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Photographer sees artistic moments in niche sexual communities

For more than two decades, New York photographer Barbara Nitke has cultivated an artistic viewpoint on the porn industry and BDSM communities.

Nitke visited IU Thursday to talk about her photographic work in the porn industry.

Her talk, “American Ecstasy: A Photographic Look Behind the Scenes of the Golden Age of Porn,” provided a behind-the-scenes look into certain sexual communities, particularly BDSM practices and adult film actors on set.

“Interviewing and photographing these people opened my mind to the fact that we’re all just built differently,” Nitke said. “And I found moments that I really considered to be worthy of art within the porn realm.”

Catherine Johnson-Roehr of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction organized the event highlighting Nitke’s work.

She said the Kinsey Institute received a money gift to fund the lecture from California photographer Michael Rosen, who also photographs in areas that are sex-positive.

“He asked us to use the funds to bring fine art photographers to campus to speak about their work,” Johnson-Roehr said.

Nitke said she began working as a photographer in the sex industry in 1982, on the set of a pornography film called “Devil Ms. Jones Pt. 2.”

Nitke landed the job with the help of her ex-husband, who silently produced the original film.

Nitke explained that during this time, porn was filmed with actual 35mm cameras because “as it might surprise you, there was no internet or DVDs in the ‘80s. People went to the theater to watch porn.”

Within this work, Nitke said she became interested in aspects that audience members wouldn’t see when watching porn in theaters.

She wanted to break misconceptions about sex workers and informing audiences about the business, she said.

“What was more interesting to me was what was going on when the cameras weren’t rolling,” Nitke said, “I got very curious about the actors as people.”

In the early 1990s, Nitke said the porn industry was undergoing a dramatic change.

Porn developed into a strictly video format, and much of the work moved from New York to Los Angeles.

With this change, she said she also decided to take on a different angle of photography, and began work in BDSM sexual communities.

“I started shooting people who really did SM in real life; they weren’t performers anymore,” Nitke said. “These people were really in love with each other.

“For them, this wasn’t a performance to pay rent, this was how they expressed love. They just happened to make love differently.”

Nitke began hanging out in BDSM communities, going to their parties and meeting people who participated in such activities.

She said she eventually gained their trust and was granted permission to photograph certain couples in BDSM sexual acts.

Nitke explained that within BDSM communities, there was always an emphasis on safety.

People would have gatherings to demonstrate how to participate in BDSM in a safe manner, to make sure that no one was ever hurt emotionally or physically.

“These were ordinary people with extraordinary sex lives,” Nitke said. “It’s extreme, but very loving.”

In regards to why people enjoy BDSM, Nitke explained that when experiencing physical pain, the body releases endorphins, giving the body a feeling of euphoria.

“These people felt enormously at peace with what they were doing. Some even described what happened to them as an almost religious experience,” Nitke said.

Besides her work within the porn industry and with people who participate in BDSM practices, Nitke took on a project where she set up sexual scenarios and scenes, but took out the actual sex and SM out of the picture.

“It was a challenge for me to do something sexual, but without explicitness,” Nitke said. “At this point, explicit was too easy.” 

Along with her own personal projects, Nitke has done photographic work on television sets and worked as a photographer for weddings.

Despite her work outside of explicit sexual acts, Nitke said this area is the one that has had the biggest influence on not only her development as an artist, but her development as a person as well.

“Working in this field taught me not to judge people,” she said. “It allowed me to open up my curiosity, open up my mind, and open up my self.”

Follow reporter Alexandra Mahoney on Twitter @Al_Mahone.

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