Gabriel René Franjou

“I want to show you something, but I think you’ve already seen it.”

  The weather was especially nice for a January day. The rain had passed and the sun had reappeared; the grass was green as can be. Some stories start like this: with the weather. Most stories are about how we feel, or how we once felt, or how we could feel someday. Which is to say most stories are love stories. We’ll start here. This is a love story.

It was the year 1996, the month of January. A man named Charles O’Rear was in love with a woman named Daphne Irwin. They both lived in the United States of America, in the state of California: Charles in St Helena, and Daphne in Marin County. Every Friday, Charles would drive north of San Francisco to go see her. Charles, an experienced professional photographer, always carried around his shooting gear, on the lookout for any chance to get a few good pictures.
On that Friday in January of 1996, the sun was almost blinding. It had just stopped raining after days of heavy winter showers, and so the grassy fields seemed more verdant than ever. As he was driving to visit the woman he loved, a woman he would later marry, Charles must have been struck by that particular hillside, by its green grass, by the way the sun shone on its fields. The sky was blue, and by the time he had found a place to pull over and park his car, by the time he had set up his camera, a few clouds had crept into the shot, making it picture-perfect. He snapped it and was on his way to meet up with Daphne. The rest, as they say, is history.

That was the love story. There’s more to it, of course; the story about the ideal image. This is a story about a fantasy. It’s about a very specific emotion, one almost without definition — but not without an illustration. But first, the weather. In January, as most California natives know, the rains come, and the hills explode into green for a few months before the withering summer heat browns them once again. In 1996, photographer Charles “Chuck” O’Rear was driving from Sonoma County through Napa on his way to Marin County. His mission was to meet Daphne, the woman who would eventually become his wife. O’Rear, a 25-year veteran of National Geographic, noticed, as he drove down the road, a landscape that would make a great picture. He pulled over. That stretch of Highway 12 is narrow and windy, with only a slender shoulder for stopping one’s car. At the bottom of a steep embankment is a barbed-wire fence. And when O’Rear took his famous photo, all he could see was an emerald-green hill, a ridge far behind it, and a few puffy clouds.
“I got out, took a couple of pictures, and kept going. And the rest is history” , says O’Rear.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. This is a story about the future, about the dawn of empire. O’Rear was one of the first photographers to use an online service known as Corbis to digitize and license his photos. He uploaded the shots of that fateful Friday afternoon and the people that needed to see it, saw it. At the time, Corbis was owned by Microsoft’s chief executive, one Bill Gates, and the company was about to launch Windows XP. They had designed their new operating system with the stability of its corporate OS, Windows 2000, and the consumer features of Windows 98 and Windows ME.
Bill wanted that photo. Bill bought that photo.
“How many pictures they looked at, I have no idea.”

O’Rear hoped on an airplane to Seattle with the original transparency and accepted a hefty check for his work. He still can’t disclose the amount, but he said it would be an acceptable amount back then, and remains so today — something in the low six figures. This, as is often the case, is a story about cash. But we’re not getting to the bottom of things. We need a better story. Let’s get in situation. The countryside around here is quite beautiful, isn’t it, that’s the reason we’re here. These stories always seem to take place in California, don’t they? This is where they produce the future, this is where they canceled and replaced the outside. This is a story about a future. This is a story about film photography. This is a story about outside versus inside. This is a story on a bright, backlit screen.

