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 was 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 abandonment of Windows XP 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.”
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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