Photographer Zoe Strauss Took This Photo 10 Years Ago. Here Is the Story of "Mattress Flip"

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Jan. 10, 2012

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On the corner of McClellan and Fifth streets in South Philadelphia, a group of young boys pass the afternoon executing daredevil flips off a stack of old throwaway mattresses. A woman driving by, a novice photographer, glimpses the small bodies somersaulting through the air. Startled, she pulls over, and winds up snapping seven or eight quick photographs.

In the best shot, a boy hangs upside down in the center of the frame while another boy stands off to the side. He’s gazing directly into the camera’s lens, shyly hiding the smile lighting up the rest of his face with a fist curled in front of his mouth.

The wall behind the boys is painted deep red, darker than the natural brick beneath. About 10 feet up the wall, the paint line looks like the high watermark of a recent flood.

The picture was taken in 2001. Since then, the photographer, Zoe Strauss, has become recognized as one of America’s top living artists and the photo, “Mattress Flip,” is one of Strauss’ most famous and beloved pieces, seen and appreciated all over the world.

“Mattress Flip” was an integral part of Strauss’ magnum opus, Under I-95. Every year from 2001 to 2010, Strauss converted an empty lot at the intersection of Front and Mifflin streets in South Philly into a temporary public-art gallery by displaying 231 photos—mostly street portraits, signs and architecture—on the concrete pillars holding up the I-95 overpass. Each aisle had a specific theme and every walking path presented narratives rooted in interconnectedness of the city, its denizens and art. Every installation is a fresh edit of an ever-expanding story: Strauss has repeatedly defined Under I-95 as an epic narrative exploring the beauty and struggle of everyday life.

“Mattress Flip” is a bestseller. At Under I-95, every print was sold for $5 each, while larger copies produced with fancier inks and papers have been sold through the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City for up to $3,000. A giant vinyl version of the photograph hangs inside Lincoln Financial Field.

On Jan. 14, a mid-career retrospective of Strauss’ work—a rare honor, especially for an artist who picked up a camera only 12 years ago—opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition unfolds in three parts: inside the museum, in a companion book, and on 54 billboards all over the city. In a project built on the premise of the intersection of worlds within worlds, even the parts have parts, including a slideshow inside the museum.

This week, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will drape a 70-foot-wide version of “Mattress Flip” across the pillars atop its famous steps. The image of the boys playing will announce the opening of Zoe Strauss: Ten Years.

It will also serve as a memorial.

The name of the boy in Strauss’ photo, the one watching the action, is Lawrence Edward Rose Jr., but everyone called him Boo. On June 17, 2007, six years after Strauss transformed his smiling face into a work of art, Boo was shot on Seventh and Mifflin streets, three blocks away from where he and his cousin, Botty (pronounced “Boo-dee”), flipped on mattresses that summer afternoon. The first bullet entered Boo’s stomach; the second, his knee. Boo died on July 12, the 214th homicide out of that year’s 392. He was 19 years old.

For 10 years, Boo’s family didn’t know the photograph existed, never mind that it was printed in books, exhibited in museums and hanging in homes all over the world. And Strauss, who lives four miles from the boy’s family, never knew about his murder.

Now, Strauss’ work and Boo’s memory are intertwined forever, frozen in one moment of bliss under the sun. It’s as if the series of chance encounters that led to Boo’s family’s discovery of “Mattress Flip” proves Strauss’ point: big or small, everything is connected.

Sa’ddiya Suku is a librarian at Haddington Branch on 65th and Girard. The 30-year-old grew up on the same corner the photograph was taken, which is just a block away from Boo’s grandmother, Gloria Richards’ house. Boo spent a lot of time at Gloria’s house as a kid, and was living with her when he was shot.

One day this past July, Suku was busy shelving books when she glanced down at a children’s book titled A is for Art Museum. In it, each letter of the alphabet is illustrated by a famous piece of art. “B” is for bridge, and features Monet’s “The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny, 1899.” “S” is for sunflowers, and features Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” “J” stands for jump, illustrated by “Mattress Flip.”

Written by the PMA’s senior curator of education, Marla Shoemaker, and museum educator Katy Friedland, copies of the book were given to every library branch in the city courtesy of the museum when it was published in 2008.

The PMA purchased “Mattress Flip” in 2003. Three years later, it was exhibited as part of a show called Summer Vacation. Friedland had to pass through this particular gallery to get to her office, so the image was on her mind when she started selecting artwork for the book in 2007. “I had to walk by it on my way to work every morning,” says Friedland. “And it made me smile.”

The cover of the book is a checkerboard pattern sampling of the artwork featured inside. A small version of “Mattress Flip” fills one of the squares. Boo was cropped out, but Saku recognized the painted brick wall as the one on McClellan Street. She opened the book.

“The first page I turn to is that exact picture,” says Saku. “I notice Lawrence. Boo. I knew he passed away.”

