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The Melancholy Beauty of San Francisco's Street Mattresses

The Melancholy Beauty of San Francisco's Street Mattresses
Amanda Durbin

First-time visitors to San Francisco are forgiven for mistaking the city for a great natural preserve for free-range mattresses. The blocky bed-pads and their symbiotic box springs have emerged as a dominant species – sunbathing on sidewalks like albino porpoises, lackadaisically leaning against trees and mailboxes, rubbing grimy surfaces with discarded IKEA sofas in dark alleys. They're seemingly everywhere except where they belong, which is the dump or recycling center.

The Bay Area's weird preponderance of mattresses has become an obsession for local photographer Amanda Durbin, who's shot probably a "couple few hundred" of them since 2009. Durbin engaged her mattress fixture at first as a secret project, stalking her mysteriously stained quarry with old-school disposable cameras and a Canon AE-1. "No one even knew I took photos of mattresses," she says. "It was kind of weird and personal and explaining to my photo classmates or even to my friends why I did it seemed too tedious, so I took them for myself."

But her project has since exploded. She's taken so many photos of cruddy, neglected bedsacks that they've become a "thing" on Instagram – search for the hashtag #nothingreallymattress, and you'll find bedding paparazzi hailing from Portland, Seattle, New York, even as far away as Sydney, Australia. Her work was also recently featured in the Bay Area online magazine The Bold Italic, which is selling a poster of street mattresses for fans of demotivational art.

In that magazine, Durbin says she hopes the photographic movement is giving our nightly dream cruisers a well-deserved "last hurrah":

I always feel a tinge of sadness when I see one completely abandoned and hopelessly sloped against a trashcan. I mean, I love my bed. It's the most intimate piece of furniture one could own, and for more than the obvious (naked) reasons. They experience the best and the worst of us – the tears, the laughter, and the cookie crumbs. I feel like they deserve a more respectable demise.

I recently asked Durbin to talk a bit more about her fixation with these bedroom castaways. Here's what she had to say:

Have you developed any theories as to why they're here in such abundance?

Bed bugs? Eww, hopefully that is not the case. The need for memory foam? Laziness? I'm not totally sure. I do know that it's expensive to schedule a large trash pick-up [although city residents get two freebies per year] and many San Franciscans are car-less, so taking a mattress to the dump is a pain in the ass. I've also noticed that I see the most mattresses at the beginning and end of the month when people tend to move in/out of apartments, so I'm sure that has a lot to do with it.

When I moved, I definitely left a lot of furniture out on the sidewalk that I either didn't have space for or just didn't feel like moving around again. I still don't completely understand why one would throw out a perfectly good mattress, though. Those things are expensive.

Have you ever had to move somebody off a mattress in order to photograph it?

I would never ask to move someone laying on a mattress in the street. That'd be so rude of me! I think I've only encountered that situation a couple of times, but a person actually using an abandoned mattress because they have no place else to sleep adds great sentiment to the photo and to the project as a whole. I usually offer food to the transient who allows me to take his or her photo and encourage other #nothingreallymattress'ers to do the same. 

What's the nastiest mattress you've encountered? Do you even shoot the dirtiest ones?

I always shoot the dirty ones! Those are the best.... I've never encountered a mattress that has made me recoil, but often times they are saturated in urine, blood and other mystery substances. There could be rotting flesh and feces on a mattress, and I'd still snap a photo before I called the authorities.

Could you tell me a bit more about the #nothingreallymattress movement? Do you get random mattress pictures at all times of day from people in foreign lands?

What's cool about the #nothingreallymattress hashtag is that anyone can participate without it being filtered through me first. I'm sure most of the people using the hashtag have no idea I even exist.... As of now, there are 783 photos tagged with #nothingreallymattress from at least as far away as New York.

I don't want to take credit for being the first person to take a photo of a mattress, because I am definitely not. I actually looked up abandoned mattresses on the Internet back when I started the project to see if I was the first to do it, but was simultaneously disappointed and excited to find that, like many things, it had been done before. There's a site that's been around for 12 years that supposedly has over 25,000 pictures of street mattresses!

However, that didn't deter me from taking pictures for my own personal enjoyment. The only thing I can honestly take credit for is inspiring all these pals in the Instagram community to document mattresses with a hashtag and that is still super-neat to me. I mean, who doesn't love a good pun?

Photos courtesy of Amanda Durbin

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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