In January 1996, former National Geographic photographer Charles O'Rear was on his way from his home in St. Helena, California, in the Napa Valley north of San Francisco, to visit his girlfriend in the city, Daphne Irwin (they would later marry). He did this every Friday afternoon. He was working with Irwin on a book about the wine country, and he was particularly alert for a photo opportunity that day, since a storm had just passed over and other recent winter rains had left the area particularly green. Driving along the Sonoma Highway (California State Route 12 and 121) he saw the hill, free of the vineyards that normally covered the area; they had been pulled out a few years earlier following a phylloxera infestation.
“There it was! My God, the grass is perfect! It's green! It’s so green! The sky is blue, the sun is out; there, a couple of clouds…”
He stopped somewhere right near the county line and pulled off the road to set his Mamiya RZ67 medium-format camera on a tripod, choosing Fujifilm's Velvia, a film often used among nature photographers and known to saturate some colors. O'Rear credits that combination of camera and film for the success of the image.
“It made the difference and, I think, helped the photograph stand out even more. If I’d shot it with 35 mm, it would not have had nearly the same effect.”
He would later add that had he shot it digital, it would have been even more powerful (this is a story about obsolescence). The sky was perfectly blue at the time on that January day. The clouds came in while he was setting up his camera.
En cette douce et ensoleillée journée de janvier, le ciel était complètement bleu. Les nuages se sont faufilés dans le cadre pendant que Charles préparait son matériel.
“Everything was changing so quickly at that time.”
Charles, dear Charles, you have no idea. He took four shots and got back into his car. According to O’Rear — actually, let’s just call him Chuck — the image was not digitally enhanced or manipulated in any way. It’s the real deal. But since it was not pertinent to the wine-country book he was working on with Daphne, Chuck made it available through Westlight (it was then transferred to Corbis) as a stock photo, available for use by any interested party willing to pay an appropriate licensing fee. In 2000, Microsoft's Windows XP development team — engineers, or creatives, Chuck doesn't remember, and it doesn’t make much difference — contacted him through Corbis, which he believes they used instead of larger competitor Getty Images, also based in Seattle, because the company was owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
“I have no idea what they were looking for”, se souvient Charles.
“Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? Were they looking for an image that had no tension?”
This story has no tension. Let’s change that. Driving anywhere in California’s wine country can be treacherous. Roads curve back and forth, well, drunkenly. Bicyclists are common, and the next bend could hide an entrance to one of Napa’s finest wineries, a tour group jaywalking across the road, or even a couple exploring the area on horseback. It’s a busy, busy road. It’s a deadly road. It’s, according to Chuck, the most patrolled highway in California. Is it the deadliest? Sure. Yes. Yes, it is. As ol’ Chuck was driving along the highway, frantically looking out the windows of his car, seeking the perfect shot, he wasn’t paying too much attention to the winding road and at the curve he… well, no. That’s not how it happened. It’s a deadly road, but Chuck knew it well — he drove along it every single Friday, all for love. It also didn’t use to be the busy highway that it is now. Both the hill and the road have changed. This isn’t a story about an accident — at most, it’s a story about coincidence. It’s now also a story about change. This is a story about obliteration.
Phylloxera is a microscopic louse or aphid, considered a pest, that lives on and eats the roots of grapes. It can infest a vineyard from the soles of a worker’s boots or naturally spread from vineyard-to-vineyard by proximity. This is a scourge that came from the United States, from Sonoma County in California, to be precise. Phylloxera had devastated the vineyard on Chuck’s hill a few years prior, the vines all had to be pulled out, which offers an explanation for the state of the grass at the time of the picture, and also perhaps for its otherworldly character, looking more like a lawn than a prairie. For a few years, a brief window, this idyllic greenery was allowed to thrive more or less unbothered by profit incentives (with property prices in Sonoma reaching $75,000 per acre for bare land and counting, most hills were being developed into vineyards or homes). By the time the photograph was purchased, grapes had been planted again on the hill.

This is a story — I insist — about money. This is a story about profit. There are a few secrets in this story, too. Microsoft said they wanted to license the image to use as XP's default computer wallpaper. But they wanted even more than that: they wanted all the rights to it. They really, really wanted the rights. Chuck reports: they wanted to own it and control it, naturally. This, perhaps, is a story about private property, about land owning, about fences, barbed wire, control. A non-disclosure agreement keeps Charles from divulging the price he sold the picture for, but they offered him what he says is the second-largest payment ever made to a photographer for a single image. Most estimates place it at around $100,000 or more. Another image of O'Rear's titled Full Moon over Red Dunes, known as Red moon desert in Windows XP, was also considered as the default wallpaper, but was changed due to testers comparing it to buttocks. So they also wanted an image that was sexless. This is a sexless story. And we’ve mostly forgotten the love element. This story isn’t much fun, to be honest.
But now this part is about transportation — about space-time, if you will, about how images circulate. But this isn’t a poor image. O'Rear needed to send Microsoft the original film; however, when couriers and delivery services became aware of the value of the shipment, they declined to carry it, since it was higher than any insurance would cover. So the software company bought Chuck a plane ticket to Seattle and he personally delivered it to their offices, old-school. Back to the weather. There in Seattle, it was probably a dark and stormy night — well, it doesn’t really matter. This story is about green fields and blue skies and perfect lives, maybe white picket fences on the front lawn. This is a story about access to tools. This is, as Bill Gates proudly announced in New York City at the launch of his company’s new product, standing in front of the impossibly luminous hill, the end of an era. This is the beginning of an era.
“I had no idea where it was going to go” , dit Charles. “I don't think the engineers or anybody at Microsoft had any idea it would have the success it's had.” But Microsoft knew exactly what they were doing. They spent six figures on Chuck’s photo, and only 300 dollars on another default XP background,“Autumn”. They knew. It’s unclear how, or what exactly they were capitalizing on, but they understood the power of that image: Bliss . Why is it bliss? The joys of Nature, the wonders of computers, the peace of mind that comes with knowing everything will be taken care of? Well, it’s just the name someone at the company came up with. But such naïveté could only work in English, in Dutch, the picture is called “Ireland”, in Swedish “Summer” and in French, “Verdant hills”.

