“American Ecstasy”: A Unique Guidebook Through Porn Land

American Ecstasy is a wonderful coffee table book: sexy, funny, artistic, thought-provoking. What else could you ask for?

OK, here’s something else: its photographer/author Barbara Nitke raised hell when she sued the federal government a decade ago, challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act, which criminalized the posting of “obscene” content on the internet.

But let’s get back to her marvelous new book.

In 1973 Nitke’s husband Herb produced the historic film The Devil in Miss Jones, launching the Golden Age of Porn. Nine years later, as the era was coming to a close, Nitke was hired to shoot publicity stills as porn films were being shot. The industry was filled with energetic young people straight out of film school, all creating a new genre of movie. Many of the performers were creative and self-aware as well.

As Nitke recalls, “Every time [I started a new shoot], I had a fresh feeling of running away to join the circus. I had a ringside seat at the greatest show on earth.”

With this book, we do, too.

The photos feature garter belts and boom mikes; naked men and women patiently awaiting the perfect placement of a spotlight; exhausted, gorgeous women catching a nap between takes, hair mussed. There’s an astonishing photo of a nude 27-year-old Nina Hartley straddling Damian Cashmere’s face—and talking to director Henri Pachard.

All the while, Nitke is telling us what is was like for her—and this woman can write. She’s funny, she’s insightful, she’s compassionate, she’s melancholy. A gifted storyteller, she recalls the hard work, the frustration, the triumphs—and the humanity of everyone concerned. She generously adds commentary by the giants of the era. Nina Hartley says some pretty smart things about being in the business. So does Candida Royalle. So do a lot of the men and women involved in creating the images we’ve been living with for decades. They’re the subterranean explorers for a society that has a never-ending thirst for what they do—while marginalizing and damning them for doing it.

American Ecstasy is simultaneously three books. There are the sexy, compelling, sometimes surprising photographs. There’s the writing by both Nitke and the various participants. And there’s the juxtaposition of the photos and words, which gives heightened resonance to each other. We can read Ron Jeremy’s thoughts (“It’s a wonderful life…but once in a while, I hate to think that this is all I’ve done…it all ended in my being a porn actor, and that’s as far as I got.”) while looking at a photo of looking enraptured with the girl of our dreams. Candida Royalle talks about her years of needing rape fantasies in order to get real satisfaction.

Whether through picture or story, the book features dozens of fascinating people: Sharon Mitchell, Joey Silvera, Nina Hartley, Ron Jeremy, and others. Together they’ve been involved in hundreds of millions of American orgasms. Millions of hours of American ecstasy.

The production of this book is simply fantastic. The binding, the heavy paper, the voluptuous color all combine to bring these images and this era to life. With all due to respect to Kindles and iPads, if you like actual books, you will love this book.

Some people say a picture is worth a thousand words. As an author, I’ve always said that a word is worth a thousand pictures. With Nitke’s new work, we don’t have to choose. Combining words and pictures, she documents an era brimming with outlaw eroticism, fearless experimentation, and youthful innocence. In this unique way she enriches our perspective on something that has become, for many of us, quite mundane. And she entertains us at the same time.

It’s a great accomplishment, definitely worth the price, and a highly recommended treat for yourself, or for someone you love.

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