In the moment, five friends that had just graduated from high school decided to take a photo together. They had no idea what this photo would mean to them one day and what tradition it would start.
Thousands of people from every corner of the planet saw their photos and took inspiration from it. A lot of people had questions though, like how did they stay friends? Or what’s in the jar?
The Picture That Started It All
It was July 4th, 1892. John Dickson, John Wardlaw, Mark Rumer-Clearly, John Molony, and Dallas Burney all decided to take a photo together in a cabin near the Oregon-California border.
In this picture, all of the friends have the same brooding expressions on their faces. All three Johns have decided to go shirtless and one of them is holding a jar. Remember those details, they will hold significance later down the line.
The Story Stared With Tragedy
The friends from Santa Barbara High School had been together from way before the photo was taken. John Wardlaw, aka Wedge, and his friends decided to go see Star Wars in theaters in 1977. While they were out a blazing inferno set fire to 250 houses, one of them being Wedge’s.
Wedge told CNN “We rented a house right next to the Dickson family,” This is how John Dickson, aka JD, and Wedge met.
Super 8 Movies
Both Wedge and DJ loved creating super 8 movies. Their films included testosterone, ninja moves, and even science fiction. JD said that the two of them had a shared interest and all of the five friends had featured in them at some point.
The movies kept the teenagers out of trouble and soon they found more friends to join in – John Molony (Belves), Mark Rumer-Clearly (Kram), and Dallas Burney (Sallad).
The Infamous Cabin
The friends took the picture at the place they spent a lot of their time hanging out. The first picture was taken while they were heading to Copco Lake. The cabin had been built by Wedge’s grandfather.
The cabin had three bedrooms, a loft, and a basement. This meant that it was the best place for them to spend the summer.
After One Trip, It Became Tradition
For Independence Day the group decided to go to the cabin, JD thought that it would be nice to get a shot of the mountain in the background. He got out his camera and they all had a sullen pose.
Wedge is the one who decided to get the group to recreate the photo after five years. Wedge would always bring the camera for reference.
The Second Picture
The group decided to go out to the cabin again in 1987. They got down in exactly the same pose as before with Wedge, Kram, Sallad, Belves, and JD from right to left.
The picture looked amazing. It was the same five men with three of them shirtless. They had the mysterious jar out again, speaking of the mysterious jar.
When the group first took the photo in 1982, they decided to put a cockroach they had found in a jar and make it a mascot for them. They said on their website, “For some reason, we thought he might be lonely, so we cut out a photo of actor Robert Young…from a coffee advertisement and placed him in a jar.”
So the pose we all remembered is now explained, the cockroach-Robert-Young is something they couldn’t recreate every time though…
They Never Planned The Third Photo
Another five years past and the group came back to Copco lake looking quite different. They went to the cabin and continued work with their Super 8 film. Their film was called You Only Die Once, it was a James Bond parody starring an agent called Lames Blond Double O Zero.
This is when the group decided to take another photo, this would be their third.
The Third Photo
For the third photo, they did their signature pose. Belves even has the jar, it may be empty, but its significance is still there.
But there was a difference with this photo, the johns actually had shirts on their backs. It was probably due to the weather. But at least they still had their sullen expressions.
Why The Long Faces?
So why did the group have those expressions on their faces? Well they aren’t too sure themselves. Wedge joked, “I’m sure we all thought we were being really cool.”
It’s possible they were trying to channel their inner ’80s album covers. But the expressions themselves lend to the history and significance of the photo, so we don’t mind.
Their Fourth Picture
As 1997 rolled around, the friends met up at their usual cabin to take their usual picture. However, they started to get lazy with the imitation. Dallas was smiling in this particular shot, and everyone wasn’t as perfectly lined up as the original.
After this, Wedge created a series of guidelines to mirror the Five Year Photo accurately. He spent a long time ensuring that every shoulder, jar, pair of sunglasses, and hat were in order, much to the impatience of his friends.
How They Remained Friends For So Long
No friendship comes without spats, and the five friends were no exception. Even so, Kram told CNN that no major fights have broken out. “Other than two guys being irritated with each other for three months a little after high school,” Kram clarified, “it was nothing lasting.”
At one point, the friends almost broke their quinquennial tradition. They considered taking the picture earlier than five years, and it almost happened if not for Kram.
Not Gonna Happen Without Everyone
When the guys all got posed to take the “early” photo, Mark simply refused. “Mark refused to be in the photograph,” JD recounted. “We were all sitting out there and he wouldn’t come out.”
Here is the resulting photo. All the guys except Kram are out there on the railing and ready to go. As you can see, there are several other elements missing from this portrait. That all-important jar, for one thing.
And The Pictures Weren’t Their Only Tradition
When Wedge’s grandfather passed away, the cabin became his family home. This transition happened before the first photo was ever snapped, and allowed the quintet to create a decades-long tradition. Along with posing for the camera, the friends would also blast Pink Floyd and Rush–just like they did in 1982.
Wedge recalled that the group never drank alcohol at the cabin, with one exception. Wedge’s grandfather kept aged bottles of whiskey there, which the group would each take a sip of occasionally.
Those Were Some Silly Whiskey Bottles
The whiskey in the cabin was kept in a 1969 Ezra Brooks decanter shaped like a red boar, the Arkansas Razorback Mascot. Wedge says the original bottle is still in his possession, though empty now, and that he now collects them.
