In 1982, five friends who just graduated from high school took a photo. It was a silly, spontaneous, and fun memory. At the time, they didn’t know that they would recreate the same photo for over thirty-five years.
The quintet’s picture series has inspired thousands of people around the world and caused quite a few teary eyes. But most viewers had questions. How did they do it? What on earth is in that random jar that Belves is holding? Read on to learn the heartwarming story of a lifelong friendship.
Their First Picture (1982)
On Independence Day of 1982, five friends — John Dickson, John Wardlaw, Mark Rumer-Cleary, John Molony, and Dallas Burney — snapped a photo near the Oregon-California border. They were at a lakeside cabin when they decided to snap a photo in front of the mountains.
In the picture, all friends have brooding expressions. The three Johns are shirtless, and one holds a mysterious jar. And yes, these details became critical several years down the line.
Their Story Began Long Before With Tragedy
The friendship between these five boys from Santa Barbara High School began long before their first photo. In 1977, John Wardlaw (Wedge) and some friends went to see Star Wars downtown. Unknown to them, a kite in the foothills got tangled in the power lines, resulting in the Sycamore Fire. The blaze destroyed 250 houses, including Wedge’s.
“We rented a house right next to the Dickson family,” Wedge told CNN. That’s when Wedge and John Dickson (JD) became friends.
How They Bonded Over Super 8 Movies
Wedge and JD shared a mutual interest: creating Super 8 movies. Their short films featured all manner of testosterone, including ninja fights, war stories, and a bit of science fiction thrown in. “We had a mutual interest,” recalled JD. “All five of us friends have been in them at some point.”
Through their love of movies, JD and Wedge befriended John Molony (Belves), Mark Rumer-Cleary (Kram), and Dallas Burney (Sallad). Sallad said that those movies “kept us out of teenage trouble.”
There Was A Cabin They’d Return To Every Five Years
The Five Friend Photos didn’t just rely on poses; they were shot at a particular place. During their first picture in 1982, the friends were on their way to Copco Lake, California. Wedge’s grandfather had built a Lindal Cedar Home cabin there in 1970, which the friends dubbed “the cabin.”
With three bedrooms, a basement, and a loft, the cabin made the perfect summer hangout spot for the friends. They would often visit the cabin to film more movies there.
How One Summer Trip Became A Lifetime Tradition
For the Fourth of July in 1982, the friends went up to the cabin. JD recommended that they snap a photo in front of the mountain view. He pulled out his 35 mm camera and they struck a forlorn pose on a deck railing with the mountains and lake behind them. That became their baseline photo for years to come.
Although JD first pitched the photo opportunity, Wedge ultimately decided to recreate the photo five years later. From then on, Wedge would bring the camera every time so they could copy the shot.
Their Second Picture (1987)
In 1987, the gang drove up to Copco Lake again and decided to recreate their original photo. They sat in the same order from left to right: Wedge, Kram, Sallad, Belves, and JD. However, they made one technical mistake. In the 1987 photo, Wedge’s shoulder was not behind Kram’s like in the original. They would later rectify this error in photoshop.
Otherwise, their picture looked perfect. Same shirtless men, same mysterious jar. Speaking of which, you’re probably wondering about the mysterious jar.
Yeah, What’s With The Jar?
During the gang’s first journey in 1982, they found a cockroach and made it their mascot. They placed their mascot in a jar with some butterscotch candy. “For some reason, we thought he might be lonely,” the friends wrote on their website. “So we cut out a photo of actor Robert Young…from a coffee advertisement and placed him in a jar.”
As a result, the Five Friends Photo featured Belves holding up his cockroach-Robert-Young jar. It’s a signature move that the group would have to imitate in photos to come.
Nobody Planned Their Third Photo
In 1992, the five friends returned to Copco Lake with some unfamiliar faces. They traveled to the cabin during a different time of year to continue their Super 8 movie series. The group was working on a feature-length called You Only Die Once. It was a James Bond spoof, complete with a character called Lames Blond Double O Zero.
On this trip, the friends decided to snap their third picture. Today, their project You Only Die Once is available to rent on DVD through Netflix.
Their Third Picture (1992)
In their third Five Friends picture, the group all mirrored their original photo well. Like many of their later portraits, Belves holds an empty jar. It would be too difficult to catch a new cockroach every five years, after all.
Unlike the previous photos, the three Johns wear shirts. That may have to do with the overcast weather and not the usually sunny sky. One consistency they performed here–that didn’t last–were their neutral expressions.
Why Do They Look So Stern?
Over the years, spectators have asked the five friends why they chose to look that way. Even the men in the photos didn’t know why they decided to have dark, mysterious expressions. “I’m sure we all thought we were being really cool,” Wedge joked.
It’s possible that they were trying to imitate band albums from the 1980s. Either way, the expressions added another detail that the gang had to copy. In later years, they wouldn’t all follow it.
Their Fourth Picture (1997)
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 (2002)
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 (2007)
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 (2012)
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 (2017)
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…
By 2019, the friends had 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.”
