world’s most well-known shot? Field Photography at its best.

francesca vine: arts Columnist

On a Friday afternoon in January 1996, Charles O’Rear, a photographer who had previously worked for the National Geographic for 25 years, drove from his house in St Helena, California to visit his girlfriend (later wife) Daphne Irwin in San Francisco.

The pair had been working on a book about the wine country and as he drove through the Napa Valley, O’Rear was on the lookout for a photo opportunity after a recent storm washed the sky clean and made the greenery appear particularly vibrant.

Driving along the highway, California State Route 12/121, he caught sight of a green hillside and pulled over close to the Napa-Sonoma county line to set up a photo. He later recalled his thoughts at the time: “There it was! My God, the grass is perfect! It’s green! The sun is out; there’s some clouds”. He used his Mamiya RZ67, a hand-held medium format camera, with Fujifilm’s Velvia, well-known in the pre-digital era as a film that created a highly-saturated effect and was thus popular among landscape photographers. Only a few years earlier, the hill would have been covered in vines, but these had been removed following a phylloxera infestation and had by now been replaced by an even covering of grass.

After taking four photographs, O’Rear got back in his car and drove away. As the scene was not relevant to his wine country book, he submitted the photo to Westlight, a stock image company, under the title Bucolic Green Hills. It languished there for two years until 1998, when Westlight was acquired by Corbis, a stock agency owned by Bill Gates and used by Microsoft.

In 2000, O’Rear was contacted by Microsoft, through Corbis, who wanted to use the photo as a desktop wallpaper for their new operating system, Windows XP. Having previously trialled another of O’Rear’s images, titled Full Moon over Red Dunes by the photographer, but known as Red Moon Desert in Windows XP, the company abandoned the idea of using it as the default wallpaper after it was likened to buttocks by testers. Instead, they now wished to use his idyllic Napa Valley photograph. Whereas the image had been previously available to anyone willing to licence it for a fee, Microsoft wanted to buy all of the rights and offered him the second-largest ever sum paid for a single photograph, purportedly in the low-six-figures.

MACKAYAN: bliss. the most famous photo.

O’Rear agreed to the sale and signed the paperwork, but when he attempted to send the original film, as requested, nowhere would accept it as its value was too great for it to be covered by insurance. Accordingly, Microsoft bought him a plane ticket to Seattle and acting as courier, he delivered it to their offices in person.

A picture similar to the original, whose rights are owned by Microsoft

Newly-titled Bliss, the now-default wallpaper for Windows XP’s default theme became a key marketing hook, as part of their $200 million campaign Yes You Can. Estimated to have been seen on over a billion computers across the planet, based on the number of XP copies purchased and thus becoming one of the most viewed photographs ever, the photographer dubbed it “probably the most recognised photo on the planet”.

Bliss was the subject of some speculation; believed by many to be a computer-generated image or else assembled from multiple photographs in photoshop. O’Rear always maintained that the image had not been digitally enhanced or manipulated and a later review of Corbis’ stock image showed that the slight cropping on the left-hand side and vibrant green tone, which O’Rear attributed to Velvia, had been present back then. The title of Ireland on the Dutch version also led to the assumption that the image had been taken there, with other suggestions including England, France, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Regardless, whether they know the story behind it or not, in Charles O’Rear’s own words, “anybody now from age 15 on for the rest of their life will remember this photograph”.