Barbara Hammer Bio

Barbara Jean Hammer (May 15, 1939 – March 16, 2019) was an American feminist filmmaker known for being one of the pioneers of lesbian film whose career has spanned over 40 years. Hammer is known for having created experimental films dealing with women’s issues such as gender roles, lesbian relationships and coping with aging and family. She resided in New York City and Kerhonkson, New York, and taught each summer at the European Graduate School.

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Barbara Hammer Wiki/Bio

Barbara Jean Hammer

May 15, 1939

Hollywood, California, US
Died March 16, 2019 (aged 79)
Occupation Film director


Barbara HammerBiography

Hammer was born in Hollywood, California, becoming familiar with the film industry from a young age, as her grandfather worked as a cook for the American film director D.W. Griffith.

In 1961, Hammer graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received a master’s degree in English literature in 1963. In the early 1970s she studied film at San Francisco State University. This is where she first encountered Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, which inspired her to make experimental films about her personal life.

In 1974, Hammer was married and teaching at a community college in Santa Rosa, California. Around this time she came out as a lesbian, after talking with another student in a feminist group. After leaving her marriage, she “took off on a motorcycle with a Super-8 camera.” That year she filmed Dyketactics, which is widely considered one of the first lesbian films. She graduated with a Masters in film from San Francisco State University.

She released her first feature film, an experimental documentary, Nitrate Kisses in 1992. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. It won the Polar Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Best Documentary Award at the Internacional de Cine Realizado por Mujeres in Madrid. She earned a Post Masters in Multi-Media Digital Studies, at the American Film Institute in 1997. In 2000, she received the Moving Image award from Creative Capital and in 2013 she was a Guggenheim Fellow.

She received the first Shirley Clarke Avant-Garde Filmmaker Award in October 2006, the Women In Film Award from the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2006, and in 2009 the Teddy Award for the best short film for her film ‘A Horse Is Not A Metaphor’ at the Berlin International Film Festival

In 2010, Hammer published her autobiography, HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, which addresses her personal history and her philosophies on art.

She taught film at The European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. In 2017, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University acquired Hammer’s archives.

Barbara Hammer Award

Hammer created more than 80 moving image works throughout her life, and has also received a great number of honors thus far.

In 2007, Hammer was honored with an exhibition and tribute in Taipei at the Chinese Cultural University Digital Imaging Center. In New York in 2010, Hammer had a one-month exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. Additionally, in 2013 she was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship for her film Waking Up Together. She also had exhibitions in London at The Tate Modern in 2012, in Paris at Jeu de Paume also in 2012, in Toronto for the International Film Festival in 2013 and in Berlin at the Koch Oberhuber Woolfe in both 2011 and 2014.

In terms of awards, Hammer was given a number during the span of her career. She was chosen by the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennials in the late 1985, 1989, and 1993 for her films Optic NerveEndangered and Nitrate Kisses respectively. In 2006, she won both the first ever Shirley Clarke Avant-Garde Filmmaker Award from New York Women in Film and Television as well as the Women in Film Award from the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Moreover, in 2008 she was given The Leo Award from the Flaherty Film Seminar. Her films Generations and Maya Deren’s Sink both won the Teddy Award in 2011 for Best Short Films. Her film A Horse Is Not A Metaphor won the Teddy Award for Best Short Film in 2009 it also won Second Prize at the Black Maria Film Festival. It was also selected for several film festivals: the Torino Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Punta de Vista Film Festival, the Festival de Films des Femmes Creteil, and the International Women’s Film Festival Dortmund/Koln.

Barbara Hammer Style and Reception

Hammer is an avant-garde filmmaker and focuses a large sum of her films on feminist or lesbian topics. Through the use of experimental cinema, Hammer has exposed her audiences to feminist theory. Her films, she says, are meant to promote “independence and freedom from social restriction.” 

Her films were regarded as being controversial because they focused on feminine taboo topics such as menstruation, the orgasm from the female perspective, and lesbianism. Hammer experimented with different film gauges in the 1980s, especially with 16mm film. She did this in order to show just how fragile film itself is. One of her most well-known films is Nitrate Kisses for being most controversial. It “explores three deviant sexualities–S/M lesbianism, mixed-race gay male lovemaking, and the passions and sexual practices of older lesbians.”

Hammer’s film Dyketactics (1974) illustrated the importance of the female body to her work, and is shot in two sequences. In the first sequence, the film depicts a group of nude women gathering in the countryside to dance, bathe, touch one another, and interact with the environment.  In the second sequence, Hammer herself is filmed sharing an intimate moment with another woman within a Bay Area house. Between the two sequences, Hammer aimed to create an erotic film that used different film language than the mainstream, heterosexual erotic films of the time.

Hammer’s early films utilized natural imagery, such as trees and fruit, to be associated with the female body. Her film Nitrate Kisses (1992) was her longest film. The film comments on the fact that members of the LGBT community are often left out of history and simultaneously works to remedy the problem by offering some of this lost history to its viewers.

This style of film-making was met with mixed reactions. In a review of Hammer’s films Women I Love (1976) and Double Strength (1978), critic Andrea Weiss noted, “It’s become fashionable for women’s bodies to be represented by pieces of fruit,” and criticized Hammer for “adopting the masculine romanticized view of women.”


In 2017, the first Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant was awarded, to Fair Brane.

Feminist/ Lesbian Works Impact

Through her controversial work, Hammer is considered as a pioneer of queer cinema. Her goal through her film work is to provoke discourse on those who are marginalized, and more specifically, lesbians who are marginalized. She feels that making films that show her personal experience renaming herself as lesbian will help start the conversation on lesbianism and get people to stop ignoring its existence.

Cancer/Right to Die

In 2006, Hammer was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. After 12 years of chemotherapy, she fought for the right of self euthanasia. She referenced this in her works, such as her film A Horse is Not a Metaphor, made in 2009, in which she expresses the ups and downs of a cancer patient. Through her experience, she became an advocate for Right to Die and fought for the New York Medical Aid in Dying Act

On October 10, 2018, Hammer presented “The Art of Dying,” a performative lecture at the Whitney Museum of Art.

Barbara Hammer died on March 15, 2019, aged 79, in New York after a 12 year battle with ovarian cancer. She had been receiving palliative hospice care at the time of her death.

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