Thirty years ago, five Santa Barbara friends took a photo of themselves while on vacation at a family cabin on Copco Lake. What they didn’t know was that it would become a cherished 30-year tradition and eventually a viral Internet sensation.
Dallas Burney, John Dickson, John Molony, Mark Rumer and John Wardlaw were all roughly about 19 years old in 1982, when they first snapped the photo on Dickson’s Pentax 35mm camera during a Fourth of July celebration.
"For some reason, we all chose to have dark and mysterious expressions on our faces," said Wardlaw. "I'm sure we all thought we were being really cool."
"Priorities were so different back then. All I was really thinking about was summer and girls," he added.
The five young men had taken a series of group photos but eventually settled on one that featured them sitting together on a railing, while Molony held an ominous Folgers Instant Coffee jar containing a cockroach they had adopted on the trip.
Throughout college, they continued returning to the summer cabin to catch up, fish and act in movies filmed by Wardlaw, who is now a professional filmmaker.
"We're all very creative people, so we would take all of our creative energy and focus it into a certain direction," said Molony. "It wasn't, 'Let's all get together and get drunk.' It was, 'Let's get together and see who can make the funniest joke or pull off the sneakiest prank.'"
Despite moving on through different stages in their life, he said that they found themselves bonded by common interests over the years. "It's kind of an organic relationship that has evolved not just from being high school buddies but from having common passions for life," he said.
One such summer five years later, they remembered the milestone anniversary that had passed since taking the first photo, and Wardlaw decided to restage the snapshot on a new camera. It was 1987, and the new college grads sat on the same bench and tried to attempt an identical pose. This time around, the jar held by Molony was absent one cockroach, and the hat that Wardlaw sported was different.
"I think I had a feeling this might become some cool tradition, but I had no idea we would still be doing it for 30 years," said Wardlaw. But the anniversary continued to be honored by all the members of the group, even as many moved across the country and had to fly out to see each other.
“Watch us lose hair and gain forehead, gain and lose and gain and lose weight,” Dickson has written on a Facebook page devoted to the photo series. “There are reasons we all decided it was better to take the photo with our shirts on.”
Perhaps even more meaningfully than marking the physical process of aging that each had gone through, the photos became a time capsule of life events that came and passed.
"I look at the photos and think of the relationships I went through," said Dickson, who appears in the second spot from the left in the photos. "Wedding rings come and go, if you look closely." Indeed, a wedding band appears on Dickson’s ring finger in the 1997 photo, but is conspicuously absent by 2012.
The story first gained attention in 2007 when it was covered by the Santa Barbara News Press. Then in 2012 it was picked up by CNN and the five friends were invited to appear on NBC’s “The Today Show.” When asked how they felt about the wide publicity their photos received, they said that it not only commemorated their decades-long friendship but also helped strengthen that bond.
“Without this photo, there’s no way we’d be together,” said Dickson.