[STOP! If you haven't done so already, go here and view the Belvedere photos the way they were intended to be viewed, without any explanation. Then come back and read this (if you must).]
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
– Solomon (the Wise)
The original idea was that the photos would be found someday by archaeologists. No negatives, just the photos, without commentary or external clues as to what they might mean. They would be mysterious, the subject of much discussion in the circles of photohistorians and photoarchaeologists, who would seek grants to do research on them.
“Yeah, right,” said Jeff’s brother Gary. “You guys’ll do that for about two years.”
We’d show him. The idea was simple and we thought it was a good one. It leapt into our heads on a rainy day in September of 1982. I had seen a photospread in one of my mother’s magazines (Redbook or McCall’s or Good Housekeeping) of a father and daughter who had had their photo taken on the porch of their house every year since she was born. At first he held her as a babe, then as the years unfolded along the page she stood beside him and grew. There was a blast of color in the early ’70s when she went briefly tie-dye and beads and orange pants. The man’s hair receded, quietly, like a forest at the edge of an agricultural field that claimed more space for tillage with the passing of each season.
We schemed to embark upon a similar experiment, only ours would have complexities, subtle humor. We drew up a charter we called the Pact and each signed it. The signing was witnessed by Jeff’s neighbor, a kid named Cort. In the document, it was explicitly stated that if one of us did not show up or failed to comply with any of the provisions of the Pact, we could be “taken to Cort” by the other. Id est, this was a binding contract.
Here are the main provisions, as best as I can recall from my memory:*
*The Pact is in a large shoebox, called the Archives, in a storage facility in Reno, Jeff’s last city of residence, but he now lives in Colorado Springs.
The shot would be taken at the Belvedere Park overlook in West Seattle at 9:09 and 9 seconds a.m., on 9 September, every year. A similar series was provided for on 3 March, at three minutes and three seconds past three o’clock p.m.
We would stand PRECISELY in the same positions each year.
We would not smile or bear any deliberate facial expression.
Each of us would hold an unbitten apple (green or read, no matter) in one hand.
Each of us would wear the metal ring we had made in Mr. Peterson’s shop class in junior high school.
We would not wear hats. The advance of years was to be visible on our hairlines.
A bottle of Pepsi-Cola would stand on the pavement between us, filling up over the years. It would start the first year filled to two inches’ height. Each year it would advance by one quarter inch. The Pepsi in the bottle represented our friendship, God only knows why.
Attached to the bottle, so small as to be visible only by dedicated photohistorian sleuths, would be a word each year, and over the years the word would spell out a Bible verse. We chose Proverbs 18:24. “A man of many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” That would take us through the rest of the millennium and then we’d choose another.
Rain or shine, hell or high water, famine, etc.
In the year 1986, the year Halley’s comet would return, we would change places in the photo, but only in the March shot.
In the year 2000, the millennial year, we would smile great smiles, but only in the September shot.
Truly, the Belvedere Shot should stand as a warning to anyone who thinks they can beat time and human nature at their own games. This was perhaps the most significant thing any two human beings have ever attempted (I said “perhaps”), and it was a colossus of failure. The March shot was discontinued after five or six years of being plagued by botched poses and bad weather. The September series did comparatively well in its early years and eventually spanned a quarter century before expiring in ignominy.
Following are my recollections and observations about the September Belvederes. As usual, click on any of these photos (twice) for full resolution.
The perfect shot, although one would think I’d have taken time at the outset of such a singular journey to flip down my collar.
Perhaps not surprisingly, here’s where the trouble starts. To begin with, we found it impossible at Year Two to repeat our positions. Jeff seemed to have had a final growth spurt, making it harder for him to lean on the rail. I could not recapture the charming slouch I had naturally settled into the first year after releasing the timed shutter and racing into the frame. Also, it became clear that shooting toward the east in the morning was a mistake that the Pact would compel us to repeat every year. Thankfully (I guess) sunny days were rare, so the shadows on our faces were usually not severe. Jeff can’t figure out where his apple goes.
Jeff went to Europe in the summer of 1984 and was not back in September for the third shot. I hang my head to admit this now, but I was actually resentful about his going, somehow figuring that what we were doing here was serious enough to give the Old Continent a miss for. We had, after all, signed a Pact. The truth was I was just resentful, always, about everything. The Bellevue High School letterman’s jacket belonged to a friend (I lettered not). Note the emergence of the Columbia Tower downtown.
