Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Interview: Barbara Nitke, Legendary NYC Photographer

Great photographers don’t just take pictures – they capture the soul of their subjects, their pictures summon up emotions and thoughts, their lenses pierce into the fourth dimension. Photography is magic – it captures a physical moment in time but leaves a timeless, spiritual impression.

Barbara Nitke is one such magician, a New York-based fine arts photographer whose work concentrates on the sensual, the beautiful, the kinky, the romantic, and the unusual. She has photographed many human bodies in their most intimate, transitory of moments and has found, in her pictures, their deeper and perennial beauties. In addition to her amazing photographic projects, Barbara has worked as an on-set photographer for NYC TV shows and movies, and, most intriguingly, for the NYC adult movie and BDSM scenes. She has also taught at the School of Visual Arts and is a much accomplished, widely admired artist whose work is constantly in demand. She even took on the Attorney General of the United States in court over "indecency" -- and won!

Barbara was kind enough to answer some of Mr NYC’s questions about her love of photography and her career, and she shares her memories of being an on-set photographer during the last days of the NYC adult film world of the 1980s. She also gives some great advice for aspiring photographers, what she’s working on now, and why NYC will always be a great place to be a photographer.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a photographer.

I had originally wanted to be a writer, but found that I don't like the process of it. Staring at a blank page, figuring out what I want to say, struggling to find the right words - all that. I was in my late twenties when I first picked up a camera and started taking pictures for fun. I loved it immediately. And I realized I could explore all the fascinating little nuances of people much better through pictures than I could ever do with words. So photography became my medium.

You worked as an on-set photographer during the last days of the Golden Age of Adult Film. How did you get involved in that business?

My ex-husband produced a famous porn movie called Devil in Miss Jones in the 1970’s. When he made the sequel in 1982, I had just taken up photography and asked for the on-set stills job. I was such a beginner that I’m sure no one else would have hired me. Fortunately the director, Henri Pachard, liked my work and started hiring me for all of his shoots. That was a great break because Henri was highly regarded in the industry and worked all the time. When I was working on my second movie, Nasty Girls, I saw the opportunity to do an art series of behind-the-scenes photos of that world. It totally ignited my passion, and that was what decided me to become a fine art photographer.

What was the adult business in NYC like back then? What made it a "golden age" – and why did it end?

It’s hard to imagine now, but back then we shot real 35mm film on big movie cameras. Home video cassette players had barely been invented. There were no DVD’s, no home computers, no Internet. People went out to old-fashioned downtown movie theaters and actually stood in line to watch sex movies. A lot of craftsmanship went into making the movies. There were scripts, script supervisors, lighting technicians, sound technicians, hair and makeup people and even wardrobe supervisors.

Looking back, that was pretty amazing! We made porn movies the same way that arty, independent features were made. All of that would be unheard of in today’s world, because now anybody with a GoPro or even an iPhone can make a porn movie. But at the time, that was all normal to us. We only realized it was a Golden Age later, when we looked back to how the industry had changed after cheap video productions took over.

What is the art of being a good adult photographer – and what was it like shooting people having sex right in front of you -- exciting, boring, weird, or something else?

Actually, I don’t think I ever was a good adult photographer. I’m a great observer of people, and I’ve been on a decades long mission to humanize what might be called the dark side of the sex world. But more on that in a later question. I always had a lot of mixed emotions working on the porn sets. The days were very long - often 12-16 hours - and at the end of a day I had experienced so many emotions that it would seem like a year had gone by. There were long boring stretches, followed by excruciating moments when I wanted to reach out and save someone from - I’m not sure what. From being exploited? From their drug habit? From their personal demons? The deeper I looked into that issue, the harder it was to define.
And then an hour later, someone like Miss Sharon K. Mitchell would sashay across the set, gloriously naked and unequivocally proud. Which would confuse me even more.

You memorialized a lot of your pictures from that era in your book American Ecstasy. Tell us about this book and why you wanted to publish it?

American Ecstasy is my personal memoir, in pictures and words, of the twelve years I spent working as a still photographer on porn sets in New York in the 1980’s. It was important to me to publish the work because of my conviction that porn stars, and all sex workers, should be valued and treated with respect. Our culture creates the need for them, and then trashes them for fulfilling that need. I think that’s wrong, especially having known so many of them, both men and women. They deserve a lot better from us.

I see that the introduction of your book was by the legendary art critic and "philosophical aesthete" Arthur C. Danto (who lived in the same building I grew up in!). Was he an influence on your work?

Wow, I can’t believe you lived in the same building! Arthur was not an influence on my work, but he should have been. He was a witness in a lawsuit a filed against Attorney General John Ashcroft back in 2001. I was incredibly honored when he agreed to write the introduction to American Ecstasy. A great man, and a great mind!

And talking about aesthetics, adult work is often accused as being "male-centric"? As a female photographer in that business, is this a fair accusation – and how was your work different?

I guess adult work is male-centric in that the intended customers are men. At least that was true back in the 80’s and 90’s when I worked in the industry. But I don’t think that’s because there’s any conspiracy against women or female sexuality - it’s just harder to figure out what visually turns women on, while making them feel safe at the same time. Women are a much more difficult audience to target. If someone could figure out how to make porn movies that turn women on, they’d probably make a fortune.

As a female working in the business, I realized from the beginning that my view was different from what was considered good porn photography. There was some cross over - some porn moments that I really did think were hot - but overall I thought the scenes were obviously fake and sophomoric. (Although I did get a big kick out of the really campy ones.)

