Barbara Hammer, Early Hardcore Lesbian Filmmaker, Has Died

NEW YORK CITY—It's not often that a maker of hardcore erotica gets a full New York Times obituary, but Barbara Hammer, a cinematic artist who spent 45 years perfecting the capturing of the intimate lesbian experience on film, was one of those. The cause of her death was ovarian cancer, and she was 79 when she passed at the home of her partner, Florrie Burke, in Manhattan.

Hammer didn't realize her sexual attraction for women until shortly after her divorce from husband Clayton Ward at 30 years old, but the realization changed her life, impelling her to get into making films of the lesbian experience, both her own and of others. By the time of her death, she had directed 44 films, most of them documentaries and short subjects, and many of them revolving around her understanding of woman/woman love and sex.

Hammer's first film, Barbara Ward Will Never Die, was an autobiographical short, lasting just over three minutes, and whose subject matter, according to Electronic Arts Intermix, "programmatically shows the desecration of a graveyard," presumably a metaphor for the "death" of her marriage to Mr. Ward. But it wasn't long before Hammer, in discovering her own lesbian sexuality, found that her attraction to women could be celebrated through her filmmaking. This led to the release, in 1973, of three short films, A Gay Day; Menses, a short study of women menstruating; and Dyketactics, just four minutes long, which The New York Times' Richard Sandomir described as "influential" and "about a dozen nude women in sensual montages in an idyllic forest setting in Napa Valley [with] added scenes of herself making love to a girlfriend. She called it her 'lesbian commercial.'" Considering that the world-famous Deep Throat had only been released the year before, to be called "influential" in those early days when society in general was just becoming aware of adult filmmaking is quite a compliment.

Over the next 25 years, much of Hammer's film output continued to focus on women, lesbian relationships and related subjects, including the 1976 San Francisco Art Festival prize-winning Superdyke Meets Madame X, described by the Internet Movie Database as "From the first kiss to breakup, Almy and Hammer record their relationship on a reel-to-reel 3/4" tape recorder and microphone"; Multiple Orgasm, which depicted "alternating close-ups of a woman masturbating and her ecstatic face"; Sappho; Women I Love; Parisian Blinds, No No Nooky TV, comparing how women view their sexuality with images of women and sex created by males; History of the World According to a Lesbian; 1986's Snow Job, one of the earliest discussions of AIDS; and several others.

But Hammer didn't just make films about lesbians and sexuality. Her 1992 documentary Nitrate Kisses, about the repression and marginalization of LGBT people since WWI, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and 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 also made documentaries such as the Diving Women of Jeju-do, about Korean shellfish divers; an examination of the work of artists Henri Matisse and Henri Bonnard during WWII, titled Resisting Paradise; and a short about the fragility of the human body, Sanctus. After Hammer's cancer diagnosis in 2006, she made the short film A Horse Is Not a Metaphor, about using horseback riding as both exercise and therapy as she underwent chemotherapy for her cancer.

Last Fall, Hammer gave a talk at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, titled The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in an Age of Anxiety), and according to The Times, "A retrospective of her work, “In This Body,” is scheduled to open on June 1 at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. It will feature a three-channel video installation of a new work, Evidentiary Bodies, an immersive synthesis of her career and her bouts with cancer. It includes images of her M.R.I. scans projected onto her body."

Photo of Hammer, seated at computer, at the at the 2014 Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon, by Michael Mandiberg, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.