Love & Sex

American Ecstasy: Behind the Scenes of New York City’s Golden Age of Porn (NSFW)

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"When I started working on the sets, I found myself mesmerized by it all.”

Photographer Barbara Nitke’s coffee-table book American Ecstasy is an exhilarating, unnerving, funny, and frequently hot collection of photographs taken on the sets of NYC-shot adult films in the early- to mid-’80s. Nitke had been married since her late teens to Herbert Nitke, a movie-theater chain owner invested in the 1973 porno-chic classic The Devil In Miss Jones. When that earned him a sufficient return, he moved into adult production full-time. But Herbert wasn’t a fan of the material, and so he dispatched his young wife to check out the competing product. As she recalls in the introduction to Ecstasy, watching the stuff on screen got boring pretty quickly. But, she says, “when I started working on the sets, I found myself mesmerized by it all.”

Her fascination shows in the photographs, which reward the viewer with flashes of libidinous abandon and the odd interstices that occur in the world of sex-as-performance — like the inevitably humorous show-biz disjunctions when cunnilingus is supervised by a paunchy guy in a baseball cap. The various incongruities that pop up within Nitke’s frames often yield surprising poetry, and surprising allure and glamour.

The work also serves as a gallery of pioneering porn icons, along with a series of revealing texts — by Nitke herself, or drawn from interviews with her subjects. Ron Jeremy, in his trimmer, pre-“Hedgehog” days, is here, as is gonzo boy Joey Silvera. The intimidating Vanessa Del Rio, the future activist Sharon Mitchell, still-active Nina Hartley of Boogie Nights fame, and more, too many of whom are lost or gone or forgotten. And there’s the director of many of the films, the late Ron Sullivan, who went by the nom du smut Henri Pachard and had the air of a weekday golfer who’d taken a wrong turn on his way to the green.

I worked on the set of one of Sullivan’s films in the summer of 1980, just a couple of years before Barbara started to photograph them. A Girl’s Best Friend featured Jeremy and the stalwart R. Bolla, and shot by Larry Revene, (who himself recently published the memoir Wham Bam $$ Ba Da Boom: Mob Wars, Porn Battles And A View From The Trenches). So, along with my aesthetic delight in the photos, a personal connection resonated. That being the case, and having myself written about the experience of being on a porn set, I wanted to meet with Nitke and discuss her work — and maybe swap war stories. Nitke — currently selling her prints via Kickstarter to fund the expenses of an upcoming gallery show in England — spoke with me over lattes at her apartment on Manhattan’s East Side.

There have been a fair number of books about the industry — I’m thinking of something like Ian Gittler’s Pornstar — invested in depicting the pathos of porn, whereas American Ecstasy is a little more objective, a little more about the workaday aspects. You get down to brass tacks, and depict the erotic component as well as what’s genuinely absurd about it.

That’s where my love for the subject matter comes from, what it encompassed. Because there were genuinely erotic moments in it. It was sad, it was happy, it was ridiculous. By the end of a day, which would be maybe sixteen hours long, I had gone through so many emotions that it would feel like a week. And I think it’s because the people themselves were such a spectrum. There were tragic stories, but there were also people who did sex as a political statement. And I, as a young woman, was seriously wrestling with that: how do I feel about this as a woman? I could never really answer that question.

On the one picture I worked on as a production assistant, a year or two before you began shooting on-set stills, the star was Juliet Anderson, whose “statement” was tied up in the fact that she only began doing adult films when she turned 40. Almost everyone on that set had his or her own story and unexpected background; almost no one there fit the cliché of the empty-headed, flighty person, or “bimbo.”

There were people that I thought were flighty — but if I sat down and talked with them I realized they weren’t. There were more than a few lost souls, with tragic stories. But I never met anyone I considered stupid. And I never met anyone who did not have other options for making a living — that’s a stereotype that I want to attack. A lot of the people I got to know were very well-educated, better educated than I was.

I remember taking a lunch break in this office building where they’d set a couple of scenes, and pretty much all the actors were killing time with the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Oh yeah. And some of the discussions you’d overhear were pretty high-level. I think at the time, it was people that didn’t necessarily fit in. They were individuals, mavericks, nonconformists of some sort. As the industry began to migrate over to California, one of the things we’d observe was that the California girls were prettier, but not as smart. And the New York girls were smarter, but not as pretty. And better at learning their lines. So that was a running joke. And even the California girls weren’t dumb. This was an interesting time, the time directly before that migration, almost a golden age. The people making the movies wanted to make movies. The people acting in them were acting. And among the producers—and I knew this because I was married to one — the feeling was that it was only a matter of time before somebody would make that crossover movie. They were pouring money into all these projects — Chuck Vincent’s Roommates, for instance — trying to make that first pornographic movie that could play in a regular theater. Because they knew that such a thing would make a fortune. And it never happened.

