Barbara Nitke showed some admirable staying power in compiling American Ecstasy, which saw the American photographer spend 12 years on porn sets between 1982 and 1991 – a period considered the adult film industry’s Golden Age. In the pre-internet world, these films had cinematic ambitions, employing proper cameras and lighting, large crews, often something resembling a plot, and dialogue that stretched beyond obscenities. It was also a time when porn stars were worthy of the name, and brought something to the table (and sofa, and kitchen sideboard) beyond their physical attributes. Legendary performers such as Ron Jeremy and Traci Lords are two actors who managed to cross over into the mainstream, the former because of his earlier career, and the latter in spite of it.
While it probably sucks less than a lot of jobs, pun intended, working in the porn biz certainly wasn’t a life of non-stop glamour, as many of Nitke’s images skilfully convey. When the cameras stopped rolling, boredom and fatigue were overwhelming. Long hours, low pay and crappy food were also among the pitfalls but, says Nitke, they didn’t care, and revelled in their outlaw status. “We were part of an elite corps who shot live sex for a living, in all its natural, dysfunctional glory,” she recalls wistfully. “We were cool beyond words.” Nitke is now a fashion and art photographer, and a member of the faculty of New York’s School of Visual Arts. American Ecstasy opens at the appropriately titled One Eyed Jacks gallery in Brighton, UK, on 4 April.