“Once I started, I couldn’t stop,” Martha Posner remarked. Ironically, the sheer power and pervasiveness of sexual harassment had kept it from rising to the surface, personally, for the artist. Despite spending decades creating paintings and sculptures that emanated from women’s inequality, sublimation, and abuse, there that pain sat, dormant, pushed aside, swallowed, even forgotten, “or whatever it is that we do with the things that we really don’t want,” Posner said. “And then it all came flooding out of me.”
It was a watershed moment. The Harvey Weinstein case had just broken, and, like Posner, many women were beginning to talk about the unspeakable. In a possessed, trance-like state, she began handwriting “me too” over, and over, and over again on secondhand slips and bed-jacket linings. More empowering than cathartic, Posner divined the psychic energy and memories of the previous garment owners as a way of proclaiming and releasing what had, for too long, been hidden, buried beneath layers of clothing, anguish, sorrow, anger, and despair. Posner’s story, she realized, was every woman’s story.
The profundity of the outpour immediately struck an emotional chord with photographer Amy Arbus. “When I saw Martha’s garments, my heart stopped for a minute.” Arbus had recently abandoned Goddesses, a photography project portraying women in vintage nightgowns and lingerie that celebrated the vulnerability, strength, and overall complex nature of women—a subject she had yet to tackle during her prolific career, despite having been raised by four formidable women herself.
In the end, Arbus felt the series was missing something essential, an underlying thread that connected her subjects, so she reluctantly shelved it. But the fact that she and Posner, long-time friends and colleagues, were simultaneously utilizing intimate secondhand garments was not lost on her—nor was the way in which Posner processed and transformed women’s pain into a symbolic collective of beauty and perseverance. Within days, they began planning their collaboration.
Two months later, on January 20, 2019, on a closed set in Easton, Pennsylvania, Arbus photographed 19 subjects in Posner’s garments. Neither were prepared for the emotional intensity that would envelop that day. Both Posner and Arbus cast the shoot with women of diverse sizes, shapes, ages, and ethnicities, the majority of whom they didn’t know personally or whether they’d had a “me too” experience. “We were choosing anyone on the theory that almost everybody has a story,” Arbus explained, “and that was true in this case. You could see that 17 out of the 19 women had one. It was just painfully obvious. It just registered on their faces.”
At the same time, Arbus’s subjects were grappling with another dynamic of sexuality on set. Clad only in a slip, the insecurity many of the women felt about their bodies and how they compared to others was palpable—something that echoed Arbus’s own experience and struggle from a young age. “The pressure to be an object of desire is so intense for women in this culture. It’s so ingrained, it’s almost like nature, not nurture, because it’s the way we’re brought up. It’s inextricable from behavior. I didn’t want anyone to feel that they were less beautiful because there was someone else in the room who was a traditional knockout.” It was an exercise in fortitude, and their ability to push forward through it, together, further cemented their bond and the impact of the installation that would ultimately result.
Aside from helping cast and set up the logistics of the shoot, Posner was deliberately hands-off that day: “I respect Amy and I like her work very much, but even more important than that, I trust Amy. I trusted her with my work, and I also believed enough in my work to release it to someone else to bring their vision.” What resulted are 14 emotionally charged portraits, several of which were expressly printed to portray the women in a larger-than-life scale. “These women are survivors,” Arbus said. “Life is tough for everybody. I don’t mean that life isn’t tough for men. But these women know how to make it on their own.”
Posner had always viewed her garments as an invitation for collaboration. Unlike her past projects that involved clothing, these slips and bed coats are actually wearable. Seeing women from today clad in undercover apparel of another woman’s buried personal memories brought the project, in Posner’s mind, to its full fruition. “It wasn’t just a collaboration between Amy and me. It was collaborative between all of the women who were involved,” said Posner. “You walk by people all the time and you never know what they’re carrying.”