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Cory Silverberg

American Ecstasy - Interview with Barbara Nitke

By February 10, 2012

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I have a serious crush on Kickstarter. If you aren't familiar with the site, they describe themselves as "the world's largest funding platform for creative projects." Through Kickstarter I've been a part of making eight books, five films, one calendar, one art show, one graphical assistive device, and one window farm company make their dreams a reality. Which also means I got all that stuff to show for it. Not all the projects I've backed with a contribution (I've given everywhere from $5 to $150) are related to sexuality, but for creative people who want to do work around sexuality Kickstarter offers an amazing way to find out if there's an audience for what you want to do, and if there is, to do the work exactly the way you want, and not simply the way that a publisher, distributor, or marketer things it will sell.

And it was through Kickstarter that I learned about photographer Barbara Nitke's newest project. American Ecstasy is a photo book collecting images and writing from 1982 - 1991 during which time Nitke shot publicity stills for hundreds of porn shoots in New York City.

I wanted to learn more about the project, so I asked Nitke if she would answer a few questions about her work, the new book, and crowd sourcing as an alternative to working with publishers.

You've been photographing sexuality, in various ways and through various lenses, for over 30 years. Have you noticed any changes in attitudes to your work and to the people whose lives you document?

I think people are becoming more open about sex, and more used to sex as a subject.  I guess you could say they're jaded or desensitized, but I see it as a positive change.  I've noticed that when I talk about my sexual photography, people ask a lot more questions than they used to.  And they usually just think it's interesting that I have chosen this subject.  Of course the change I'd love to see is more people hanging my work above their fireplaces!

Why are you publishing this collection now? Is it a nostalgic look back or do you see connections between how we are talking about and thinking about sexuality today and how we thought about it 30 years ago?

Actually I would have published it before if it had been possible.  I've been trying to find a publisher for years!   But the book contains hardcore images, and although many publishers like it, they have shied away from taking it on.

I finally decided that this is a good moment to do it myself.   I think the timing is good because people are more open to porn as a serious subject.  It's a nostalgic look back to a time when porn movies were made like real Hollywood movies, but it also deals with themes that are timeless.

In 2012 when porn chic has come and gone and the industry is financially imploding due in no small part to it's own myopic self-interest, I hate to sound cynical but can you tell me what's so interesting about porn sets and porn actors?

When I went to work on porn movies I was 31, and I was just coming into my own sexually, so being around so much sex at that moment in my life was very powerful.   In some ways the book is about my own coming of age and becoming comfortable with what would really become my lifelong subject, sex.

It's also about my exploration of the conundrum of sex workers.  Are they stars, taking charge of their lives?  Or are they victims, used and later discarded by a heartless industry?  It's an unanswerable question, but I believe it's well worth posing.

You chose to use crowd source funding via Kickstarter to publish this newest book.  One of the things I love about Kickstarter is the relationship it engenders between creator and audience.  What has the response been so far to the project?  Have people made suggestions or asked for anything in particular?  As an artist is this a necessary evil or do you see a benefit to the process?

I really love the process of creating something through Kickstarter.  People have written me to suggest how to promote the project and they have send wonderful notes of encouragement.  Some of my backers even threw a fundraising dungeon party for me!  I really enjoy sense of community that Kickstarter creates.

I also think it's a brilliant way to see if there is an audience for a project.  I figured out how much it will cost me to publish my book, and if I don't get enough backing, I'll know that the book won't have enough of an audience to warrant publishing it.  I'll be devastated, but I'll be saving myself a lot of heartache later on, along with a fortune in credit card debt!

For people who haven't been to the project page yet, can you tell us about some of the things people get for backing your project?

With a Kickstarter campaign, people who pledge money towards a project get rewards in return.  In my case they can get various sizes of prints from the book, classic postcards of the Pussycat Theater in New York, specially made jewelry from the images, and of course signed copies of the book itself when it comes out in October.

You've also become quite involved in activism around freedom of speech issues.  Given the amount of time you've spent documenting sexual sub-cultures, is this now part of your job?

Well I hope not!  It would be nice if they would quit passing laws against free speech, so people like me could just do our work.  I don't consider activism around free speech part of my job, it's just an outgrowth of who I am.  I can't sit silent and let my work get censored by unfair laws.  I understand if my work isn't someone's cup of tea, then of course they shouldn't look at it.  But it's unfair to silence hoards of artists just because some people find sexual imagery offensive.   But don't get me started!

Check out the American Ecstasy project page on Kickstarter.

Photo from American Ecstasy, used with permission by Barbara Nitke

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