Pride on Stage: Barbara Hammer

Episode Summary

Barbara Hammer (1939-2019) was a prolific director. She created some of the first films to explore lesbian identity and love.

Episode Notes

Barbara Hammer (1939-2019) was a prolific director. She created some of the first films to explore lesbian identity and love.

Special thanks to our exclusive Pride Month sponsor, Mercedes-Benz! Mercedes-Benz continues to support and stand with the LGBTQIA+ community. Listen all month long as we celebrate women whose authentic expression in their lives and bodies of work have expanded the norms of gender and sexuality in the performing arts.

History classes can get a bad rap, and sometimes for good reason. When we were students, we couldn’t help wondering... where were all the ladies at? Why were so many incredible stories missing from the typical curriculum? Enter, Womanica. On this Wonder Media Network podcast we explore the lives of inspiring women in history you may not know about, but definitely should.

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know–but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Educators, Villains, Indigenous Storytellers, Activists, and many more.  Womanica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures. 

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Episode Transcription

June is Pride Month, and to celebrate, we’re highlighting queer stars of the stage and screen.

Today we’re talking about a prolific director. She created some of the first films to explore lesbian identity and love. 

Let’s talk about Barbara Hammer.

Barbara was born May 15, 1939 in Hollywood, California. Her mother wanted to see her in front of the camera. She hoped Barbara would become a child star, like Shirley Temple, but they couldn’t afford acting lessons. 

Barbara studied psychology at UCLA. A day after graduating, she married Clayton Ward. He promised to take her around the world, and they spent a year riding from Italy to Hong Kong on a motor scooter.

But Barbara was unhappy as a housewife. After hearing a critique of the Miss America pageant one day on the radio, she declared herself a feminist — much to her husband’s annoyance. One of her neighbors told her he thought she was “queer.” She’d never  even heard the word before.

Looking for a way to channel her creativity, Barbara took a painting class taught by abstract impressionist William Morehouse. He noticed the sense of movement in her paintings and encouraged her to try filmmaking.

In 1968, Barbara made her first film, Schizy, about her coming-out process. It earned an honorable mention at the Sonoma State Super 8 Film Festival. After a year of marriage, she left her husband. She rode away on a motorcycle toward her new life, a Super 8 camera in hand.

Barbara landed in Berkeley. She traveled around the city with a tape recorder and camera and interviewed people in cars, on the sidewalk, and at gay pride festivals. 

In 1974, Barbara released her breakthrough film, Dyketactics. Using more than 100 shots in four-minutes, it showcased what would become her distinct style of overlapping images. The scenes of nude women in a forest were meant to depict lesbian sex from a lesbian point of view, rather than through the pervasive male gaze.

She produced 29 movies over the course of the decade, celebrating lesbian love, women’s bodies, and the natural environment. 

Barbara’s art turned more political in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as a reaction to the Reagan administration and HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1986, Barbara made Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS. She released her first feature-length film, Nitrate Kisses, in 1992. It featured interviews with lesbian couples to tell stories otherwise hidden by history. 

Her 1995 film, Tender Fictions, explored the fine line between fact and fiction in biographies and autobiographies. It featured her partner, human rights activist Florrie Burke. Barbara and Florrie met at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1986. Neither were looking for a serious relationship, until they found each other.

Wanting to help young lesbians pursue filmmaking like she had, Barbara sponsored two awards: The Queer Filmmaking Award and the Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant.

Barbara was diagnosed with endometrioid ovarian cancer in 2006. Her doctors gave her a grim diagnosis, but it didn’t stop her from creating seven more films, publishing an autobiography, traveling around the globe, and showing her work in several museum exhibitions. She chronicled her treatment in her 2008 film, A House is Not a Metaphor.

In 2016, Barbara premiered her final work, Evidentiary Bodies. The multichannel video installation incorporated footage of her nude body and x-rays of her medical diagnosis superimposed with a degrading film strip. The piece represented her experience with cancer.  

Barbara passed away in New York March 16th, 2019 at 79 years old. She and Florrie were together for 31 years.

All month, we’re highlighting queer stars of the stage and screen. For more information find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to creators Jenny and Liz Kaplan for inviting me to guest host.

Talk to you tomorrow!