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Pioneering Lesbian Filmmaker Barbara Hammer Has Died at 79

Barbara Hammer

Groundbreaking experimental filmmaker, Barbara Hammer, whose work excavated lesbian lives and sexuality, has died of ovarian cancer at 79. The subject of multiple recent retrospectives, including “Evidentiary Bodies” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in 2017, Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses (1992) was recently named one of the  "100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women" by IndieWire.

Following her cancer diagnosis in 2006, Hammer became a right-to-die advocate. Her advocacy culminated with her performance “The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety)” at the Whitney Museum in New York City last October, where she made it known that she wanted “a dignified death," according to ARTnews.

Born in Hollywood in 1939, Hammer married her college boyfriend before coming out as a lesbian at the turn of the '70s. Upon their divorce, she began chronicling queer life with her Super-8 camera, she told Masha Gessen last month in what was titled “Barbara Hammer’s Exit Interview.”

“I got out of the marriage in about a year. I took with me my little Volkswagen and a tape recorder, and put it in my car along with a crazy dress. Then I started living in Berkeley and somebody gave me a Super-8 camera and I made a lot of films,” Hammer told Gessen.

“I went to Gay Pride and walked around interviewing people about what an orgasm felt like. And, you know, I would find some who would participate. But the audio didn’t come out, because it was so noisy at the festival. You could call it eccentric. You have an idea—you try it,” Hammer said.

During the same interview, Hammer and her partner of 30 years, Florrie Burke, told the story of how they met at The West Coast Women’s Music Festival, in Yosemite, Calif.

Hammer and Burke shared that they weren’t looking for anything long term, and yet, they were together for 30 years through Burke’s cancer and through Hammer’s.

Among Hammer’s other revered work is the landmark four-minute 1974 film Dyketactics.

Dyketactics depicts a group of nude women in an Edenic forest, their bodies intertwined in the midst of forming a community,” according to ARTnews. “Hammer often described the work as a depiction of lesbian sex from a lesbian point-of-view and positioned it as filmmaking about women devoid of the ever-present male gaze.”

“I have never separated my sexuality from my art, even if the film has nothing to do with lesbian representation,” Hammer said last year.

Throughout her 40-year career, Hammer made 75 short and feature films including  Multiple Orgasm (1976), 1986, Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), and The History of the World According to a Lesbian (1988).

Hammer’s legacy lives on in her films but also with the Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant, which she formed with money she received when Yale acquired her papers a few years ago, according to IndieWire.

“It has been the goal of my life to put a lesbian lifestyle on the screen. Why? Because when I started I couldn’t find any!” Hammer wrote in a statement at the time. “Working as a lesbian filmmaker in the ’70s wasn’t easy in the social structure…and I want this grant to make it easier for lesbians of today.”

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