The Story Behind the World’s Most Viewed Photo

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Believe it or not, the world’s most viewed photograph was created on a whim.

You may not recognize the image by its name, “Bliss,” but you’ll know it when you see it. Viewed by over a billion people since it became Windows XP’s default desktop image, “Bliss” has long been the subject of speculation as many doubted that such a “perfect” hillside could exist beyond Photoshop.

With Microsoft’s recent abandonment of Windows XP on April 8 came another announcement: not only was the “Bliss” photograph a real location in California, but it was also created by Charles O’Rear on a Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera and he hadn’t altered it in the least. In homage to O’Rear’s legacy, Microsoft created this video revealing the story behind that iconic hillside:

January 1996 found O’Rear driving through the Californian countryside en route to visit his girlfriend (now wife) just after a storm. Somewhere along that winding country road, he noticed a spectacularly green hillside begging to be photographed. He obliged, pulling over and setting up his camera while the clouds rolled in. He created four frames that day and then packed away his gear and continued his drive, concluding, “I think that was pretty nice.”

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“Bliss” is probably the world’s most widely recognized photograph.

Apparently, Microsoft heartily agreed.

Shortly after O’Rear submitted the best of those four photographs to Corbis, an image licensing service founded by Bill Gates, Microsoft offered him one of the largest amounts ever paid for a single photograph. In fact, they offered so much that O’Rear wasn’t able to mail the original to Microsoft and instead had to fly to their headquarters to deliver it personally.

Since then, O’Rear has seen his photo everywhere, even places like the White House’s situation room and the Kremlin, and regrets having accepted a flat payment for the image instead of arranging a deal that would allow him to benefit from the image’s rampant public exposure.

It was not a royalty type of situation,” O’Rear told Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. “I should’ve negotiated a [better] deal and said, ‘Just give me a fraction of a cent for every time it’s seen and that would’ve been a nice arrangement.”

Microsoft did boost the green of the grass and cropped the image to optimal screen size, but beyond that, O’Rear insists that “Bliss” is an unaltered image.

“On film, what you see is what you get,” he says. “There was nothing unusual. I used a film that had more brilliant colors—the Fuji film—at that time and the lenses of the RZ67 were just remarkable. The size of the camera and film together made the difference  and I think helped the Bliss photograph stand out even more. I think if I’d have shot it with 35mm, it would not have nearly the same effect.”

O’Rear enjoyed a successful career shooting assignments for National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, and other well-respected publications, but strangely enough, it’s an image taken on a whim that he will be remembered by.

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3 Comments

  1. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead says:

    God bless you Charles! And your are so candid in that video, adding to the greatness of that shot. I have now shifted to iMac, but my Windows laptop is still here in my study.
    Warm regards from Mauritius

  2. Szoki says:

    Wonderful, fun story. Thank you for sharing it. What a thrill it must have been to have all that come together the way it did. Bliss was my desktop image of choice too, when using XP. I actually spent quite a lot of time gazing at it over the years, usually during business calls. It’s a beautiful, calming, upbeat image. It helped keep me centered and positive.

    Wishing you well,

    Szoki

  3. Jerry says:

    Wonderful story and well told. I still like medium format. There is an aura of detail and a sharpness, that , when you that {THE SHOT}, push the button, and everything is correct.i.e., sharpness, composition, and exposure, that shot will never be replicated ,except in the darkroom. The clouds change, never to be the same, the angle of the sun etc. It is a great feeling to get “The SHOT”.

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