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August 6, 2022

The Story Behind the Windows XP ‘Bliss’ Wallpaper, the Most Viewed Photograph in History

Ask any computer user today and s/he would instantly recognize the green hills, blue skies and the fluffy white clouds — the default wallpaper in Windows XP, Microsoft’s operating system (OS). But not many know that the wallpaper, called ‘Bliss,’ is not a digital creation; it’s an actual photograph of the wine region of Napa Valley, USA. Former National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear took the photo in January 1996 and Microsoft bought the rights in 2000. It is estimated that billions of people have seen the picture, possibly making it the most viewed photograph in history.

Bliss, the default Windows XP wallpaper.

In January 1996, 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, Daphne Irwin (whom he later married), in the city, as he did every Friday afternoon. He was working with Irwin on a book about the wine country. 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 especially green. Driving along the Sonoma Highway 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! The sun is out; there’s some clouds,” he remembered thinking.

He stopped somewhere near the Napa–Sonoma 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 “Bliss’ photograph stand out even more,” he said.

“I think that if I had shot it with 35 mm, it would not have nearly the same effect.” While he was setting up his camera, he said it was possible that the clouds in the picture came in. “Everything was changing so quickly at that time.” He took four shots and got back into his truck. According to O’Rear, the image was not digitally enhanced or manipulated in any way. “There was absolutely no Photoshop or any editing involved. I live 60 miles north of San Francisco in a wine region of Napa Valley. I took the photograph in an area called Carneros.”

Since it was not pertinent to the wine-country book, O’Rear made it available through Westlight (transferred to Corbis after its acquisition) as a stock photo, available for use by any interested party willing to pay an appropriate licensing fee. He also submitted a vertical shot, which was available at the same time. In 2000, Microsoft’s Windows XP development team contacted O’Rear through Corbis, which he believes they used instead of larger competitor Getty Images, also based in Seattle, because the former company is owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. “I have no idea what [they] were looking for,” he recalled. “Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? Were they looking for an image that had no tension?” 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.

Microsoft said they wanted not just to license the image for use as XP’s default wallpaper, but to buy all the rights to it. They offered O’Rear what he says is the second-largest payment ever made to a photographer for a single image; however, he signed a confidentiality agreement and cannot disclose the exact amount. It has been reported to be “in the low six figures.” O’Rear needed to send Microsoft the original film and sign the paperwork; however, when couriers and delivery services became aware of the value of the shipment, they declined since it was higher than their insurance would cover. Instead, the software company bought O’Rear a plane ticket and he personally delivered it to their offices. “I had no idea where it was going to go,” he said. “I don’t think the engineers or anybody at Microsoft had any idea it would have the success it’s had.”

Microsoft gave the photo its current name, and made it a key part of its marketing campaign for XP. Although it is often said that it was cropped slightly to the left and the greens were made slightly stronger, the version Microsoft bought from Corbis had been cropped like this to begin with, while the saturation is a result of the Velvia film. The photographer estimates that the image has been seen on a billion computers worldwide, based on the number of copies of XP sold since then.

Charles O’Rear posing with his iconic image.

O’Rear concedes that despite all the other photographs he took for National Geographic, he will probably be remembered most for Bliss. “Anybody now from age 15 on for the rest of their life will remember this photograph,” he said in 2014.

Since the origins of the image were not widely known for several years after XP’s release, there had been considerable speculation about where the landscape was. Some guesses have included locations in France, England, Switzerland, the North Otago region of New Zealand, southeastern Washington and the south of Tübingen, Germany. Dutch users believed the photograph was shot in Ireland’s County Kerry since the image was named “Ireland” in the Dutch release of the software; similarly, the image was named “Alentejo” in the Portuguese version, leading users speaking that language to believe it had been taken in the eponymous region of Portugal.

Other users have speculated that the image was not of a real location, that the sky came from a separate image and was spliced together with the hill. O’Rear is adamant that, other than Microsoft’s minor alterations to the digitized version, he did nothing to it in a darkroom, contrasting it with Adams’ Monolith:
“I didn’t “create” this. I just happened to be there at the right moment and documented it. If you are Ansel Adams and you take a particular picture of Half Dome and want the light a certain way, you manipulate the light. He was famous for going into the darkroom and burning and dodging. Well, this is none of that.”
In November 2006, Goldin+Senneby visited the site in Sonoma Valley where the Bliss image was taken, re-photographing the same view now full of grapevines. Their work After Microsoft was first shown in the exhibition “Paris was Yesterday” at the gallery La Vitrine in April 2007. It was later exhibited at 300m³ in Gothenburg.

Recreation by Goldin+Senneby of approximately the same location in November 2006, showing vines covering the area.

Image of the hill in July 2017.


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