I made my own extended trip to Europe the next year. Though I felt that the Pact was now pretty much worthless, or at least optional, I still, at the exact moment that the shot was to be taken in Seattle, posed against a railing in Monterosso al Mare on the Italian Coast in the correct position, with my ring on my finger and an apple in my hand, and the correct non-expression on my face. It was not an insignificant amount of trouble to make sure this happened. I thought maybe my photo could be somehow affixed as an addendum to the shot Jeff took back home, but he was not enamored of this idea when I later showed him how faithful I had been in absentia. I don’t know where that picture is anymore. Jeff gave up trying to lean with his arm on the rail this year, and because I was unable to access the bottle the year before (at his house, in a closet somewhere, though I suppose I could have tried), Jeff “fixes” the error by including both last year’s word, “of”, and this year’s, “many”, on the same card superimposed on each other in different colors. I was disappointed in this turn of events upon my return; I considered each year a universe and reality unto itself, and figured that the word “of” could have been deduced from the context of the entire series (you know, by those people who would be staying up through the night studying these photos).
Those of you who understand the solar system and Seattle’s place in it will perceive immediately that this shot was not taken anywhere near 9 o’clock in the morning. This may have been the year that Jeff left his backpack on the bus that we rode out to Belvedere. When we discovered the loss, we had to walk the half-mile to the Admiral Way district, find a phone booth*, call Metro Transit, discover that the coach carrying Jeff’s pack would only return to that route later in the day, and then amuse ourselves for several hours. Or this may have just been a day when we didn’t have our act together. This is the last time you will see the Seattle (Northern Life) Tower and the Telephone Building downtown.
*Before mobile phones, these were little stations on the sidewalks and in other public spaces where you could pay a quarter to use what was called a public telephone. In very olden days, it cost only a dime and they were actual booths where you could call someone half a world away and hold a private conversation with them right on the sidewalk, with strangers walking by and everything. Many tense movie plots in the 20th century hinged upon the necessity of finding a phone booth and coming up with a dime to place a critical call.
Or maybe THIS was the year of the backpack fiasco. In any case, another one shot well past noon. Notice how in many years the slant of the sidewalk downward to the right creates an impulse in the cameraman (usually me, once Jeff) to compensate by tilting the entire world downward to the left. The sidewalk is quite steep, but for years and years I kept falling prey to the optical illusion and tilting the camera too far to the right, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. This year, because of the fog obscuring the horizon, it was even more tempting and I all but flattened the hill.
Jeff switches to man pants, which have deeper and looser pockets than jeans and thus make his arm straighten out. Sure he looks better, more stylish, but at what cost? I on the other hand have indulged in an impulse purchase of clothing at the recently opened Larry’s Market in North Seattle, an opening which has coincided with my suddently becoming a foodie. Kid Who Ate No Vegetables Between 1964 and 1987 Suddenly Becomes Omnivorous. I got a wok, started shopping at Larry’s, cooking with watercress. I wore the colors proudly. Last year’s fog lifts to reveal the pyramid-topped Washington Mutual Tower.
Of all the dirty tricks to pull on a couple of fellas just out on a lark to CONQUER TIME, West Seattle up and replaced the railing that had been there since God created the world and all the things that creep and walk and squirm upon it and that we figured would be unchanged forever. This created havoc. For one thing, we had to recalculate where we had stood for all the previous years and make a new mental note (18th post from the right). For another, my right foot would now be too low, ruining a pretty good run I’d had up until that time if you don’t count the outstretching of the fingers of my left hand in Year Two. Plus, it just felt unnatural. For another, the new rail was higher and obscured the waterfront. On the upside, shadows vouchsafe that we were on time this day. See how red my hair used to be? I missed a couple of haircuts and decided to shoot the moon.
Jeff embarked on a career in Academia, studying and teaching German linguistics. In 1990 I believe he was in Columbus, Ohio. By this time, as you can plainly see, I hardly cared that he was not coming home for “the Shot”, as we were calling it by now. I was probably on time, but I didn’t bother with an apple (again, the Pepsi bottle was Jeff’s area, but I made no effort to try and get ahold of it from his mother in Bellevue), and I rebelled against the new position forced upon me by the rail remodel of the year before. Also, I seemed to have gone dapper (or something). Of all the shots that were taken, this is the one I regret most. I had made the effort to get out there, so how much more trouble could it have been to simply bring the apple and stand on the rail to keep a by-now-amazing thing going? I wish I had had a better attitude, because this shot stands out as a thumb in the eye of the Pact. Notice that without Jeff there, I am unable to line up the shot horizontally and end up shooting too far to the right.
