Monday, November 25, 2013

Post #5 Barbara Hammer

Portrait of Barbara Hammer
Barbara Hammer is an American filmmaker in the genre of experimental films. In the late 1960s she was drawn to experimental film while studying film at San Francisco State University. During that time she came out as a lesbian, an act that helped radicalize her approach to directing. Subsequently she left her marriage, took off on a motorcycle with a Super-8 camera, she finally became America’s progenitor of lesbian filmmaking with her film Dyketactics (1974).

She is widely known for creating groundbreaking experimental films dealing with women's issues. She uses avant-garde strategies to explore lesbian and gay sexuality, identity, and history, along with other heretofore unrepresented voices. Hammer says, “It is a political act to work and speak as a lesbian artist in the dominant art world and to speak as an avant-garde artist to a lesbian and gay audience. My presence and voice address both issues of homophobia [and] the need for an emerging community to explore a new imagination.” 

Barbara Hammer at Jeu de Paume, Paris (2012) 

In the 1970s her films dealt with the representation of taboo subjects through performance, and in the 1980s she began using an optical printer to make films that explore perception. In the 1990s she began making documentaries about hidden aspects of queer history. According to Chuck Kleinhans, Hammer “She [Hammer] has made film and video mediations on death that are deeply personal, but also films about large issues of war and social justice.” Moreover, Hammer has made “polemical pieces on AIDS, and also challenging representations of the female body (Kleinhans, 167).”

Maggie Humm notes in Author/Auteur, “Gynocriticism is a way of assessing works of art specifically in relation to the interest and desires of women (Humm 95).” As I mentioned above, Hammer is renowned for creating the earliest and most extensive body of avant-garde films on lesbian life and sexuality, including Dyketactics (1974), Superdyke (1975) and Women I Love (1976).

Barbara Hammer, Superdyke, 1975
From Barbara Hammer's Superdyke (1975)
From Barbara Hammer's Dyketacits, 1974.
Women I Love
Barbara Hammer. Women I Love, 1976.
In Superdyke, she shows groups of women traverse a meadow carrying bows, arrows, and shields emblazoned with “Amazon” or dancing in the street in front of San Francisco’s city hall. The images are of individual women, striking in their diversity of size, shape and age, but unified by the commonality of rituals and shared experience. Also, Dyketacits is the first lesbian lovemaking film made by a lesbian; it reveals Hammer's aesthetic connecting sight and touch. The camera is not a distant voyeur or blunt close-up recorder as in so much pornography, but a living and movie presence capturing, framing, and re-framing caresses and touching. Women I Love presents a series of portraits which show women in nature or in intimate settings in an often magical way. Opening a dishwasher reveals daffodils in bloom, and the flower reappears in a plastic speculum, being actively kissed by one of the lovers. A lover appears on a motorcycle trip, another in a forest glen. Lovemaking appears not isolated, but as part of a continuum of nature and intimacy.  

Kleinhans asserts that through her films, Hammer provides empowering imagery for a group of people (lesbians) who have been denied filmic representation from their own point of view and free access to public space. (Kleinhans, 170) Barbara says in an interview with BOMB magazine, “I was lucky when I made Dyketactics I didn’t realize that it was the first lesbian film made by a lesbian. I would have been so afraid and intimidated. Instead, I just burst out and let my energy carry me through my work. In some ways being alone was great. There was a blank screen and I was filling it. That was a thrill. At the end of Dyketactics, I showed a vagina on the screen and this man screamed, AAAAAAAHHHH! All the women said, haven’t you seen that before?”

According to Kleinhans, for some feminist critics, the romanticism of Hammer’s work in the 1970s created a disturbing undercurrent. Some rejected what they viewed as her ideology of a separate mythic goddess spirituality or Amazon culture. Some found images of naked women in pastoral nature a flight from reality and her autobiographical depictions of her own body and those of her lovers a recapitulation of masculine patterns of looking (Kleinhans, 171).  As Kleinhans notes, Barbara Hammer’s evolving accomplishment in film and video art challenges the audience to new ways of thinking and feeling, new kinds of experience. Kleinhans claims, “The filmmaker faces the world and challenges it, not simply recording life but provoking the audience and changing it (Kleinhans, 183).” I believe what makes Hammer extraordinary is, as an auteur, she has made experimental films that blur the boundaries of media art, and shed new light on the women's issues. 


Humm, Maggie. Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist Film, Feminism and film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Print.

Blaetz, Robin. Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Barbara Hammer’s Website:




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