Image Credit: Kroner, Sven. Untitled. 2014. Acrylic on canvas.
I didn’t know the Fujifilm Corporation had a blimp until I saw it in a painting by the artist Sven Kroner. In Kroner’s painting, the blimp hovers near the roofs of a few cottages in a field. Kroner’s sky is stormy, between slate gray and Prussian blue, with some pink on the horizon. The blimp is tilted toward its tail, off balance. There is some uncertainty, some suggestion of disaster .
I saw the painting online, by accident, one night in 2014 when I was absently scrolling past posts from various art blogs. I remember staring at the screen with some combination of surprise and confusion, since the unusual environment combined with the specificity of the word “FUJIFILM” printed on the blimp made it unclear if Kroner was borrowing from reality or not. Blimps fly over major cities and sporting events, not fields and cottages, and, as far as I knew until then, blimps didn’t advertise for Fujifilm.
It turned out, however, that the blimp was real. Finding the Fujifilm blimp in painting stands as a point of irony for me. This is because from spring of 2012 until shortly before I found the blimp, I had been trying very hard to be a photographer. In that time I spent a lot of money buying film. Eventually I developed and maintained a brand loyalty to Fujifilm without ever learning about the blimp.
In that time I also lived with a lot of other people. One of them, who I’ll just call my roommate, was similarly trying to be a photographer. This ended up being a foundation of our friendship, and he was even more devoted to the brand than I was.
Fujifilm sells film for use in both cameras and medical equipment. We spent some time thinking about both, but it was their camera film that was important to us, specifically their slide film. Slide film shows as a positive rather than a negative after being processed, and is meant to be viewed through a projector. The slides have to be mounted to be viewed this way, however, so my roommate and I preferred to simply hold the unmounted sheet of film up to a blank, white computer screen and view them that way.
There are only two types of slide film still in production by Fujifilm: Provia and Velvia. I preferred Velvia, which was extremely saturated and vivid, with magenta-tinted highlights. My roommate preferred Provia, which was milder with more natural-looking colors and slightly blue shadows.
This detail, each of us choosing either of the remaining slide films, seemed significant at the time. The two films set us infinitesimally apart. We identified with our choices, believing they were embellishing the way we recreated our experiences as images exactly the way we wanted them to, which seems impossible to me now.
One night the two of us stayed up until dawn, spending the last hour of darkness sitting with our film collections spread out on the kitchen floor, proposing trades. For the most part this was unsuccessful. There has been some attempt in photography to cling to film before it disappears entirely. Different varieties are discontinued every year, after which people sign unsuccessful petitions to bring them back, and prices increase steadily. My roommate would propose increasingly complicated trades, taking into account different quantities, rarity, freshness, and value. This would mostly cause me to deal even more guardedly, like he was being too calculated. Film is something many people have become nostalgic for even while it is still here, and my roommate and I didn’t want to see ours go.
Blimps also occupy a threshold as things that still exist and things we are nostalgic for. Blimps are rare. Only between ten and twenty in the world still fly, but they are instantly recognizable when they do.
In a New York Times article from 2003, titled “NEW YORK ALOFT; Smile, You’re Aboard the Fujifilm Blimp,” Denny Lee relays the details of a ride on the blimp. He writes that the gondola’s passenger space is “about half the length of a subway car’s. Eight black leather recliners flank a single aisle. A ceiling hatch offers an inside view of the 248,000-cubic-foot helium-filled ‘envelope,’ made of a vinyl fabric known as DuPont Tedlar. Tucked near the aft bulkhead were a mini-bar and a lavatory.” The flight only lasts for 45 minutes, but Lee writes that “’amazing,’ was the sentiment uttered most by the passengers” .
At the end of the ride, Lee writes that “the blimp eased back into port, escorted by members of the ground crew, who grabbed onto the dangling bowlines like children rescuing an errant balloon.” To compare the blimp to a child’s balloon indicates a different kind of nostalgia, not the cultural longing for specific places and times, but an even more general longing to return to childhood, to subvert our mortality. Balloons are often a symbol of youthful contentment and wonder, and the impressive size of the blimp may account for why it so easily takes Lee and others back to a time when so much of what was around them was fascinating and gigantic.
But Lee also writes that “the 18 (blimps) that operate in the United States serve mostly as inflatable ads.” The Fujifilm blimp, although it did ferry passengers and evoked a sense of wonder in them, was primarily an inflatable ad.
Brand loyalty troubles me now. This may because a person’s emotional commitment to a company, which has no emotional commitment individually to them, seems precariously misplaced. Or it may be because brand loyalty stands as an acceptance of the idea that our options in life: what we eat, wear, and inscribe our art on, are necessarily limited to what corporations offer us. I didn’t realize that my use of Fujifilm products fit into this until I discovered the blimp. I needed something that could cast a shadow on me.