In June 2001, Microsoft indicated that it was planning to, in conjunction with Intel and other PC makers, spend at least 1 billion US dollars on marketing and promoting Windows XP. The theme of the campaign, « Yes You Can », was designed to emphasize the platform's overall capabilities (this is a story about possibility, about accessibility). Microsoft had originally planned to use the slogan “Prepare to Fly”, but it was replaced because of sensitivity issues in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Microsoft gave the photo its current name, and made it a key part of its marketing campaign for XP — it was displayed in Times Square, in Beijing, even on decorated helicopters boarded by employees with copies of the OS in briefcases. This is a story about experience. Prepare for the emotional experience of the new digital millennium — yeah, prepare to fly away. And since, the picture has become ubiquitous. It has been seen everywhere, by over a billion people; it almost signifies the digital era. It was in livings rooms and schools and airplanes and the White House and the Kremlin and malls and buses. People have been exposed to it so much it has become unreal. We’re at the point where people might just ignore it, like, say, a wallpaper, a calculated neutrality. But there’s just an odd power to it, as if it could survive humanity. Here is perhaps the Platonic form of a photo. It might make one wonder about the story behind it. Yet, who would want to hang it on their wall?

Whatever Microsoft was doing, it paid off. The Windows Experience was so efficient that it sold more than half a billion copies worldwide, with at least 400 million in the first five years. Were these people tricked somehow? Is this a story of illusion? Although it's often said that the image was cropped slightly to the left and the greens were made a tiny bit brighter, the version Microsoft bought from Corbis had been cropped like this to begin with, while the saturation is a result of the Velvia film.
“It’s the real deal”,, Charles insists.
Really? Remind us, how did we get here? Where were we? What was the year, the month, the day? Who was present? What was the weather like? What is this story about?
We’re in the lands of California. It was January, that we know. Some sources say it was 1998, but most say 1996 — Wikipedia says 1996, so we’ll go with that. The man is Charles “Chuck” O’Rear; he’s in love with Daphne Irwin. He’s positive it was on a Friday, because that’s the day he would go and visit her in the city. If we look at the weather reports from the time, we can deduce it was most likely on Friday, January 19th, 1996 — flanked by two days of rain, boosting the green of the grass, and with good visibility too. The archives indicate rain and fog at some point during the day, but the weather in winter can change drastically: a break in the storm, and then intense blue sky with cumulus clouds. Maybe later that day it rained.
Blue was already an important brand color back then, clouds and sky being a common theme in many aspects of the product’s identity, not to mention in digital lexicon: illustrating potential and opportunity, evanescence and lightness, as well as transcendence. The picture continues the cloud theme, but with added grounding thanks to the low camera angle. Ignoring traditional rules for landscape photography, the dividing line between earth and sky is right in the middle, rendering them as equals. While the horizon is mostly invisible, the mountains in the distance give a sense of scale, making it possible to imagine being there. And the grass, Christ, the grass is so green. Green was the second main color in the branding scheme and in the User Interface. And of course, green and blue are two of the three primary colors in IT. Maybe Microsoft was running late in the product development cycle, looking for a nature shot, to make it more relatable. “The reality of real life”,, pour rendre le tout plus accessible. « La réalité de la vraie vie », something like that. The image matched the brand colors. It fell completely into place, in terms of sky, clouds, blue, green. This is a true story. Too good to be true? A few conspiracy theories emerged of course, as they always do. People set out to prove that the clouds are fake, that the mountains in the background were modified or that there's hidden writing somewhere on the image. Even Microsoft staff got suspicious, especially of the small ridges in the meadow: some thought the image was computer generated to demonstrate XP’s capacities. Those who indeed recognized it as a photograph placed bets as to where the picture has been taken – they were all wrong: France, Ireland, England, Switzerland, even New Zealand — no one, of course, could recognize their own backyard. The ridges are what remained of the vine culture that had to be pulled out. Again, this is a true story. Chuck, once more, for convincing:
‘‘There's a time of the year here north of San Francisco, after we get the rains and during the rains, the grass turns green, and I know the chances of finding these beautiful hillsides are really good, I'm going to be more prepared, I'm going to be more alert, I'm gonna be more focused and paying attention to what might happen. I get the camera ready and here come the clouds and I make a frame and I crank to the next one, which we don't do in digital anymore, we just push it and it takes care of everything right, here come the clouds, I'll take another one and here's another one and now I've made four frames. I didn’t think much of it, it seemed innocent enough. What you see is what you get, there was nothing unusual, I used a film that had brilliant colors, the Fujifilm Velvia and the lenses of the RZ67 were remarkable, just remarkable, and the size of the camera and film together, that was what made the difference. What you see is what you get, nothing more.’’

