Have you see this photograph? Of course you have! You’ve seen it on countless computer screens and, maybe, even the odd printout! The photograph of lovely green rolling hills and beautiful blue sky with fluffy white clouds was taken in 1996 by Charles O’Rear. It became famous after being included in Windows XP as the default wallpaper.
The surprising part, and contrary to what you would have thought or made to believe, the photograph has not been digital enhanced in any way. It is untouched by Photoshop or any image editor, except for the left part being cropped out by Microsoft designers.
The photo is called Bliss and this is its story.
Charles O’Rear lived in St. Helena, Napa Valley and was on his way to visit his girlfriend (and future wife), Daphne Irwin. the two were working together on a book about the wine country. Getting pictures for the book was probably one of his responsibilities, he being a former National Geographic photographer.
It was a delightful Friday afternoon, a storm had just passed and the recent showers had made the area green. Additionally, the grapevines, which usually adorned the landscape were absent because of a recent bug infestation. Driving on the Sonoma Highway, O’Rear came across the scene and was transfixed.
He quickly took out his tripod and set up the camera. The stage was constantly changing with the clouds moving about, which in turn was shifting the lighting. O’Rear took four shots, packed his equipment and moved on.
On developing the photograph, he instinctively knew he had caught a beauty. His choice of camera and film had been perfect. Unfortunately, the photo couldn’t be used in the prospective wine book (probably because the grapevines were absent). So O’Rear sent it to Corbis to be licensed out.
Corbis, a company involved with licensing digital work, put up the photograph online. It languished there amongst other stock photos. Four years passed and nothing happened.
Sometime in 2000 or 2001, Charles O’Rear was contacted by designers at Microsoft. Corbis, you see, was owned by Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft. They asked him to sell them all the rights of the photo. O’Rear thought about it but the company “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse“.
Though the exact figure has never been disclosed – O’Rear had to sign a confidentiality agreement with Microsoft – it is believed to be in the low six-figures.
As per the agreement, the original film had to be passed on to Microsoft. Charles O’Rear tried sending it but all the couriers refused! Why? Because the value of the “package” was way higher than the insurance coverage. The only resort was for him was to personally deliver the film. Microsoft agreed and sent him a plane ticket.
The photograph ended up with Microsoft and they named it Bliss!
Because of its fame, several people ventured to exact location in Sonoma County just to replicate the photo. But the landscape had changed, with grapevines now growing on the hills. If you are in Sonoma County, feed 38.248966, -122.410269 in Google Maps to be taken to the exact location!
While researching for this post, tens of questions wandered in my mind. What was so special in this photograph? What made Microsoft designers choose is as the default wallpaper for Windows XP?
Why did Bliss became so famous? Why didn’t users change this default wallpaper?
Agreed that Windows XP, at its height, had a 76% market share of operating systems, but that is not the sole reason for the photo adoring screens all over the world. Most users, I presume, know that the default wallpaper can be changed in just a few clicks. Why didn’t they choose to use a different photo… maybe one from their personal album?
The reasons, if we should delve into them, can form a good psychology / sociology study! The thing is, Bliss is just perfect. It is so serene and peaceful. And it has this quality of transcending across cultures.
Anyway, hat tip to the designers at Microsoft for choosing Bliss and making it one of the most recognisable photographs of our time. And thank you Charles O’Rear, for capturing a beautiful moment in time!
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