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Barbara Hammer - Biography

Barbara Hammer is a lesbian filmmaker and widely held to be an originator of queer cinema. She was born on May 15, 1939 in Hollywood, California. A highly prolific filmmaker and videographer, Barbara Hammer has directed over eighty films and videos throughout her thirty-year career. Barbara Hammer made the world's first lesbian films in 1974 (Dyketactics) and 1976 (Women I Love). Since then she has made over three dozen films. Her most recent feature length films include Lover Other (2006) and Resisting Paradise (2003).

Barbara Hammer is the grandchild of D.W. Griffith’s cook, and she was introduced to such screen luminaries as Lillian Gish as a child. But it was not until the 1970’s when Barbara left her marriage and took off on a motorcycle when she began her own filmmaking career. In 1974, while attending school in UCLA, the young Barbara met a group of women and realized she was both a lesbian and a feminist. Her early films from the 1970s, which were experimental shorts ranging from three to twenty-five minutes in length, explored the themes of sapphic desire and processes of female reproduction. In 1974 Barbara Hammer introduced the first lesbian film to the world, Dyketatics. The film was a short and was shot close-up in all black and white. The film features real sex between two women, Hammer and a friend, the film was very controversial and groundbreaking. Barbara says the following about the film in an interview with BOMB magazine:

I was lucky when I made Dyketactics I didn’t realize that it was the first lesbian film made by a lesbian. I would have been so afraid and intimidated. Instead, I just burst out and let my energy carry me through my work. In some ways being alone was great. There was a blank screen and I was filling it. That was a thrill. At the end of Dyketactics, I showed a vagina on the screen and this man screamed, AAAAAAAHHHH! All the women said, Haven’t you seen that before?

Barbara Hammer's work has received international exposure and recognition. In 2007, The Chinese Cultural University, Taiwan, held a retrospective for Barbara Hammer as a tribute to her work. Barbara Hammer's films, most of them shot on Super-8 or 16mm film, engage in a dialectic with the material dimension of film. This can be seen clearly in her film Sanctus (1990), which was created from previously shot film of moving x-rays by Dr. James Sibley Watson. The technological dimension of bodily movements and functions emerges in pulsating visual sentences overlapping text, portrait, and diagram. Sanctus, as well as her work in the 1980s, makes use of optical printing as a means of transgressing the purity of perception. Barbara Hammer also uses archival footage in her films, for example footage of Black Panther rallies and labor strikes in the film Tender Fictions (1995), to contextualize her personal experience as a lesbian filmmaker.

Barbara Hammer has always proudly declared to be both a feminist and a lesbian, as she says in an interview with Ellen.com:

I was told by feminists who were promoting writers and performers at the time, I should choose. Which did I want to be? Either an avant-garde artist or a lesbian filmmaker, I couldn't be both. I just never could make that choice, because I love both. I just followed my instincts and made films about what I needed to make films about.

Barbara Hammer's documentary films tend to deal with people and groups who have been excluded and relegated to the margins of history. Functioning neither as objective historical documents nor as subjective diaries, her films are intended to situate the viewer within an historical process so as to engage with the struggles for liberation. Her film Nitrate Kisses (1992) was chosen for the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Barbara Hammer was a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Fall 2005 at the Bratislava Academy of Art and Design, Slovakia.

Barbara embraces a unique optimism and powerful strength for the future, in an interview with BOMB magazine she says:

Yes! I also think it’s time for idealism again. We have been living in cynicism, depression, and a sort of status quo for a number of years. I don’t think we can have a diversified culture by just accepting it. We need our personal energies behind that. Every place that I’ve been teaching, I bring together everyone in the classroom. I see apathy and I say to them, “This is our time, let’s try it again.” We need to learn how to grab hold of the life force again. That use of the erotic that Audre Lorde wrote about so beautifully. She was our great living representative. Somebody who has changed all of our lives. She told me if I ever encountered a racist comment, to not let it go by. I extend that to anti-Semitism, to homophobia, a comment on size or looks, all the different ways that we as people feel the need to disparage each other.

Barbara Hammer received the first Shirley Clarke Avant-Garde Filmmaker Award in October 2006 and the Women In Film Award 2006 from the St. Louis International Film Festival. In February 2007, Barbara Hammer was awarded a tribute and retrospective at the Chinese Cultural University Digital Imaging Center in Taipei, Taiwan sponsored by Women Make Waves Film Festival. In April, 2008, Diving Women of Jeju-do premiered at the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival where Barbara Hammer presented, followed by a trip to Beijing where she showed her 1970 lesbian films to a Feminist Seminar and a new LGTQI Center.

One of her most recent work is an experimental film on cancer and hope, A Horse Is Not A Metaphor, which she premiered in June, 2008 at the 32nd Frameline International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in San Francisco. A Horse Is Not A Metaphor was selected for the Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art, and the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2009 where it won the Teddy Award for Best Queer Short Film. The film is in the short film competition at Punta de Vista Film Festival in Pamplona, Spain and Festival des Films des Femmes, Creteil, France.

Recently the MOMA in New York held a month long retrospective in 2010 honoring Barbara Hammer’s impressive and innovative lifetime of work. The show included screenings of I Was/I Am (1983), Bent Time (1983), Optic Nerve (1985) and A Horse Is Not A Metaphor (2008). The show included some of her lesser known plays and performance pieces including her role as Bob Hammer in Tender Fictions (1995), and other performance-related projects like Homage to Sappho (1978), Put a Lesbian in the Whitehouse (1979), Available Space (1979), Changing the Shape of Film, Moving Projector, and Balloon Projection (all 2009).The show included the world premier of her newest film Generations (2010), made in collaboration with Gina Carducci.

Barbara Hammer teaches each summer at The European Graduate School EGS in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Barbara Hammer lives and works in New York City. She has had retrospectives at The Berlin Film Festival and Centre Pompidou, Paris in 1985, the Digital University Taiwan in 2005, and Universitad Complutense in Madrid in 2008. Barbara Hammer received an IASPIS artist residency for 2009 in Sweden. Her memoir HAMMER, Making It in Sex and Movies is from the Feminist Press at CUNY and was published in the spring of 2010. The book covers the wild days of non-monogamy in the 1970s, the development of a queer aesthetic in the 1980s, the fight for visibility during the culture wars of the 1990s, her search for meaning as she contemplates mortality in the past ten years—HAMMER! includes texts from these periods, new writings, and fully contextualized film stills to create a memoir as innovative and disarming as her work has always been. The publication of the book coincided with a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Reina Sophia in Madrid, and the Tate Modern in London. In 2011 Barbara won the TEDDY for the Best Short Film: "Generations" by Barbara Hammer and Gina Carducci & "Maya Deren’s Sink" by Barbara Hammer.



Barbara Hammer is a professor of experimental cinema at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she conducts an Intensive Summer Seminar.