a lot of pressure on the Department of Justice to go after all that porn that’s on the internet, because they would really like to see it go away. But from a realistic point of view, when the government mounts an obscenity charge against someone, they usually lose. You know, if the person fights it the government loses. So it’s hard for them to mount the cases. From a defendant’s point of view, though, it’s very expensive to fight the case. The porn industry will tend to fight them—they will find a way to raise money, or they have money, and they will fight back.

So the people that end up being vulnerable, really, are people like me that don’t have those means. Over the years, there have been some people who have gone to jail. I think the religious right keeps the pressure on, so the government has to keep those laws on the books—the government has to look like it’s doing something.

It’s a complicated situation. I know of an entire company that went out of business overnight—a hundred people lost their jobs in New York, overnight. This happened a number of years ago because a guy was running for mayor in a small town in Alabama. This company had satellite dishes that beamed all over the country, and this guy, in his run for mayor, said, I’m gonna get rid of that obscenity that’s coming into your homes from this horrible New York company. He mounted a prosecution that put them out of business. So, even with all the porn that’s out there, I say again, everybody’s still vulnerable.

What’s your day job now? You’re a staff photographer for television shows?

Dr. Oz is one of my clients. I love working on his show! I mean, I love him! He’s amazing. And I’ve worked on every season of Project Runway, which is a lot of fun to work on. I’ve worked on a lot of narrative shows, like Damages with Glenn Close. There’s a new Kevin Bacon show called The Following that I worked on. I’ll be on Gossip Girl next week. There are a lot of television shows shot in New York. That’s my day job, just going from show to show.

How can people find out more about American Ecstasy?

The website for the book is On the site there are excerpts from the book, and there’s a “buy book” link there, too. Or go right to and search for “American Ecstasy.”