Porn in the USA

Lessons I Learned Working in Porn

By on December 4, 2013

When Barbara Nitke worked as a porn photographer, it was at the end of the era known as the Golden Age of Porn. Known for shooting the behind-the-scenes intimate moments that you don’t get to see in the movies, Barbara documented her 12 years of shooting porn in her book, American Ecstasy – a memoir in pictures and words.

From the book American Ecstasy. Photo Credit: Barbara Nitke

From the book American Ecstasy. Photo Credit: Barbara Nitke

I went to work as an on set photographer on porn movies in 1982, just at the end of the Golden Age of Porn.  It was an exciting time in the business.  We shot real film on big movie cameras, with crews of twenty people or more, and all the accoutrements of Hollywood movie making.

My biggest client was one of the great porn auteurs, Henri Pachard.  He was everything you’d expect.  He slept with all the actresses, did mountains of cocaine and got divorced and remarried every couple of years.  I learned all kinds of things from him.  Once on a very hot set when an actor couldn’t produce the money shot, Henri leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.  The human body can’t produce sperm over a certain temperature.”   I’ve always wondered if he just made that up.

One thing I unfortunately did not learn was the effect of Vaseline on deep throating.  I photographed Little Oral Annie for days going down on all of the biggest guys in the business.  She made it look effortless, but I noticed that she always a put large gob of Vaseline in her mouth just before they started shooting.  I finally got up the courage to ask her about it, and was so nervous that I ran out of the room when she offered to give me a lesson.

The biggest lesson I learned is that porn imagery works as a Rorschach test.   For example, people who think sex is shameful will be appalled by pornographic images, although they are often the biggest customers.  Sex positive people will sometimes embrace porn as part of their love life, or just ignore it.  Looking back, I can see that I had a classic approach/avoidance reaction.  I was repressed, but curious, and terrified of my curiosity.  Because I was raised to think sex was shameful, I thought people who performed sex for a living must be damaged.  But I still wanted to be part of their world.

I had the hardest time coming to terms with the people who thought sex flicks could be educational and uplifting.  Candida Royalle was one of the first to see the potential for porn as a healing and educational tool.  She was the polar opposite of Henri – stable, thoughtful, earnest.  As much as I admired her, and could recognize that she was on the higher path, working on her sets was infinitely more confusing for me than the wham bam walls of sex that I was so used to.

Henri’s drama filled, enervating shoots echoed my childhood.  I was at home in that atmosphere.  I could stand back like a fly on the wall, watching the crazy circus, feeling superior to it all the way now people watch trashy reality shows.   But my lesson from Candida’s shoots was that I didn’t know how to handle kindness.  I saw that I was always looking for the disconnect, the dysfunction, the cynical joke – rather than anything helpful to people.

One of my favorite lessons was from Nina Hartley, who taught me that sex work can be a clear choice.  I was on a set with her in 1985 when she had just graduated summa cum laude from nursing school.  She was trying to decide between a nursing career and a porn star career.  She chose porn, and that really made me think.

Over the twelve years I worked in the industry, I came to terms with my own sexuality.  It was a painful process, but it opened up my whole world.   I came out the other side wiser, happier, more willing to experiment in my own life, and much less interested in judging others.

From the book American Ecstasy. Photo Credit: Barbara Nitke

From the book American Ecstasy. Photo Credit: Barbara Nitke

A great book, a great gift, get a copy of American Ecstasy here

What lessons have you learned from watching porn?