An interview with Barbara Hammer


Before there was Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts) and Cheryl Dunye (Watermelon Woman) there was Barbara Hammer. In 1974, while attending school in UCLA, the young Barbara met a group of women and realized she was both a lesbian and a feminist, something that would influence not only Barbara herself, but generations of women — whether they realize it or not.

1974 is when Barbara put the first lesbian sex scene on film. It was a short, called Dyketatics, and shot close-up in all black and white. It was real sex between two women (Hammer and a friend) and it was controversial, of course. But it helped Barbara realized that capturing lesbian life on screen was part of her ideal life, and she wouldn’t stop using her camera and her sexuality to infiltrate the worlds of art and film. Now, she’s giving herself to the world of publishing with her new book, Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life.

And there is definitely a lot of both. Hammer will inspire you to keep anything you’ve ever written or created, and any photo you’ve ever taken — especially the ones that make you laugh or inspire you.

Ag age 70, Barbara went through all of her old writings and journals and photographs and created a funny and intriguing memoir about the life of an artist finding herself and her craft throughout four decades. If you’re familiar with her film Nitrate Kisses from 1992 (featuring two older lesbians having sex) or her historical account of lesbian photographer Alice Austen (The Female Closet), you will greatly appreciate the background on her ideas and how they came to fruition. And if you’re interested in her sexual escapades in Mexico and several cities in the US, there’s that for you, too.

About to embark on a book tour across the U.S. in which she’ll also be sharing some of her film work, Hammer took some time to chat with from her studio in New York City. One of my favorite things about your book is the list of things you wanted to accomplish in your life. Was that something you always remembered or was it something you came across in your archives and can now go over it and check things off?

Barbara Hammer: I was so surprised to find it in my archives. I had written it when I was young; I’d say the early ’80s. It did coincide with my move to New York, which was my big plan from the Bay Area in San Francisco, but I thought, “My God, what a cool foundation!”

Luckily, my mom believed in me! [laughs] I think that rubbed off. I never had a self esteem problem. I never thought I could be Virginia Woolf, so that’s why I didn’t go into writing. I felt like there were no avant-garde — well, there were no lesbian filmmakers. That was a direction that I could go into. I felt such a connection with images.

When I looked at my archives, there was so much writing I did in the 60s, 70s, and before my mom died, she said, “You should be a poet.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “All it takes is a pencil and a piece of paper.” I don’t think she knew what avant-garde film was. People weren’t doing it when she worked in Hollywood for a little bit. You read the story where I was introduced to [actress] Lillian Gish. She had plans for me. Maybe she knows, maybe she doesn’t know.

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