A New Photo In 2022
In 2022, the friends again posed for the photo, marking 40 years since starting the tradition. This photo was even more special following Dallas Burney’s cancer scare in 2019. Thankfully, he recovered and reunited with his pals at the California lake.
JD plans on passing on their Copco tradition to his two-year-old son, Jimmy. For more information and updates, check out their website: fiveyearphotos.com.
40 Years Of Photographs And You Will Not Believe The Transformation
Nicholas Nixon, a photographer from Detroit, Michigan known for portraiture and documentary photography, began one of his most famous series of portraits, The Brown Sisters, on a whim. While he was visiting his wife’s family in the summer of 1975, he asked her and her three sisters if he could take a picture of them together.
The photograph above was taken in New Canaan, Connecticut in July of 1975. Bebe, Nicholas Nixon’s wife, was 25 years old, while Heather was 23 years old, Laurie was 21 years old, and Mimi was just 15 years old. Their transformation over the next 40 years is unbelievable.
Nicholas Nixon was 26 years old when he began photographing the Brown sisters. He had been married to his wife Beverly, or Bebe, as she’s known, for three years. The photograph above was taken in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1977, two years after Nixon first picked up his camera to photograph the four sisters.
“The series grew out of boredom,” said Nixon. “We’d go down to visit Bebe’s parents on weekends. It was kind of boring, a lot of socializing, we were expected to show up for dinner every day. Out of a friendly desperation, I said: ‘Let’s take a picture.'”
Nixon actually took his first photograph of his wife and her sisters in August of 1974, but he discarded the group shot because he thought it was uninteresting. The first portrait to appear in the series is now the shot from 1975.
In his second year of photographing his subjects, he describes using “some degree of negotiation” to get the shot. Two of the sisters wanted to be in the middle, so he settled on an order that would define the series. Left to right, the photos feature Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie. The photograph from 1978 was taken in Harwich Port, Massachusetts.
Nicholas Nixon is a champion of the use of a large view camera, and for The Brown Sisters photo series he chose an eight-by-ten-inch view camera and black-and-white film and stuck with his decision. Nixon also used a tripod to create the intriguing portraits of the sisters.
The photograph above was taken in East Greenwich, Rhode Island in 1980, five years after the first portrait of Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie was taken. Though he began photographing the sisters in their teens and early twenties, all four look like more mature adult women, but the series was far from over.
In 1983, Nicholas Nixon photographed the Brown sisters in Allston, Massachusetts. As a photographer, Nixon was influenced by the 20th-century American photographer Edward Henry Weston who photographed expansive sets of objects, still life shots, portraits, and whimsical parodies. His approach to photography was described as “quintessentially American, and specifically Californian.”
Nixon was also influenced by the American photojournalist Walker Evans who was best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the effects of the great depression. Evans used an eight-by-ten-inch camera for much of his work, just like Nixon did in this series.
Nicholas Nixon preferred to use large-format cameras even though many of his contemporaries abandoned large-format cameras in favor of shooting with more portable cameras on 35 mm film. Nixon said he preferred the format because it allowed prints to be made from the negatives.
He said of his approach, “When photography went to the small camera and quick takes, it showed thinner and thinner slices of time, [unlike] early photography where time seemed non-changing. I like greater chunks, myself. Between 30 seconds and a thousandth of a second, the difference is very large.” This 1985 photo of the Brown Sisters taken in Allston, Massachusetts definitely seems to capture more than a thousandth of a second.
The Brown Sisters was shown in its entirety for the first time in the Frankel Gallery booth at Paris Photo. Shortly after, it was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, then went on to the St. Louis Art Museum, Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the National Gallery of Art.
The series has also become popular online. The impactful photographs speak to several themes: aging and the passage of time, sisterhood and family bonds, and coming together again, and again no matter how much we’ve changed. Above all, the series speaks to the power of one good idea.
The 1988 photograph was taken in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The Brown sisters ultimately had control over the shape the series of photographs took over the years. All four sisters had to agree on the choice of the photographs every year.
While some photographs show the sisters simply posing side by side, others seem to display their closeness, with the Brown sisters hugging each other, holding hands, or wrapping their arms around each other as they stand in a row. The greatest power of the images is their ability to make us imagine the story behind the camera, and think about what could’ve happened in the twelve months between each shot.
When The Brown Sisters debuted in 2014, Nicholas Nixon already had a career which spanned decades, as a critically acclaimed photographer. His first exhibition took place in 1976, a year after he started photographing the four sisters, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit was curated by John Szarkowski.
Before his solo exhibition, Nixon’s early city views of New York and Boston, taken in the mid-1970s were exhibited at New Topographic: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The exhibit was hailed as one of the most influential of the decade. The photograph above was taken 14 years after his first solo exhibit.
Nicholas Nixon also had several other successes in the first couple of decades he was photographing the Brown sisters. In 1976, 1980, and 1987 Nixon was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellowships. He was also awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1977 and 1986.
In addition to The Brown Sisters, Nixon was photographing another famous series, People With AIDS. The series, shot on an eight-by-ten-inch camera, followed 16 people with AIDS through their uncompromising illness. It depicts subjects embraced by their children, partners, and parents—from their front porches to their hospital beds—as their bodies shrink. The series began in 1986 and was collected and made into a book in 1991.
