30 YEARS IN THE MAKING

Five friends from Santa Barbara, California go on vacation every 5 years to the same place to take the same group photo and they have been doing it since 1982. They started as teenagers when they were just 19 years old. In 2012, at age 48, they have taken their 7th photo, 30 years after it began.

They visit the same lake. They stay in the same cabin. They sit on the same bench. They sit in the same order. They make the same pose. They even make the same facial expressions. And, starting five years ago, some of them began wearing the same clothes.

Left to right: John Wardlaw, Mark Rumer, Dallas Burney, John Molony, John Dickson

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1987

1992

1997

2002

2007


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The Story

Santa Barbara News-Press
Charlotte Boechler, News-Press Staff Writer

October 24, 2007 10:34 AM

You could say the friendship of a group of Santa Barbara High School graduates has developed over the years.

In a Kodak Gold 200 sort of way.

That's because the men get together every five years to take the same photograph of themselves -- at the same location, in the same position, with the same facial expressions, holding the same type of props.

It began in 1982, a year after graduation. John Wardlaw invited his close buddies John Dickson, Mark Rumer, Dallas Burney and John Molony up to his grandparents' cabin at Copco Lake in Northern California to hang out for a month that summer. Sometime before the end of the trip, they used a self-timer to take a group photo sitting on the rail of the deck with the mountains in the background.

"Once we took it and saw the photo, we said, 'We should come back and take it in five years.' I said, 'We have to vow to do it every five years,' '' recalled Mr. Wardlaw, 44, a Santa Barbara photographer, filmmaker and Web designer. "We all thought, 'In 20 years, what if we all don't know each other?' By vowing to take a photo every five years, it would be a way to stay in touch."

Twenty-five years later, they continue to get together at the Siskiyou County lake every five years. They just recently got back from celebrating the milestone. They may not be freewheeling teenagers anymore who caravan there together (schedules prevent that) and they may not stay as long as they used to (schedules prevent that, too), but they still show up. Originally, it was simply about getting together. Now it's about getting together to take the photo.

"At this point, it's the whole reason we're there," chuckled Mr. Dickson.

The men do whatever it takes to make it happen.

"Mark drove all night just to get there this year," said Mr. Dickson, 44, of Goleta. "He arrived at 3 a.m. the day of the photo."

"My flight was cancelled and connecting flights would have made it so I couldn't make the trip," explained Mr. Rumer, 44, of Santa Barbara. "It was 12 hours of driving."

Two of the guys no longer live in the area, but they made it, too. Mr. Burney, 44, came from Sonoma; Mr. Molony, 44, all the way from New Orleans.

Although some of the men visit the lake in between, the group is adamant about sticking to its vow of every five years. Especially when it comes to taking the photograph.

"One time, we went up early. Mark refused to be in the photograph," recalled Mr. Dickson, who operates the Web site www.santabarbara.com. "We were all sitting out there and he wouldn't come out."

"It wasn't every five years!" explained Mr. Rumer, co-founder of telecommunications business Occam Networks.

To date, the group has taken six photos -- in 1982, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007. Looking at them side by side, it's as if someone at the photo lab had a little fun and did an age-progression. It's the same guys, just, as the years progress, slightly older versions of them. At the same location (on the wooden rail against the slope of the mountain). In the same position (not only left to right, but there's Mr. Molony sitting up straight and Mr. Dickson with his hands crossed in front of him). With the same facial expressions (Mr. Wardlaw's downturned mouth, Mr. Molony's tight lips). Holding the same type of props (jar in Mr. Molony's hand, hat propped on Mr. Rumer's knee).

It's obvious they go to great lengths to recreate the original photo. But, despite their best efforts, there are some noticeable differences.

"We know . . ." Mr. Wardlaw groaned.

For example, the sunglasses. In the first photo, only Mr. Molony is wearing them. In the second photo, only Mr. Molony. In the third, all five of the guys are wearing sunglasses.

"Intentional!" Mr. Wardlaw insisted.

"It was cloudy. It was the first photo taken without a full blue sky," he said, adding that they were just playing off the fact. "Yes, we do not have control of the weather -- yet."

They did take an alternate photo, however, Mr. Wardlaw said, with just Mr. Molony wearing sunglasses (which, incidentally, they have since decided to start using as the official photo for that year).

Yeah, but how do they explain the fact that Mr. Molony isn't wearing sunglasses in the fifth photo?

"He forgot and we didn't catch it," Mr. Wardlaw admitted. "We were devastated." (Mr. Wardlaw fixed it by using Photoshop to add the sunglasses to the version they display on the wall of the cabin).

Then there's the shirts. In the first photo, Mr. Wardlaw, Mr. Molony and Mr. Dickson aren't wearing any. In the second photo, they aren't, either. But in subsequent photos, everyone is.

"It was cold and cloudy," Mr. Dickson explained. "From that point on, we didn't have tans like we did early on."

"And we were flabby," said Mr. Wardlaw.

"Oh, yeah!" said Mr. Rumer.

"The main reason is we didn't have tans anymore," Mr. Dickson repeated, for the third time.

And, while they use the same type of props, they aren't the same props. In the first photo, Mr. Rumer has a bucket hat on his knee. In photos that follow, some show him with a bucket hat; others a different style. Similarly, in the first photo, Mr. Molony is holding a jar in his hand. But, in other photos, it's a different jar. Instead of a coffee jar, it's a peanut butter jar or sun tea jar.

This year, however, the men were determined to bring the props back as close to the originals as possible.

"We were going to all this effort to take the photo sitting in the same position, with the same expressions. Why not use the same props?" said Mr. Dickson.

While at the lake, they found a hat that resembled the original bucket hat and a jar that looked like the coffee jar. They even attempted to find the contents of the original coffee jar, which contained a cockroach that they caught near the cabin, a piece of butterscotch candy (to feed the cockroach) and a photo of "Father Knows Best" actor Robert Young (to, in their words, keep the cockroach company). While they found a piece of butterscotch candy, they were unable to locate a cockroach and photo of Robert Young. And, yes, they really did try (well, for the Robert Young photo anyway).

Weather notwithstanding, they've done everything they can to recreate the original shot. The question is, How can they be sure they get it when they're at the mercy of a self-timer?

"I was the stand-in so he can adjust the camera," said Mr. Dickson, referring to Mr. Wardlaw. "Then he stands in and I adjust the camera."

They even mark their respective spots.

Once everyone is in place, they refer to the 20-by-30-inch enlargement of the original photo in front of them.

At some point, Mr. Wardlaw said, "one of us will usually yell, 'Just take the damn photo!' ''

"That's usually me," said Mr. Rumer, holding up his hand.

Up until this year, the men used film. Then something happened that changed their lives forever.

They discovered digital.

"It took 30 seconds to take the original," said Mr. Wardlaw. "Now it takes a half hour to take a photo because it has to be perfect ."

Before, they took just two or three photos.

"We took six or seven this year," admitted Mr. Dickson.

"You can say, 'Move that shoulder back -- reshoot!' We never had that ability before," he explained.

"Early on, it wasn't as important to get exactly perfect. As the years go on, it becomes more important."

The digital camera makes them even more critical, said Mr. Rumer.

"Rather than say, 'That will be OK. We'll see it in two weeks,' now you can see if it turned out OK. If it didn't, then you take it again and again and again."

So, just how long do the men plan to continue to take the photograph? Actually, they discussed that very thing this year. If something should happen to one of them, they decided, they'll keep going.

"We'll just have a gap in the photo," Mr. Dickson said.