I was much more interested in capturing the complex emotions both the male and female stars were experiencing than I was in making them look like heroic sex machines. I found that it was pretty easy to identify just the right angle that would work as a good porn shot. Once I had the shots the producers needed to sell their movie, I considered myself free to roam around and get the moments that I wanted for my art series. For example, I loved it when somebody would yawn and look at their watch during a lens change in the middle of an orgy scene.

How has the art of adult photography changed or evolved in the digital age?

I honestly haven’t kept up with pornography in the digital age. From the little I know, it’s a lot more niche oriented and features much more extreme acts. What we thought was really badass back in my day, would probably be considered quaint today.

You photographed some of the most intriguing NYC stars of that time like Ron Jeremy, Vanessa Del Rio, Jerry Butler, Siobhan Hunter, and others. What are your memories of them and who were some of your favorite stars to shoot?

I loved them all! I always thought Ron Jeremy was a lot more complex and a lot smarter that his public persona, but that’s true of a lot of public people. Vanessa was really, really a STAR. She was probably the last true big time porn star. What people probably don’t know is that she has always been extremely down to earth, and has a wonderful sense of humor about herself and her stardom. Truly refreshing. Jerry Butler was horribly conflicted about his choice to be a porn star, to the point that it was sometimes painful to watch him on the set. And Siobhan Hunter was a medical school student, and is now a practicing doctor. But it would take days to tell all the stories. Of course, there are some really good ones in my American Ecstasy book.

You were also the on-set photographer for the acclaimed film Three Daughters directed by the legendary Candida Royale. What are your memories of that movie and Candida?

Three Daughters was a milestone movie in the industry, and it was a great attempt by Candida to use porn in a very positive way. For one thing, she wanted to educate the viewers on better ways to have sex. She was a pioneer in exploring female sexuality from a porn perspective. My memories of working on the show, however, were conflicted.

Siobhan Hunter was cast in the lead role, and the role brought up a lot of bad memories from her childhood. Because we were friends, I was aware of the personal pain she was going through during the shoot. But in the end, I believe Three Daughters might have served as a catharsis for Siobhan, and I’ve always hoped it turned out as a positive experience for her. In mainstream movies, it feels like there are less and less "big stars".

It seems like in the Golden Age there used to be some big stars too (come to mind). Like the big movie star, is the "adult star" in decline today?

Yes absolutely! I’m not sure why, but that does seem to be the case.

Have you seen "The Deuce"? If so, any thoughts?

I could probably come up with little things to quibble about, but overall I LOVE The Deuce. Love Maggie Gyllenhaal, and have loved her all the way back to The Secretary. She is brilliant and utterly fearless!

You also used to photograph the BDSM scene in NYC. How did that differ from your earlier work -- and what did you learn about BDSM that "square" people don't understand?

What was really interesting for me was coming from the been-around-the-block, sex worker world of porn into the real BDSM scene, where people are inhabiting their own sex lives. They aren’t acting, they’re really falling in love and expressing their love for each other. It was so different to see, and I knew right away that I wanted to understand what they were feeling and express that in photographs. They taught me that everyone expresses love differently, but it’s all love, no matter what it looks like from the outside.

Do you feel like society has gotten less "prudish" -- and do you feel like your work contributed to that (or is it just the Internet's fault)?

Well, of course I would like to give myself lots of credit for changing society! But I think there’s really just a natural progression of people becoming more sophisticated as they are exposed to more imagery and different ways of thinking. Overall, I think that’s a good thing.

You also worked on mainstream movies and TV shows in NYC like Law & Order, The Producers and, a personal favorite, Slaves of New York. What are your memories of working on those and other mainstream projects?

When I worked in porn, the crews were made up of young people fresh out of film schools like NYU. It was the first jobs they could get, and they were all excited and eager to prove themselves. There was a great spirit of enthusiasm and pride in craft back then, which I hope still exists today in the porn world.

Slaves of New York was a lot of fun! And so was Law & Order and all the other shows that I currently work on. The work conditions are much better - union rules and all - but I do sometimes miss that youthful exuberance of the New York porn world back in the day!

You've also taught photography, including at the School of Visual Arts. What do you try to teach your students about photography and what are the best lessons an aspiring photographer can learn?

Here’s my biggest tip - take a lot of pictures. And I also think that boring as it is, you can’t avoid learning the nuts and bolts of f.stops and shutter speeds, lighting ratios, ISO and white balance, and all the other technical things that beginning photographers sometimes try to skip. Digital cameras make taking reasonably good pictures very easy, but to really be a photographer you have to know the craft. With your camera set in manual exposure mode!

As a professional woman, what do you think of the #MeToo movement? Considering your work, you must have an opinion!

It’s so hard to have an opinion on the #MeToo movement. Sometimes I think things have gone way too far, when anyone can be publicly called out for a bad date or a passing remark. And then I think of women being drugged and raped by guys who are powerful enough to get away with it, and I’m very glad for the brave women who have come forward.

Tell us a little bit about what you're working on today and your hopes for the future.

I moved up to Harlem four years ago and built a run down motel room set in my living room. I’m creating a series of work featuring all the different people who show up to stay in the room. We make up a character and a little story, and the people act it out. It’s been an amazing experience so far. Most of my characters are actually crew people who I’ve worked with for many years on the reality show, Project Runway

Finally, what makes you love NYC -- and is this still a sexy city worth photographing?

How can I count the ways that I love New York? It’s such a great city! I love all the tremendous energy, diversity and raw humanity that you can reach out and touch 24 hours a day. It really is the city that never sleeps, and always comes up with something new to inspire me.

Thanks Barbara!

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