The first year that no shot was taken. Jeff was in school at Columbus and I was only an hour away from him at the Ranch in Eastern Ohio. I visited him just once, whereupon we went together to spend Thanksgiving at the home of his Aunt Vergie, where I reached for a 2-liter soft plastic bottle of RC Cola on the table, dropped it, grabbed it again quickly and thereby induced a fountain of soda to leap out into the face and lap of Jeff’s Uncle Elvin.
Still unwilling to succomb to the rail, I attempt a repeat of my 1990 stance as my new position. But in looking at my feet in relation to the large crack in the new sidewalk, it becomes evident that I had been standing at the wrong post two years before. This is when we finally took a firm count of the new rail posts.
Jeff does not remember this, but we spoke on the phone the evening before the 1993 shot and tried to feel out whether each really wanted to bother with it. We agreed, by virtue of not resolving to do it, not to do it. It was not done. This was very nearly the end of the Belvederes.
Foolishness dies hard, and we’re back for a tenth repeat. An amateur photographer since high school, I began worrying that color prints would eventually fade. I had seen how photographs of my own family from the ’70s had already become washed out, while black and white photographs from the ’30s seemed to be eternally vivid. I convinced Jeff that we should switch to black and white. But I think this switch really happened because we found ourselves unprepared with color film one Belvedere Day, and since I was shooting black and white in those days, we had a roll of that. Sadly, this image is very grainy, as though I were shooting a high ASA. Maybe this was the year I forgot to switch the ASA setting on my camera and the film had to be pushed or pulled in development. I see I have finally given up my struggle and have returned to the best repeat I can approximate of my original position on the rail, although I have put my foot in a different slot from the one I put it in in the 1989 shot. I begin repeating this gaffe again in 1998. From my clothes I am reminded that I was working in the nursery industry for the first time.
The foliage behind us is starting to need attention as it rises into the view of Seattle. This year it doesn’t matter anyway because of the morning fog. The problem of using a zoom lens for this job shows itself in this shot as in many of the others: this one is zoomed too far out, we’re much “smaller” in this frame than we were in the original year. I rode my bike this year because Little Nemo had finally developed such persistent troubles that I’d been compelled to sell him to someone who could better care for him. I didn’t actually ride my bike all the way to West Seattle (real men do this). I put it on the rack on the bus most of the way.
Sometime around here Jeff and I each started realizing that there were things about the other that bugged the snot out of us. About Jeff’s faults my official statement is that I “have no recollection” of them, but my own, I’m obliged to confess, were and are memorable enough and pestered him grandly. Still, we managed to pretend that we were having a ball when we showed up, each by our separate conveyances, and began doing what we knew to do. Jeff opened the back of his pickup and used the tailgate as a table to measure out the Pepsi, which you’ll notice has been increasing in volume inside the bottle as the years have passed. I would set up the tripod and camera, often having to move several times as tourists drove through to get the view. We did this surgically now. We could be in and out of there in fifteen minutes, props and all. During the 1990s the camera was swinging wildly left and right, but more about this later.
This is when things really began to fall apart. Jeff did not show up, although I learned later that while I took this shot he was madly driving through traffic, trying to get there. Since he had called me the day before to “remind” me to be there (“as though I needed to be reminded” said the angry voice in my head) and then did not show up on time himself, I took the liberty of being incensed. I gave him fifteen minutes, snapped this shot — not even noticing that the city had cut down the weedy trees and shrubs that had been growing up — and left. I had the timer on my camera, but no tripod (Jeff was bringing that), so I was unable to put myself in the photo. This (non-)event caused a huge outpouring of stored-up grievances from each of us to the other, aired via snarky handwritten letters delivered by the United States Postal Service.
Two straightforward infractions here. One, Jeff’s wearing a hat. I can’t prove it until I lay my hands on a copy of the Pact, which may be never, but I believe the Pact explicitly proscribed headwear. The other is the photo of Jeff’s dad, Vance, who had died that year. Jeff wanted to honor him by having his photo in the Shot. I loved that old man in a kind of way, had actually worked for him in his construction business at various points in my wasted twenties. He was gruff, but he was true, and because of his generosity I was able to experience the Ross Lake camping trip for several years. By now I wasn’t worrying about the rules much. I kept showing up because Jeff kept showing up. We’re back to color film again. Whatever.