He shared this silly photo of himself holding two of the bottles and wearing the group’s trademark glum expression (and a terrific Copco Lake t-shirt). You can tell that these guys like to have fun.
Their Fifth Picture
As the century came and went, the five friends poured meticulous planning into their Five Year Photos. However, that didn’t prevent the friends from making some mistakes.
The most glaring issue in the fifth picture was that Sallad accidentally smiled. It was a mistake that his friends never stopped teasing him for. On top of that, Belves forgot to wear sunglasses; they were photoshopped later on. Belves’ giant jar was a deliberate joke.
Eventually, They Had To Embrace Digital Cameras
In the early 2000s, film cameras fell out of style. The group opted to use a digital camera, which came with pros and cons. “It took 30 seconds to take the original. Now it takes a half hour to take a photo because it has to be perfect,” Wedge complained.
Much later, Wedge would purchase a D800 with Video Assist to imitate the appearance of the original picture. For their sixth photo, however, the digital shot was taken with a D70 camera.
Their Sixth Picture
After kidding around with the ridiculously large jar five years earlier, the five friends resolved to imitate the original picture as accurately as possible. Belves wore sunglasses, everyone looked despondent, and they even added a caramel candy to the jar. Like the previous photo, everyone wore shirts.
Years later, fans on their website would accuse them of swapping photos, since they looked younger in their 2007 shot. The real reason for the different appearance was that several of the guys had lost weight. And one of them dyed his hair, according to Wedge.
Here’s When People Start Paying Attention
Around this time, the Five Year Photos began making their rounds across the internet. No one had expected the friends’ tradition to take off.
Their long-lasting friendship and playfulness seemed to have struck a chord with everyone. “We got a lot of emails from people who wrote they couldn’t believe we stayed friends that long,” JD reported.
But As Time Passed, It Became Harder To Meet Up
As the five friends pursued their careers, only one remained in Santa Barbara. This was JD, who ran the city’s tourism site. Sallad relocated to Antioch, California, to teach the third grade. Kram and Wedge both live in Oregon for engineering and photography, respectively. Belves moved all the way to New Orleans to work as a photographer.
Despite living in different states and working separate jobs across the country, the five friends still made the effort to meet up in Copco Lake.
Their Seventh Picture
No matter how far the friends had to drive, they all made it for their 2012 photo. At least Kram didn’t have to drive all night to get there as he had in 2007.
By daytime, they were all in position with a caramel candy and a photo of Robert Young in their jar. When they snapped the picture, though, the friends never expected it to take off like it did.
As If Overnight, They Became An International Sensation
“I couldn’t believe the amount of reactions (in 2012) to our picture,” Belves later reported. As if overnight, the group’s story appeared in magazines and webpages across the world. “I had a friend in Sweden let me know we were on the front page of his newspaper,” JD said.
Their photos even became an art exhibit in the Museum fur Kommunikation in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2018. All eight of their pictures were lined up in chronological order for guests to peruse.
The Friends’ Fame Landed Them With Big Stars
During the height of the “Five Year Photo” craze, NBC called up the group to appear on The Today Show. The friends flew to New York to talk to Matt Lauer. They were also featured on KGW Portland and Sunrise on 7 Australia in 2012, and in 2017 were on an Inside Edition segment.
Later on, Wedge later revealed that they had to turn down interviews with CBS, Fox, and ABC, among others.
Meeting The Fierce Five
On their New York City trip for The Today Show, the group met up with another iconic quintet: the Fierce Five. The artistic gymnastics team won the second team gold medal for the United States during the Summer Olympics in London in 2012.
The Fierce Five team members were Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Kyla Ross, Jordyn Wieber, and McKayla Maroney. The five friends are shown here meeting the celebrated Olympics team.
Their Eighth Picture
Several interviews later, the friends met up for their 2017 traditional photo. This picture marked their 35th anniversary. In honor of their Today Show appearance, they stuffed a photo of Matt Lauer in the jar.
For the first time since 1987, all three Johns were shirtless. Of all the shots, this photo imitates the original picture most accurately: hat, sunglasses, jar, and candy are all in their respectful positions.
However, Not Everyone Found Their Pictures Endearing
Belves told CNN that since 2012, internet users have responded with varying levels of respect. “About 75% of the responses were glowing and loving,” he explained, “but some of it was visceral hate.”
Commenters also threw out difficult questions, such as what they’ll do when one of them dies. The friends always reply with grace. “We thought an Urn might be funny,” the friends said on their website, “since we have a sense of humor about it.”
As Life Goes On, They Form Families Of Their Own…
Just as the friends carved their own lives and careers, they also created their own families. In 2012, two of the five were married. By their 2017 picture, all of them were. Despite this, the spouses rarely appear at the shoots — these photos are all about the original group of friends.
At age 51, JD and his wife, Sharon, had a child. So far, he’s the only friend who has had kids. “It’s been great,” he told CNN. “I wanted to become a father for a long time.”
Today, Their Adventure Continues…
As of 2019, the friends have captured eight photos. The pictures capture their lives and friendship throughout the years. “I look at the photos and think of the relationships I went through,” JD said. “Wedding rings come and go if you look closely.”
For 2022, the quintet plans to have people vote on whose picture will be in the jar. And now, they have an heir: JD will pass on their Copco tradition to his two-year-old son, Jimmy. We’ll see them in 2022! For more information and updates in the meantime, check out their website: fiveyearphotos.com.