She had never met Boo, but recognized him from the neighborhood and knew his mother, 51-year-old Dorothea Richards. She took the book to Richards.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. Shadira said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 11:51AM

“Congrats Cuz U Reaaly Can Change A Person Life Foreal! Ily!”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 01:12PM

“I have lived on this block of McClellan St. since 1997... I remember the summer of those mattresses, how they drew the local children, how we watched in awe at the deftness of their moves and insecurity that one of those children might land badly and be hurt terribly. It went on for at least a week or maybe more before they were removed, gratefully before anyone got hurt. Years later, I wandered into Ms. Strauss' exhibit under 95, saw the photo and bought one. What a memory to be preserved so beautifully! I am sorry to hear about Boo, he represents so many that I watch grow here, some coming to a tragic end as he did, seemingly more then your average small neighborhood. The moment caught in the photo is one, having experienced it myself, is true and pure, the surge of joy in youth, testing the limits of it's body, a real life celebrating it's own force... What a gift.”

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3. Zoe Strauss said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 01:22PM

“Thank YOU, Sa'Diyya! Much love.”

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4. Mary C. said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 01:33PM

“Seeing the picture and then reading Boo's story left an ache in my heart. It is as if nothing could be done to prevent the outcome but this isn't true. Why was this the outcome and why were we so helpless to prevent a young man's death. Thank you, Zoe Strauss for capturing that moment and thank you, Philadelphia Inquirer for relating this story to all of us, We need to learn from this.”

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5. kcrace said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 02:29PM

“”

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6. Girls' Club said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 03:03PM

“It's a beautiful image.... Mattress Flip is on view now thru September 2012 at Girls' Club in Fort Lauderdale as part of the exhibition "Re-Framing the Feminine: photography from the collection of Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz." Exhibition surveys more than 50 female artists working with different modes of contemporary photography. More information about the exhibition, open hours, directions, etc. at www.girlsclubcollection.org”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 04:18PM

“wow. I'm crying. Condolences to Boo's friends and families.”

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8. Kathy said... on Jan 11, 2012 at 09:01PM

“Sincere condolences to Boo's kin and friends. I hope many people read this and understand there are so many stories and faces like Boo's underneath the crippling violence. Before reading this, I've always felt such incredible energy in this photo. I'm glad that it's a funny of him having fun that he's remembered in. You can just imagine the many lives that Zoe's photos depict a moment of.”

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9. Thomas Devaney said... on Jan 12, 2012 at 08:29AM

“Tara Murtha's story of Zoe's legendary photograph "Mattress Flip," is extraordinary. One of her best. The story of Lawrence Edward Rose Jr is absolutely heartbreaking. Zoe's story is giant and contains multitudes, but the magic of the work is that her photographs are so powerfully intimate, immediate, heroic, unforgettable.”

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10. htshell said... on Jan 12, 2012 at 01:11PM

“Excellent article. I've seen this photo for years and not known the story and how many lives it has touched. Very excited for Zoe Strauss at the PMA!”

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11. Anonymous said... on Jan 12, 2012 at 02:41PM

“I am so sorry to hear about boo. I had this picture as my computer wallpaper for about a year because those kids made me feel so happy. I feel like I've lost an old friend.”

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12. Khadijah Alderman said... on Jan 13, 2012 at 08:55AM

“From this article I have felt such ambivalence. It's sad and I continue to pray for the Richards family and Lawrence Rose, as well as all the young men and their families who have been affected by gun violence.
But I must say!" It was so refreshing to see this photo". It was LIFE with no inhibitions. It was like "NEXT"! This will be my lasting memory of Lawrence Rose.”

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13. Erica Bantom Martin said... on Jan 14, 2012 at 10:35AM

“Phenomenal work and phenomenal story. Thank you so much Zoe for your beautifullworks of art that tell the story of living in the city and Tara for writing this story. There are sooo many stories in our neighborhoods that go untold, I am grateful for this family that Boo's story did not go unnoticed. Thanks.

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14. Dorothea said... on Jan 15, 2012 at 08:32AM

“i would like to thank Zoe and the staff at the at the Art museum for keeping my son memory alive. Thanks you Ms.Suku for helping help finding the picture. making To here from some many positive people about my son it just brings tears to my eyes. At least my son didn't die in vain. This is a message to everyone please put down them guns live and let live. Life is to short, enjoy each day like its your last, have fun, run, jump, flip but don't shot. Thanks Sister khadijah and Tia Mr. & Mrs. Suku for everything and most of all Thank you Zoe.
peace and blessing to each and everyone”

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15. Anonymous said... on Feb 9, 2012 at 09:36AM

“So... the boy who is doing the flipping never got a penny from this? nice.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 9, 2012 at 09:36AM

“So... the boy who is doing the flipping never got a penny from this? nice.”

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17. Moe said... on May 22, 2012 at 10:21AM

“I really like that picture. It reminded me of my childhood. I would love doing flips in the trampoline and on my parents king sized bed. I will have to check out more of this guy's work. It looks excellent from what I have seen so far. I remember that when I was getting a roofing inspection that I looked down from the roof and got a little scared. I thought of the people who jumped down from a burning home onto the trampolines that the firemen would be holding out. I think that it would freak me out. I bet that this guy in the picture would flip onto the trampoline.”

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