Different levels of explicitness have come and gone and reemerged in mainstream film. And nowadays what you can do with prosthetics and body doubles and digital effects, as in two recent films, Blue Is The Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac demonstrate, is creating something arguably unique. But it’s not quite what the likes of Chuck Vincent might have had in mind. One thing we both witnessed was that all the unsimulated sex that was shot was happening without the benefit of Viagra or any other chemical stimulation. This gave the shoots a very different dynamic than what I infer it to be nowadays.

I know, I know! And the pressure on the men. I gained such respect for men, sexually, by working in porn. You have twenty people standing around you in a circle; they’re working, but they’re all looking at you. You had to remember your lines: “Here’s your pizza” — okay, they might be stupid lines, but you still had to remember them. Then they would change the angle, change the film magazine, and then you’ve got to maintain an erection and deliver a cum shot. Yes, we had respect for them, and empathy, and our hearts went out for them, but if there was a problem, it was the crew who had to be there for two hours and wait. So there could be a real love-hate thing going on with the guy who had the issue.

Some of the writers would — almost sadistically, I think — give the guys punch-line style dialogue to deliver immediately upon doing the so-called “money shot.”

[Laughs] Really bullshit lines.

One of the interesting things about the erotic entertainment community in New York at the time — because everything was at the very least loosely connected, from Show World to Quality X Video and the theaters and so on — was that, while pornography could be legally exhibited, it was actually illegal to produce porn. Although the “lewd and lascivious conduct” laws were pretty selectively enforced, there was a band-of-outlaws vibe to things a lot of the time.

I think the outlaw thing was part of the appeal for me. Even back when I was married to Herb and he was a producer, he was indicted three times for obscenity, as an exhibitor, and there were three big cases, one of which went to trial in Rochester. And I had a certain pride in the fact that he stood up against that. He didn’t think it was obscene to start with, and he stood up for his right to make money in this business. And when I started shooting on the sets, I kind of enjoyed the outlaw feel of it. A lot of the cast, and a lot of the crew, would put different names on the credits. I’ve often wondered, if you didn’t have that thing about porn, if it was just another genre, if there were no taboo attached to it, would it still have that draw? And I think that for a director like Ron Sullivan, he was accomplished enough that he added a kind of glamour to the outlaw quality that we all picked up on.

He got a lot of pleasure in creating elaborate, or relatively elaborate, shots, just because he could. I remember building track for this establishing shot of a gala in A Girl’s Best Friend, after which he wanted floating candles in the swimming pool that the camera was going to glide past, and I had to keep going back in the pool and re-lighting the candles until he got a take with everything perfect. I kind of intuited that this wasn’t standard operating procedure in adult.

He would get a huge bang out of doing that sort of thing. He had a Fellini-esque flair, writ kind of small, given the budgets. He was also very funny about saying improper things with good humor…

Right. I remember Jody Maxwell, aka “The Singing Cocksucker,” telling me that if I could find her a six-pack of Pepsi Light she would be my sex slave for the day, and Ron saying “Shut your mouth, you’re my sex slave, you whore.” With this impish grin on his face.

That’s exactly it.

Not that I would have necessarily taken up her offer. It was weird: being on that set kind of killed my sex drive for a while, and I was only 21 at the time.

Right? The first adult movie I saw, I was 19, and it was one of those “doctor in a white coat” examination scenarios, I remember. And it was a huge turn on. But after that, it wasn’t. And then working on them was not a turn on at all. I’d hear that a lot from crew guys. You know, maybe the first day, and you’re standing around and thinking “Oh my God, it’s sex.” But then after that — I don’t know what happens, your brain stops processing it that way.

As American Ecstasy gets into the mid-’80s, you see a lot of performers like Nina Hartley and Sharon Mitchell, who soon made their way to California and became legends of adult—both as performers and activists. Were you tempted to make that exodus at the time?

I went out with Ron for one shoot in San Francisco, and I enjoyed that, and at the time Ron was bicoastal. And by ’86 he was more or less out there full time, and he invited me out, he said “I’ll introduce you to everybody, you’ll work all the time,” and I thought about it for a while. But I just didn’t like L.A. And I stayed here because I prefer New York.

