Barbara Hammer, iconic queer filmmaker and performer, died on March 16. She was 79, and had been battling ovarian cancer since 2006. Hammer’s work was most well known for its focus on lesbian sexuality.
Hammer, who had initially married her college boyfriend, came out as a lesbian in the 1970’s and began using a Super-8 camera to document queerness. Her film “Nitrate Kisses” from 1992 was named one of the 100 All-Time Greatest Films Directed By Women. The experimental film follows four couples making love and talking about issues in lesbian history, like the treatment of gays in the early 20th Century. Hammer produced many experimental films that brought the focus in on queer life and provided much-needed representation.
“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 the New Yorker in a recent interview. “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.”
When Hammer was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in 2006, she brought the lens onto herself once again. As she faced her own death, she became a right-to-die advocate, arguing that she wanted a dignified death. She turned this into a performance piece titled “The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety)”, which she performed at the Whitney Museum in New York City in 2018.
Hammer made more than 70 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).