Bliss by Charles O'Rear - Iconic Photograph

Charles O'Rear's landscape photograph was selected by Microsoft as its Windows XP wallpaper. Now it's one of the world's most famous images, writes David Clark

Bliss by Charles O'Rear

Image: Charles O'Rear photographed this hillside near his home one winter's morning when the landscape took on an almost dreamlike quality © Microsoft Corporation

‘Bliss' is an image of a green, lush hillside, partially lit by bright sunshine. Above the hillside there's a bright-blue sky peppered with cumulus and cirrus clouds. Low down in the frame, a dark line indicates a division between fields, and the foreground is dotted with yellow wildflowers. Beyond the gracefully sloping hillside, distant mountains are visible.

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. However, is it even a real landscape at all? Many have wondered whether it is actually a computer-generated scene, assembled in Photoshop from a number of different images.

Although it's a picture that can divide opinion, it is, nevertheless, one of the most famous photographs in the world. It is familiar to perhaps billions of people as a result of being chosen as the default ‘wallpaper' image in the Windows XP program, launched in 2002.

However, few people who recognise the image would be able to name the photographer: Charles O'Rear. At the time the photo was taken, in January 1998, O'Rear was 56 and had enjoyed a successful career as a professional photographer. He initially worked on The Kansas City Star and Los Angeles Times before shooting a wide range of assignments for National Geographic.

The major turning point in his life came in 1978, when National Geographic sent him on an assignment to photograph winemaking in Napa Valley, around 50 miles north of San Francisco in California.

O'Rear fell in love with the region and afterwards went to live there permanently, settling in St Helena. He also began to specialise in photographs of winemaking, initially concentrating on the vineyards of California, but later going on to photograph wine production around the world.

However, he particularly enjoyed photographing the lush landscape near his Napa Valley home and one hillside caught his eye while he was driving to the nearby town of Corte Madera. It's visible from a point on Highway 121 in Sonoma County and although it's located in the winemaking region, it was not planted with vines.

It's the kind of scene which, photographed on a dull day, would struggle to capture anyone's attention. However, on one bright, partially cloudy winter's morning with the sun in the right position, it took on an almost dreamlike quality.

‘I passed this location many times and knew that for a couple of weeks every January the field becomes green and clouds gather for storms,' O'Rear told me in a recent interview. ‘I always carry a camera and, one day, it happened - the clouds and grasses were perfect.'

He photographed the scene using a hand-held Mamiya RZ67 film camera and the resulting picture was submitted to the Corbis picture library, owned by Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates. When the company's software engineers were looking for a default screen saver for the new Windows XP program, launched in 2002, O'Rear's hillside shot was the image chosen. They gave it the title ‘Bliss'.

Image: Portrait of Charles O'Rear © Daphne Larkin 

This version of ‘Bliss' is O'Rear's own personal image file. It shows that Microsoft made very few changes to it, beyond cropping the image on the left side of the frame. The most significant change was to alter the colour of the hillside to a much more vivid green.

For such a famous photograph, O'Rear says it was almost embarrassingly easy to make. ‘Photographers like to become famous for pictures they created,' he told the Napa Valley Register in an interview in 2010. ‘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 [in Yosemite National Park] and want to light it in 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.'

The photograph was not only included in every copy of Windows XP sold around the world (a program installed on more than a billion computers), but it was also a key part of the $200 million campaign to advertise the software. As such, it was a valuable image and O'Rear was paid one of the highest fees ever for the copyright of a single photograph, although for legal reasons he's unable to reveal the exact sum.

So what made Microsoft choose the image above all others? O'Rear has never been told, but the fact that it'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.

I asked Charles O'Rear what it's like to have shot one of the world's most famous photographs. ‘I feel proud to see the image still being used,' he said. ‘Of course, when I took it I had no idea it would be so famous. Mostly, I'm proud to point to the monitor and tell people that I live near where it was taken. I'm lucky to live in a blissful place.'

Events of 1998

  • 4 February: More than 5,000 people are killed in north-east Afghanistan by an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale
  • 23 February: Osama bin Laden signs a fatwa in the name of the ‘World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.' It declares the killing of North Americans and their allies an ‘individual duty for every Muslim'
  • 23 March: Director James Cameron's film Titanic wins a record 11 Academy Awards at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony
  • 10 April: The Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, is signed by the Irish and British governments. It establishes the Northern Ireland Assembly with devolved legislative powers
  • 7 August: In China, the Yangtze River breaks its banks. Between June and September, thousands are killed and millions made homeless as a result of flooding
  • 15 August: The Real IRA detonates a car bomb in a busy street in Omagh, Northern Ireland. It kills 29 people and injures more than 200
  • 19 August: US President Bill Clinton admits that he had an ‘improper physical relationship' with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and that he had misled the American people
  • 4 September: Google, Inc is founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both PhD students at Stanford University in California

Books and Websites

Books: Charles O'Rear has produced the images for ten books on wine and vineyards. The most recent is Napa Valley: The Land, The Wine, The People (published 2011).

Websites: To see more of Charles O'Rear's work, visit his website www.wineviews.com. It includes portfolios of his stock and fine-art work, including more images of the rolling hills of the Napa Valley.