After his People With AIDS series, Nicholas Nixon began photographing school children in and around Boston for his photography book, School, released in 1998. The images show children hamming it up for the camera at their desks, whispering behind their hands, frustrated at the blackboard, and self-consciously crossing their arms over their stomachs.
At the same time, Nicholas Nixon and Bebe had two young children of their own, Sam and Clementine, who Nixon photographed. Photos from this period were collected for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston’s exhibition Nicholas Nixon: Family Album which also included The Brown Sisters series.
Nicholas Nixon told Ahorn Magazine that he decided to become a photographer, “the first day of a photography class I took at The University of Michigan.” Before Nixon became interested in photography, he was an English major and said he was influenced by many writers. The writers he admires include Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.
In addition to obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1969, Nixon went on to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico in 1975. He also became a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 1975—the same year his famous portraits of the Brown sisters began.
When Nixon’s The Brown Sisters debuted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the photographer explained the story behind the photos, and his choice to leave out the shot from 1974. “It didn’t really get serious until the next year, the year of Laurie—the woman on the right’s college graduation. And that’s when I took the second one, and kind of on a whim, said let’s do it in the same order.”
He continued, “So it was having two pictures in my hand, and the space between them that gave me the idea that it would be really interesting to do it forever. And so, I asked them if we could. And they all laughed at me and said sure.”
With the Brown sisters’ permission, Nicholas Nixon’s famous portrait series continued. Part of his motivation for taking the portraits was the warmth and love he felt from his wife Bebe’s family over the years.
“Being an only child, it was really gratifying and lovely to be embraced by this family,” Nicholas Nixon explained. “There’s still a ground water of affection and support. I look back at these [then] thirty-some pictures and it’s like they’re of my sisters. I can feel myself getting old with them. And I’m part of them; they’re part of my love.” The feeling Nixon describes is often mirrored by viewers’ responses to the photographs.
Nixon has expressed his gratitude for the Brown sisters many times, but one of his most moving statements might be this one: “There are four people I would like to thank: The Brown sisters themselves.”
He continues, “These pictures grew out of my curiosity about and admiration for this band of beautiful, strong women who first led me into their lives, then allowed me to try making one picture, then joined m in a tradition, an annual right of passage. I love my sisters-in-law, Mimi, Laurie, and Heather, and I thank them wholeheartedly for their love and patience. Bebe, my true love, my best friend, is the center of my life. How lucky, how grateful I am.”
The photograph from 2009 was taken in Truro, Massachusetts and depicts the four Brown sisters staring seriously into the camera and leaning on each other. Though we don’t know what happened in this year of their life, they seem to be supporting each other through a difficult time.
The Brown Sisters is one of the lighter subject matters Nicholas Nixon has taken on in his career. In addition to his portrait series People With AIDS, Nixon also photographed the blind, the sick, and people in nursing homes throughout the years. He recorded his many of his subjects over periods of years in order to facilitate a connection between the viewer and the subject.
One of the interesting things about The Brown Sisters is that the viewer also gets to watch Nicholas Nixon develop as a photographer over forty years. Nixon says his approach has changed in that time.
He told The Daily Beast, “As I get older it feels like ‘right now’ slips away easily, and that I need to live more fully in the moment, instead of being partway somewhere else. I try to bring a greater intensity and awareness to my work, to try to honor the present a little more.” Each moment in the lives of the Brown sisters forces viewers to reflect on this same passage of time.
In the time that Nicholas Nixon was photographing the Brown sisters, major changes happened in the photography world. Analog film became more archaic and photoshop became popular. “Photoshop is a little bit like someone driving while talking on the phone,” says Nixon, “allowing you to do something you once had been unable to do.”
Nixon doesn’t seem to be a fan of Photoshop, explaining, “That distraction clouds over the witness function of photography, and makes me more aware of the role of analog photography to just be there and to be trusted, since the beginning.” Creating that trust has always been an important part of capturing intimate portraits for Nixon.
Nixon also sees The Brown Sisters as “different from everything else.” Nixon explained, “Not only because it is long term, but because my role is collaborative. We articulate what it is about together. I’ve always felt the need to be fair; to put a hold on the more self-interested, persuasive artist part and focus on my role as a family member.”
He continues, “In honoring something larger than photography, in time, it will make a larger kind of sense. … Most of the time, most of the fact of time in a picture is quite clearly a short moment.” Instead, The Brown Sisters honors forty years in the life of Nixon’s family.
The final portrait from The Brown Sisters series was taken in 2014, and shows Mimi, Laurie, Heather, and Bebe forty years older than when the series began. Their incredible transformation from their early twenties and teen years to their sixties is striking, but what might be even more striking is their enduring bond.
The final photograph was taken in Wellfleet, Massachusetts and shows the four sisters smiling gently and confidently into the camera, embracing each other in a row. Unlike the playful first photo taken on a July day in 1975, they now have a lifetime of experience behind their eyes.