I found an official Fujifilm webpage from 2006 on which users could enter to win an “exclusive aerial tour for 2 on [Fujifilm’s] world-famous blimp.” The contest was referred to as the “Green Skies Sweepstakes” after the company’s use of the color green in their branding. The entry form is accessed from a frame depicting the blimp soaring through clouds against a surreal, lime green sky. Eligibility was limited to radiology professionals in the United States, possibly as an attempt to strengthen Fujifilm’s presence in American medical markets, but there is not much other information provided.
Fujifilm’s green skies are skies that have been branded, and green skies are made possible on film. A type of alternative film process called “cross processing” is the development of one kind of photographic film in chemicals intended for a different kind. When slide film is developed in chemicals intended to develop color negative film, the colors shift. Often the light blues of water or the sky become limey or minty greens, and depending on the brand of film, “FUJI” may even be printed in the margin right above them.
There was another dawn past which my roommate and I stayed up, discussing photography. He was telling me about how he was in a rut, how he wanted to focus on photographing old infrastructure mixing into the natural environment, about all the incredible examples he had found on the internet. For him, the suburban area we lived in was constantly coming up short with any interesting examples.
We got on the highway in that last hour of darkness and started driving east. He was in the passenger seat, looking at maps on his phone and guiding me. “Turn here,” he said, more than once, and I would turn there. After about twenty minutes we passed over a creek that curved around to run alongside the road. It was spanned at intervals by concrete jetties in varying states of erosion. These were more than wide enough to walk around on. We parked in the lot of a nearby water park and walked over to the creek.
The creek turned out to be what he needed, with its huge, ivy-covered culverts at one end and its mixed topography of concrete, sand, gravel, and rocks throughout.
There is a photograph my roommate took of me in that creek: I’m standing on a pile of rocks, intentionally expressionless, holding my camera, with a tripod lying at my feet. Below the rocks, the water is pink and soapy in the early light. My reflection cuts straight down from my body. In the background the creek is dotted with vegetation, and further back there is a cluster of office buildings beyond its banks. After the photograph was taken, I remember standing on one of the jetties and watching a small herd of deer running across another one further upstream.
On the way back to the car, a man stopped us. He had seen us in the creek and assumed we were “nature photographers.” He talked to us about herons before returning in the direction of a hotel he was staying at. I didn’t think of my photos from the morning as being about nature as much as they were about how a place could relieve a feeling of being trapped in a place.
After we drove away we were swept up in the morning rush hour. We were elated, feeling that we were headed the opposite direction of offices and routines, instead back to our messy, dilapidated house to finally sleep at 8 AM. We celebrated enthusiastically, dancing in place whenever we slipped between two sluggish cars, one lane closer to our exit.
There were times when I lived in that house when I would start to feel a partially incomprehensible glob of emotions that seemed like a mix of homesickness, powerlessness, exclusion, and unaimed desire. Usually as a result I would sleep on the couch instead of my in bed and look at lots of photographs online that I considered to be “emotional” for one reason or another.
In retrospect I think I was suffering from a mix of wanting to be elsewhere and also realizing I had put minimal effort into my life in the past, that I was likely still doing that in the present, and that it would eventually all turn into regret. I felt like I was always too inclined to just drift along, and that I was living too quickly because of it.
On his birthday, my roommate’s girlfriend at the time gave him two rolls of Fujifilm Fortia SP, a high color saturation slide film that was only produced for a short time in Asian markets. He was saving it in our refrigerator for something special, but we weren’t generally interested in taking photographs of things like weddings or graduations, so that probably meant a trip to another country, which wouldn’t happen for at least a few years.
Some amount of time between two weeks and six months after that, he told me something to the effect that he was anxious about collecting rare and high-quality rolls of film only to get older without ever having any experiences worthy of using them.
Maybe the radiologist that won the Green Skies Sweepstakes remembers it like this: they only entered because the secretary at their practice told them it might be a good opportunity. It was the secretary’s job to subscribe to newsletters and memberlists related to the field, and then to sift through all the resulting information for good opportunities. Maybe, when they won, the radiologist didn’t immediately remember entering.
The seats in the blimp were not like the ones they had seen in airplanes. Instead of rows of three gray, plastic seats they were leather recliners, four on each side of the aisle. The windows were huge and pill-shaped, so that when the radiologist turned their head the landscape was not framed in more gray plastic, but entirely opened out beneath them. The radiologist was given some pamphlets with the Fujifilm brand on them which they skimmed as they moved them from their seat to the pocket on the back of the seat in front of them. Their plus one sat across the aisle from them and would occasionally lean their body all the way out of the seat and reach across the aisle to touch the radiologist on the shoulder. “You have to look at this,” they would say, and the radiologist would say “I know. I see it.”
