In 1996, veteran National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear was visiting his then-girlfriend/future wife Daphne Irwin in Napa Valley on a fine Friday afternoon. Little did he know, he was just moments away from capturing what is believed to be the most viewed photograph in history as the default desktop wallpaper for Windows XP: an image of a verdant Californian hill officially dubbed “Bliss” by Microsoft.
At the time, O’Rear’s ambitions obviously weren’t as lofty as the end result. He was apparently in the process of putting together a book about the wine country with Daphne Irwin and had been scoping out photo opportunities after a storm passed over plus the recent winter rain left the grass looking particularly green.
“There it was! My God, the grass is perfect! It’s green! The sun is out, there’s some clouds,” Charles O’Rear recalled thinking to himself as he drove along the Sonoma Highway (California State Route 12 and 121).
O’Rear pulled over somewhere near the Napa–Sonoma county line and set up his Mamiya RZ67 medium-format camera onto a tripod, which had been loaded up with Fujifilm’s Velvia – the latter commonly used by nature photographers to saturate colours.
“I got out, took a couple of pictures, and kept on going,” Charles O’Rear told PCWorld.
Years later when people would accuse “Bliss” of being digitally manipulated – by Microsoft or otherwise – O’Rear would simply chalk up the striking visuals to that exact combination of camera and film type.
“I didn’t create this. I just happened to be there at the right moment and documented it.”
“It made the difference and, I think, helped the “Bliss” photograph stand out even more,” he explained.
“I think that if I had shot it with 35mm, it would not have nearly the same effect.”
But one thing is for certain. That scenery resembles something slightly different these days.
So how exactly did Chuck and “Bliss” – originally dubbed “Bucolic Green Hills” – get to the party? O’Rear initially sold the image to an agency known as Westlight for use as a stock photo. Two years after that, Westlight would be acquired by Bill Gates’ Seattle-based stock photo company Corbis, which opted to digitize its best-selling images. And two years after that, when the Microsoft design team was in search of wallpapers for Windows XP, they stumbled upon “Bliss.”
Smelling an instant winner, Microsoft didn’t want to simply license the image for use as Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper. They wanted to pay for the whole damn thing and own it outright. Offering Charles O’Rear what is reportedly the second-largest payment ever made to a photographer for a single image – described as “in the low six figures” due to a strict confidentiality agreement; strongly hinted to be around the $100,000 benchmark – there was just one last obstacle in the way.
To seal the deal, or so to speak, Charles O’Rear was required to send Microsoft the original film containing “Bliss” before finalising this entire transaction by signing the paperwork. The only problem was delivering said film. When couriers and delivery services cottoned on to the shipment’s value, they refused to take on the job as it was worth far more than the insurance would cover – even FedEx.
Thankfully, the modern software company had an equally modern solution. Gates & Co bought O’Rear a plane ticket, allowing him to personally deliver the snapshot that would eventually become part of Microsoft’s $200 million “Yes You Can” advertising campaign and achieve cultural icon status.
Between its release back in August 2001 all the way until August 2012, Windows XP was the most widely used operating system, with countless users still holding it down for the OG operating system despite Microsoft discontinuing support – hence why Charles O’Rear’s “Bliss” enjoys its status as the most viewed photograph in history.