Why did I do this? That’s a damn good question.
For many years I’ve done large-scale photo projects that have required the participation of up to 100 volunteers – I put together a concept, start recruiting people, do the photo sessions, edit the results, and then assemble everything into one massive finished piece. If you’ve attended the Seattle Erotic Art Festival in the past few years, you’ve likely seen my work.
I really like working with all the people who volunteer for those projects, but I started wondering if there was something I could do all on my own, at my own pace. I really don’t know where the idea of mailboxes came from, but it was a perfect fit for a couple of reasons:
- There are around 350 mailboxes in Seattle. That certainly qualifies as large-scale.
- I’ve lived in Seattle since the mid-1980s. Even though I get around quite a bit, I’m well aware there are many parts of the city I’ve never been to. This project requires that I get out and see neighborhoods that I’ve completely missed; if I’m lucky I might even discover some great new places to grab a pizza.
Finally, yes, I’m fully aware that this is an absolutely meaningless pursuit. Hooray for the internet.
- The mailbox had to be within Seattle city limits.
- It must be a blue, free-standing mailbox. Green relay boxes don’t count. Mail slots in building lobbies don’t count.
- The mailbox must be publicly accessible at all times. If it’s inside a fenced area or gated community, it’s out of bounds.
The Production Process
- I started by finding an online site that had added USPS mailbox location data onto a Google map. Zeroing in on Seattle, I scraped the site to get a long list of addresses. There were about 380 boxes on this list.
- For some reason I thought I really needed a physical map to track all the boxes, so I got a Seattle Bike Route map and proceeded to put red dot stickers at each address. That took a long time and ultimately proved to be not that helpful.
- The map did, however, help me establish my working boundaries. I wanted to keep the project constrained to boxes that are within the Seattle city limits, so the map helped me remove the few boxes that were now off limits.
- My original plan was to use my high-end DSLR camera, but realized that it would be better to just stick with my smartphone. After all, the phone is always in my pocket and you just never know when a mailbox will present itself.
- Time to get started! But where to begin? I soon decided that I should start by visiting the four corners of the city to capture the boxes in the most NW, NE, SE, and SW locations. So away I went.
- The first few stops were a bit weird. I felt rather self-conscious crouching down and taking pictures next to the boxes. I quickly realized, however, that no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to me.
- I also discovered that using a selfie stick was very limiting in terms of how I could frame a shot, so I started using a mini-tripod.
- It become apparent that it would be impractical to actually go out and shoot one box a day. Instead, I fell into a routine of going on excursions to parts of the city every few days, grabbing a handful of boxes, and then parsing them out to the blog one per day.
- Eventually I realized that tracking things with the paper map was not going to work. I had even added a spreadsheet to the process, but what I really needed was a visual tool that gave me an up-to-the-minute status. So I ported all my mailbox info into a database and built an online tool so I could quickly see what boxes I had visited and which were remaining.
- I found was that quite a few of the boxes on my original list just weren’t there any more. After making a few wasted trips to nonexistent boxes, I changed my process a bit. Before heading out, I would check the address on Google Maps to verify that I could spot the box. But even with that, I would still occasionally get to a spot only to find the box had been lost to a very recent construction project.
- When the 100th box came up, Carol made a special commemorative cake and we invited friends to join us for a big group photo. I opted to not do celebrations for the 200th and 300th boxes because I didn’t want to burn people out before the big finish.
- The final box (#346) was selected early on based on its central location and available parking. A good-sized crowd showed up, including a few people I didn’t know!
I contacted KING5 Evening Magazine to see if they wanted to cover the final photo. The timing didn’t work out for that, but I did shoot a segment that aired a couple weeks later. That touched off a bit of a media frenzy and I did about a dozen interviews over the following months.
- My moment of fame eventually faded. And that is pretty much the end of this story.