Pioneering Lesbian Filmmaker Barbara Hammer Passes

Pioneering Lesbian Filmmaker Barbara Hammer Passes

NEW YORK CITY — Filmmaker Barbara Hammer, known for her pioneering depictions of lesbian sexuality in several groundbreaking works, died last Tuesday in New York City at 79, according to several reports.

The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who recorded an “exit interview” with the ailing filmmaker last month, described Hammer as “a pioneering visual artist known primarily for her films, most of which deal with lesbians, personal histories, and the body.”

Hammer’s four-minute film “Dyketactics” (1974), Gessen added, “is a classic of lesbian hippie joy; her first feature, ‘Nitrate Kisses,’ from 1992, was a visual and sensual exploration of hidden lesbian histories. Most of Hammer’s work is nonlinear, based on striking connections that she draws among disparate facts, images, movements, and sounds. Hammer appears in many of her own movies: she speaks, dances, and asks a lot of questions. With retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and the Tate Modern, in London, among other venues, she is probably the first artist to have achieved mainstream acclaim for a lifetime of work done as a lesbian, largely about lesbians.”

Hammer was born in Hollywood and studied at UCLA. After the breakup of her marriage in 1974, she came out as a lesbian and became an independent filmmaker, with a 45-year-long career filled with international awards and accolades.

Though largely considered an avant-garde or “art house” filmmaker, Hammer’s frank explorations of female sexuality were influential beyond museums and academia.

“The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” wrote novelist and critic A. M. Homes in a Vanity Fair remembrance, “is restoring more than 80 of her films, including her groundbreaking and inescapably explicit ‘Dyketactics,’ the first lesbian erotic film made by a lesbian.”

At a time when, as critic Jacquelyn Zita wrote in 1981, heterosexual male filmmakers were depicting lesbians as “either powerless or totally perverse,” Hammer’s work dared to show a kind of love and sexuality that did not need the filter of a male gaze.

Asked in 1998 about the complex relationship between the commercial pornography of the 1970s and her films, Hammer replied: “I called them erotica. I never called them porn.”

“Monaco Film Laboratory [in San Francisco] celebrated me and [commercial pornographers] the Mitchell Brothers at a dinner once, because we were both making sexually explicit work,” she added. “I went on stage and publicly confronted the Mitchell Brothers with their pornography. It felt like I was coming from a very different place. […] It was the normalcy that I was talking about. I wanted to situate love-making just like eating breakfast or having this interview. It's just an everyday activity — if you're lucky. All the restrictions around sexuality come from other institutions. I never had those inhibitions.”

When asked by Homes if she had any “thoughts on a ‘female’ or ‘lesbian gaze,'” Hammer answered “You look, you see, you are gay, you look back.”