After about seventeen years, I think we got one just about right. However, you’ll notice that Jeff and I share the center of the frame in these later photos, whereas in the archetypal 1982 shot we were both further right and the city was the “subject” of the left half of the frame. I remember trying to correct this, and if I could lay my hands on the negatives we might see that this was not my fault; the 3×5 print is not true to the negative proportions of 35mm film. A good deal of lateral cropping must happen to make that size, and it may be that photo department technicians were assuming we’d want ourselves in the middle of the scene and took all the cropping off the left side. I really don’t know. It’s just as likely that by now I wasn’t really paying close attention. Jeff repeats the effrontery of the hat.
Back to black and white. Particular failures aside, we have managed to take a photo almost every year at about the same time and in pretty much the same place all the way to the end of the century and of the millennium, and in accordance with the Pact we are allowed these anomalous expressions of mischievous glee to mark the occasion. Inexplicably, for the first time ever, Jeff has placed the bottle in the wrong spot. He also takes this opportunity to change his position at the rail after eighteen years. Why not? His hat has now become a tradition. Don’t let the smiles fool you. Nobody is enjoying this anymore.
Color again. Jeff switches feet after nineteen years, saying that he has only now just realized that he has been uncomfortable for the last two decades crossing his uphill foot with his downhill foot and claiming that it makes more sense to brace with your downhill foot. I couldn’t agree more. So be it. However, his upper half repeats the 2000 “new” stance.
Jeff manages to create yet another new stance. The apple is now in his left hand, but his downhill foot again crosses his uphill right. The trash can is chained to Post 18, otherwise we might have moved it. We might not have, too, depending on the outcome of an argument that might have ensued between us about the original intent of the framers of the Pact. I think Jeff and I both would have agreed that it could not be removed. An early conversation in which we pondered what would happen if a truck were parked in our spot at 9:09:09 resulted in us both agreeing that we would take the shot anyway, even if we were not visible in it. I’m SO GLAD that never happened.
After pinwheeling a little in recent years, Jeff finishes out his participation in the Belvedere Shot forever with yet another new position — arguably the one he should have started out with — braced with the downhill foot but with the apple back in the right hand. Not much to report at my end. Still have my foot in the wrong slot for the sixth straight year (hello, Matt!). I can’t begin to hazard a guess as to why there is a statuette of a lion on the ground between the bottle and Jeff’s feet. I had to stare at the enlarged version of this photo (click to enlarge, then click again — as with all photos here) for five minutes before I could even recognize that that’s what it was, so completely had I forgotten it. Jeff brought it, but I can’t remember what it means or why I didn’t finally walk off the set in protest over this latest assault on the Pact.
The day before this shot, Jeff emailed me to ask whether I had any desire to do the Shot, or some language like that. I wrote back that of course I did not “have any desire to”, or did not “want to”, whatever the phrase was. What I meant by this was that I had no love of the Shot anymore, but that was not the same as saying I would not be there. The Pact was binding. No one need ask whether or not I would be there. But I didn’t communicate this adequately. To this day, I believe he thought I meant I was not coming. That’s what I get for speaking sideways out of a mouthful of resentments. He did not show up the next morning, nor ever again afterwards (as far as I know, which was two years more). Again I had no tripod to take the photo with so I couldn’t be in it. Some surveyors tagged our site with paint.
This was the most dismal year. I procured a tripod and drove out to Belvedere, and even though I didn’t expect Jeff to show I still hoped he would. He had been living in Reno for years now, but had still made the road trip several times. If I brought an apple I didn’t bother using it in the shot (I can’t tell even from the larger version whether or not I’m wearing my shop class ring). I was ambivalent about being there. I felt as though I were trapped by some bizarre compulsion of honor. I had promised to be there, always. But what did it mean if the promise meant nothing to the other person? Not to kick you while you’re down, Matt, but now you’ve got your foot in a different wrong slot. You’ve corrected in the wrong direction.
The last Belvedere Shot was better than that of the previous year. I came with intention. I knew this would be my last showing and I wanted to do it right. I didn’t: my foot is still in the slot one to the north of the correct one, and notice again how, without Jeff, my center wanders so that even though I’m standing (pretty much) on my marks, my position in the frame is almost where Jeff should be. Oh well. We did the best that two mortals could do. I forgive us for failing. I even forgive us for trying, if it was wrong to try. The foliage behind this familiar scene is growing up tall again and will, in a few short years, obscure the view.