During the early ’80s it was San Francisco and New York, San Francisco on account of the Mitchell Brothers. Those were the epicenters of porn. Why do you think it settled in L.A., or more specifically, the Valley?

San Francisco fizzled out. I think the move had more to do with people like Jim South, agent/producers of his ilk, who were recruiting in Los Angeles. And that led the talent to Los Angeles. And the talent got younger, which made the product different. One of the interesting things that Ron Sullivan used to say frequently, he preferred working with older women. The way he put it, they could tell a sexual story. They could enact a sexual story. And they could bring a lot more nuance to it. But the producers always wanted “young and beautiful,” “younger and more beautiful,” always that, and then younger. Ron felt that a twenty-year-old doesn’t have the sexual experience that a 35-year-old had. And it also might be a New York-Los Angeles thing. Because New Yorkers are edgier by nature.

What did you think of Boogie Nights when it came out?

I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. And I know a lot of people in the industry didn’t. I really thought it captured the pathos and the highs and the lows. I think [Paul Thomas Anderson] got it. As for the depiction of drug use: I never really used drugs. My body doesn’t respond well to them; maybe I’m just lucky that way. And because of that, I didn’t pick up on it in the work at first. So it was quite a while before I realized that a lot of my colleagues were going through this while high on cocaine. It wasn’t until one of the camera people I was working with laid out what cocaine’s effects were that I put two and two together: “Oh, so that’s why they’re like this!” There’d be this massive amount of enthusiasm and excitement and people trying to do fourteen things at once and then later on in the day everyone would be depressed as hell and barely functioning. And I would just think it was their personality.

After you decided not to follow the industry out to L.A., where did your photographic work take you?

Well, because I decided to stay in New York, I worked on television shows, doing stills and portraits. But in the ’90s there were things happening in fetish and S&M porn production in New York, some very underground companies here that started bubbling up to the surface. And that led me into the BDSM world, and I spent 12 years shooting private individuals who were in that world.

There were quite a few clubs that, because S&M didn’t always involve overtly sexual activity, were able to stay active during the years of AIDS and various political/legal crackdowns.

They all moved around a lot. I’m actually sorry I wasn’t around that world in the ’70s, when you had people like Marco Vassi proposing a kind of ideal of erotic practice. Sexual liberation was a lifestyle; it was a big part of the social life for a lot of the performers. My sense is that in contemporary porn, there’s much more of a line of demarcation between the performing life and the private life. Sex is a business for a lot of them. At the end of my being in the porn world, I started to see girls come in with a business plan. I saw the choice of performing in porn go from being a kind of political statement to a very pragmatic one, where someone would come in and say “I’m going to do X number of movies and make this amount of money, I’ll strip this amount of time, I’ll buy three houses.”

I suppose the ability to do that constitutes its own kind of statement. But the terms of how performers make any kind of money in the field nowadays have been rejiggered by the internet.

That’s for sure. All these years I’d so wanted to make a book out of this, and the work has meant so much to me, maybe too much, maybe because it was the first thing I did that I was passionate about, the first art project I had a passion for. But eventually that’s going to stop, and then I’m going to go back to my “Smooth Hotel” series. There was a long period when everything I was doing was explicit sex, but this is different. I’m taking, with this series, the explicitness out. I write a little story line, and I bring people in, models, actors, people I meet on the street, whatever suits the narrative, and we act out the scenario and I shoot it. It’s a way of telling my own stories in the stills or even in a single shot.

What do you make of the interest being shown in this era of American erotica? You see DistribPix putting out high-def videos of stuff like Misty Beethoven and a label like Vinegar Syndrome doing similar things, and midnight shows of vintage erotica at hip theaters in Williamsburg…

It’s totally cool! I think if you sit down and talk to people in their twenties today, they are so refreshing. They have a different view on sex than people of our generation do. They’ve been able to remove a lot of the shame around sex. From where I sit, they’re just a lot more open. And they’re intrigued, they’re turned on, but they also take this stuff kind of lightly: “Look at those weird hairdos.” I find it very refreshing, And I think they see a certain authenticity to it that you don’t get in a lot of contemporary porn. Because the bodies are more natural. You don’t get the spray-on tan thing…they’re not perfected. And older people find a certain nostalgia in it.

Glenn Kenny writes film reviews for RogerEbert.com, and was an editor and critic for Premiere magazine until 2007. He is the author of Phaidon/Cahiers du Cinema’s forthcoming Anatomy of an Actor: Robert DeNiro and of a memoir, My Life In Pornography, which will be excerpted in the literary magazine Black Clock this fall.