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In 1982 Barbara Nitke began to take still photographs on pornographic movie sets. “The porn business is my alma mater,” she’s written. “I learned the craft of photography there, from the cameramen, the lighting guys, and all the other hopeful kids who came into the business straight out of film school.” Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age of Porn was coming to an end. (You didn’t know porn films had a Golden Age? Now you do.) Eventually, the social scene, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the large scale movies she had been photographing, along with the actors and directors. Nitke’s attention shifted to the SM scene and in 2003 she wrote Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism, a collection of photographs of sadomasochistic couples published by Kehrer, a distinguished German company producing books on culture, fine art and photography. Kiss of Fire was too hot for an American publisher to handle.
E. J. Bellocq’s photos of Storyville prostitutes waited fifty or sixty years before they were published by the Museum of Modern Art, but Barbara Nitke didn’t want to wait that long. Nitke worked through Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website, and today we have American Ecstasy, a memoir in pictures and words of the years she spent taking still shots on porn movie sets in New York City. It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book with superb color photographs, a fluent text by Nitke herself and an introductory essay by Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and former art critic for The Nation.
American Ecstasy contains sixty-eight large color shots. A few, a very few, are of bodies (a back, an arm or a leg) but all the others are portraits. These are portraits of people caught in the midst of a sexual encounter or, far more often, pausing or waiting in the act, gazing inwardly, bored or sleepy or curled up asleep on some fancy bed that was used in an earlier scene. And often a camera intrudes, a 35mm machine — bulky, glittering and dark — edging in from the margin. It’s the camera’s alien presence, of course, that produces the dissonance in these pictures. The women themselves, and it’s mostly women we see, often look looked wiped out — maybe they’re dulled or maybe just emptied by hours of work.
Barbara Nitke has given us people in moments of bizarre comedy or innocence and even tenderness. Her color work, those gauzy whites, soft tans and gentle defining edges, evoke a kind of pathos, for the photographs are chromatically beautiful whereas the people are working in a porn movie and that kind of work is not beautiful. Nitke’s text doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticize the porn movie industry. She’s a responsive photographer with a deep understanding and affection for her utterly human subjects, and those qualities raise her images beyond mere documentary or social insight into the realm of art.