If radiology is the practice of making visible what is normally only felt, then photography for me was a kind of emotional radiology. I’ve taken photographs of myself and people in my life. Then I’ve tried to find in those photographs signs to explain what I’ve felt under the surfaces of my relationships, but it doesn’t work the same way. Film is what the radiologist and I have in common, but the radiologist’s film is a different kind than mine, and it’s the radiologist that got to ride on the blimp.
Once my roommate suggested we go around to doctors’ offices and ask if we could take any unused X-ray film they had lying around. He thought this might work because film wasn’t used as much as digital imaging anymore, and because the expired film was still functional but considered unsuitable for professional use. We never actually did it.
Even if they gave us the film, I don’t think it would have helped me see anything I didn’t before. There has been an unspoken aspect of every relationship I have ever had, and for me those unspoken aspects have often contained frustrations which have led to distance. I’m not sure what it would mean to try to completely illuminate those areas: possibly a desire to preserve that which naturally decays, or, for me, a way to satisfy the notion that I should not keep so much of what I feel a secret.
In the summer of 2013 I would sleep into the afternoons. Then, if I didn’t have to work, I would set out with my roommate and other friends in the early evening and we would ride our bicycles past the elementary school we lived near and onto the jogging trails. That would take us to the next neighborhood over, and the next after that. We would bike until we ended up lolling in a parking lot somewhere and then we would bike back past the abandoned K-Mart, getting home after dark, sweaty and thirsty.
My photographs from that time are stored together messily in a cardboard box, and the few times I’ve sat down with the intention of organizing them they have resisted entirely.
I remember there was a small football field in the park a mile from our house. It must have been for practicing kicks, because there was one field goal at the near end, and nothing but a patch of dirt and a tree-line at the other. I took a picture of my roommate leaping from his bicycle to the field goal, stretched between occupying both, and the light from the end of the afternoon cut across our field of vision and silhouetted him, making his outline glow.
I wanted to photograph my life on Velvia because I wanted to remember everything as having been felt more strongly. Magenta, the color Velvia casts white and other light colors in, is warm and vivid. You might hear people talk about this, about how nostalgia makes things seem better than they really were, and it is so often true. There was an argument between several people at the house once, after which I went to a parking lot and called my girlfriend at the time, telling her “these people are not my friends, these people are not my friends,” but I don’t remember it often.
More often I remember that, once, my roommate and some other friends biked with me onto a trail we had never taken before. We started racing each other on a winding, downhill section, going very fast and laughing a lot. We passed a middle-aged couple that had heard us coming and stepped off the trail, waiting with mildly shocked expressions for us to pass by without hitting them. I passed them last, and as I did I made eye contact and yelled “Sorry!” but we were gone before they responded. Near the end of the slope there was a rectangular, manmade pond with a narrow spit of land bisecting it, and I pedaled out slowly across it.
Part of me wants to enter the Green Skies Sweepstakes, just to see what, if any, response I get. I imagine I could get some kind of automated email thanking me for my interest or wishing me luck in the drawing, but it’s a webpage that has lain dormant for a decade now; the deadline was my fourteenth birthday. The blimp has flown. The radiologist already helped themself to the mini-bar in the gondola, stared out the huge windows, and maybe gave more consideration to using Fujifilm products in their practice.
I did not anticipate that by writing this essay I would become so jealous of the radiologist. I had wanted to head in the opposite direction of offices and routines.
The artist Moyra Davey says in an interview in BOMB Magazine that “when you take a photograph (and I’m paraphrasing Guibert here) you end up with an image, but all of the emotion that was present when you were taking it is kind of transmuted into something else. It’s become an object, and it could be a very beautiful object and a successful photograph, but in a lot of ways it eclipses the original feeling” .
I remember another photograph I took, but I don’t remember taking it. The subject is my roommate riding ahead of me on the road that led to the elementary school we lived near; there is no other person in the frame. His taillight glows red. It is evening and darkness is settling into the woods on both sides of the road, making the trees seem almost like a single mass. Ahead there is a trailer parked in the right lane, likely because it is summer and the road is not in use by anyone but us. What I see in the photograph now is me following him, even though I already know the way.
 Kroner, Sven. Untitled. 2014. Acrylic on canvas.
 Lee, Denny. “NEW YORK ALOFT; Smile, You’re Aboard the Fujifilm Blimp.” The New York Times 22 June 2003.
 Davey, Moyra. Interview with Elisabeth Lebovici. BOMB Magazine. Fall 2014.
Erich Brumback writes about the paradoxically intertwined specificity and vagueness of memory. He is occasionally active at underlying-channels.tumblr.com.