So the photograph is a real moment in time and space. Perhaps the trickery is elsewhere. Windows XP marked the introduction of the Microsoft Product activation, a muchmaligned procedure that enforces compliance with the program's end-user license agreement by transmitting information about both the product key used to install the program and the user's computer hardware to Microsoft. The LA Times considered it “just another example of a rapacious monopolist abusing computer users who are helpless to do anything about it”. This is a story of control. This is a story of submission. This is a story about a deal, a choice. There was a prize, a promised land, a garden of Eden and digital delights, and that innocent hill swore to you: it’s right here. Remember when you were a kid, lying on your back in a big grassy field and watching the clouds roll by? This is how you’re going to feel every day.
How’d that work out? How many have felt the emotion the image purports to deliver? Charles, what do you think?
“It’s a nice feeling, having given a nice feeling to so many people.”
If you say so. We all know the image, whether we can name it or place it. But we can’t touch that grass on the screen. And we wouldn’t know bliss if it hit us in the face.

These feelings are ephemeral, if they’re even real to begin with. Serenity, sublimity, entitlement: all have their season before they devolve into obsolescence. For years, every morning, this hillside flashed unto billions of screens and lit up the cabins of airplanes reaching their cruising altitudes. While it still appears today, its world is withered. Charles insists the image is authentic. Still, this sublime place was as real as a cartoon and as honest as a Welcome sign at the border. Its local colors are like those of a children’s drawing, the pure projection of an abstract ideal, a simple, uniform view of the world: the sky is blue, the grass is green. Intended as a magnet for our eyes and a noose for our imagination, that image was a fig leaf that hid a world of clutter and closure and overcomplexity. But we believed it, because if that image was indeed real, so too would the feeling be.
Skeptics might argue that the image is bland and lacks a point of interest, while admirers would say that its evocation of a bright, clear day in a beautiful landscape is itself its subject and its strength. They note the dreamlike quality created by the filtered sunlight on the hillside as distinguishing the image. It's attractive, easy on the eye and doesn't distract from other items that might be on the screen (like folders or files on a user’s desktop, for instance). It may also have been chosen because the unusually inviting image of a verdant landscape is one that promotes a sense of well-being in desk-bound computer users. This is about a shift in our tools. This is about the disappearance of the outside. This is a story about your backyard on a computer screen. This is the womb of Nature in the 21st Century, and perhaps its grave. This is paradise lost. This is paradise rebuilt, pixelized, phased out, the image of which only exists as a copy of a copy of a copy. This is one of the most expensive images ever made poor.

Windows XP was retired in 2014. This was a first symbolic death for the image. Then, megafires burnt down the hill in 2017, the most devastating year in California fire history, until the next (not without cruel irony, a fire dubbed the Camp Fire, like the one around which we tell stories, broke out in 2018 because of faulty electrical infrastructure and wiped out a California town by the name of Paradise). Well, actually, a true story was promised, so the facts contradict the plot development about the burning hill. The images that circulated online were debunked and turns out the fires burnt near the hill but never reached it (this is a story about fake news, true tales, and the flee from Paradise).
So, the hill remains, indicated on digital maps by a commemorative marker, and the commercial vineyard has returned to its rightful place: in the end, monoculture killed the hill of bliss. No matter — the image, the feeling, all of it was constructed (which doesn’t make it any less real, we might add). As a matter of fact, Chuck’s hill might have changed, it might even have burned and turned to ashes, greener flanks are right behind it. While there are other hills in California, California is shrinking. The West is starting to feel intense claustrophobia amid the flames. History goes fast. Let’s keep looking. Let’s keep dreaming of paradise. Stay foolish. That place lives on online and in our minds. Let’s live it.
This, perhaps, is where we must turn to: paradise not as a place, or a tool, but as a condition of life. Not as green screen, not as a silver screen, not as a smoke screen, but as grass we can touch, every morning, as sun on some days and as clouds on others. This is a story about heaven on earth: bring it down to us. No promised land, just what we have. You’ve already seen it. No paradise, even, just the whole earth. No transcendence. No bliss. Just our verdant hills.

This text draws from too many sources to list them all, but I would like to point to Charles O’Rear, Rick Prelinger, le Dessous des Images, Pseudiom, Grant Marek, Reddit and Wikipedia.
It is possible to browse and add to the image collection, near bliss, here: www.are.na/gabriel-rene-franjou/near-bliss

Image credits:

• Nicolas Dau

• Francesco Meccuci

• Doriane Timmermans

• Skywalker_24

• bloudit

• Wikimedia Commons

• Perrine Estienne

• Goldin + Senneby

• smb3d

• Hayao Miyazaki

• wallpaperstock.net

• Wikimedia Commons

• Rafaël Rozendaal

• Raoul De Keyser

• Peter Greenaway & Robert Ashley