Bliss is the name of the default computer wallpaper of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. It is an image of a rolling green hill and a blue sky with cumulus and cirrus clouds. The landscape depicted is in the Los Carneros American Viticultural Area of Sonoma County, California, United States.
Former National Geographic photographer Charles O'Rear, a resident of the nearby Napa Valley, took the photo on film with a medium-format camera while on his way to visit his girlfriend in 1998. While it was widely believed later that the image was digitally manipulated or even created with software such as Adobe Photoshop, O'Rear says it never was. He sold it to Corbis for use as a stock photo. Several years later, Microsoft engineers chose a digitized version of the image and licensed it from O'Rear.
Over the next decade it has been claimed to be the most viewed photograph in the world during that time. Since it was taken, the landscape in it has changed, with grapevines planted on the hill and field in the foreground, making O'Rear's image impossible to duplicate for the time being. That has not stopped other photographers from trying, and some of their attempts have been included in art exhibits.
One day in January 1998 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 (who he later married), in the city, as he did every Friday afternoon. He was working with her on a book about wine country. In a 2014 interview, he recalled being 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.
He was driving along the Sonoma Highway (California State Route 12 and 121) when he saw the hill, free of the vineyards the area was normally planted thick with, since a few years earlier they had been pulled out 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 Fuji film for its brilliant 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.
Since it was not pertinent to the wine-country book, O'Rear made it available through Corbis as a stock photo, available for use by any interested party willing to pay an appropriate licensing fee. In 2000 or 2001, 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 recalls. "Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? Were they looking for an image that had no tension?"
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."
All O'Rear had to do was send Microsoft the original negative and sign the paperwork. But when he told couriers and delivery services the value of what he was shipping, they refused since it was higher than their insurance would cover. So, instead, the software company bought him a plane ticket to Seattle 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 name, and made it a key part of its marketing campaign for XP. Although O'Rear had not manipulated the image in any way, the company has admitted to cropping his original image slightly to the left in order to better fit the desktop and making the greens stronger. The photographer estimates that the image has been seen on a billion computers worldwide since then, based on the amount of copies of XP that have sold since then.
O'Rear keeps a small copy of the image on the wall of a room in his house. He has been amazed at the places he's seen the image—on monitors in the background of news reports from both the White House Situation Room and the Kremlin. "We were in Thailand a couple of years ago," he recalled in 2010, "walking in this little village looking for a place to eat, and there it was in a window ... I think every corner of the globe, every culture, every country, has been exposed to it."
It has been called an iconic image comparable to Ansel Adams' Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. 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.
Since the origins of the image were not widely known for several years after XP's release, there has been considerable speculation about where the landscape was. Some guesses have included locations in France, England, Switzerland, the North Otago region of New Zealand, and southeastern Washington. Dutch users believed the 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 2012, David Clark of the British magazine Amateur Photographer commented on Bliss's aesthetic qualities. "Critics might argue that the image is bland and lacks a point of interest, while supporters would say that its evocation of a bright, clear day in a beautiful landscape is itself the subject," he wrote. He notes the "dreamlike quality" created by the filtered sunlight on the hillside as distinguishing the image. "[W]hat made Microsoft choose the image above all others?" he asked. Although the company had never told O'Rear or anyone else, Clark thought he could guess. "[I]t's attractive, easy on the eye and doesn't detract from other items that might be on the screen are all contributing factors. It may also have been chosen because it's an unusually inviting image of a verdant landscape and one that promotes a sense of wellbeing in desk-bound computer users."
Attempts to recreate
|"21st Century Bliss" by Tony Immoos (2010) reportedly "closely resembles the 1996 photograph."|
On November 27, 2006, Goldin+Senneby visited the site in Sonoma Valley where the Bliss image was taken, re-photographing the same view now full of grapevines (pictured). 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.
In 2006, Sébastien Mettraux, a Swiss artist, made a photograph titled Bliss, after Bill Gates, 2006. Mettraux, who lives and works near the Vallée de Joux, explained that it was taken in Les Esserts-de-Rives, Switzerland. A local rumour suggested that the hill of the Windows XP wallpaper came from this area in the heart of the "watch valley". It is a mistake but the photography shows that the hill is a lookalike. This photography was shown at the "Images'08" festival in Vevey.
In May 2010, GMA News reported that photographer Tony Immoos, who lived nearby the location, captured a close rendition of the original, which he dubbed "21st Century Bliss." Immoos claimed that "the 2006 re-shoot [by Goldin+Senneby] was taken from the wrong location, approximately 350' farther Northeast, it is of the correct hill, but it is shot in the wrong direction."
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