Hoot: The Story Behind The Image.

An important aspect of arts journalism is to tell the story that was not told in artworks.

Reading the Philadelphia Weekly’s cover story about photographer Zoe Strauss’s “Mattress Flip” (seen above), it is not difficult to imagine how the reporter, Tara Murtha, explores the story behind the photograph.

The story begins with the photograph. Murtha details the people and objects in the photograph: an afternoon, some abandoned mattresses, a boy who is flipping on them, a boy who is watching the camera lens, and even the wall in the background that has new paint on it. I like the details, for they describe exactly what the photograph looks like and bring me to that afternoon as well. Childish and carefree.

Then Murtha uses her tender narration to lead us to a cruel reality. Lawrence Edward Rose Jr., known as “Boo,” the boy who is watching the camera lens, died of gunshot six years after the photographer took this today’s well-known master piece. In fact, Boo’s story could have been shorter without Murtha’s mastery of details. The reporter reveals 2 moments at length: the first is when the people who knew Boo discovered the photograph; the second is when Boo left home to his tragic destination.

With a decent number of quotes, the reporter brings back a boy more than a body laid on the street; she shows Boo as a boy who lived in the love of his family and his pre-school teacher, a boy who showed love to a dog and dreamt to be a father on the day he died—these are all fascinating stories if not fabricated. (Knowing it is inevitable to quote something nice about the late Boo from his family, I’d rather believe Murtha is writing what she saw.)

Murtha’s story is timely: the photograph that served as the thread of the story is going to be exhibited in a rather grand way (it will be displayed on the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Meanwhile, regarding the social issue it excavated through the beautiful narration, it is timeless. The story has become a part of the artwork, and it will accompany the artwork to be examined by our descendants.

In her narration, Murtha made the story powerful at many points. In the very beginning the detailed depiction of the photograph serves well to make a contrast between the monumental joy in the picture and the heart-tearing tragedy revealed afterwards. The quotes of Boo’s pre-school teacher and funeral director mention education and street violence, two issues that have broader significance over children in this society.

In some cases, the artwork itself makes people think; for “Mattress Flip,” the photograph caught our attention in the first place and left a story behind, which awaits the journalist to excavate.

Text by Steven Yuan. Image by Zoe Strauss, from the Philadelphia Weekly website.

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