In January 1996, Charles “Chuck” O’Rear captured the above photo on his Mamiya RZ 67 film camera while driving through the wine counties of California. It would go on to become the default wallpaper for Windows XP — an image that has been seen by hundreds of millions of people. Here is the story behind the iconic photo, along with O’Rear’s design tips for perfect wallpaper creation.
As the default background for Microsoft’s most enduring operating system, Chuck O’Rear’s ‘Bliss’ has been eyeballed by a hell of a lot of people. With more than 450 million copies of Windows XP sold, there’s no telling how many individual times the image has been seen — and that’s before you add the untold swathes of pirated copies to the equation.
While it might not have the inbuilt gravitas of Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ or Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’, ‘Bliss’ is far more likely to be instantly recognised the world over. It may even be the most widely viewed image in history.
So what is the secret behind Bliss’ success, other than the fact that it presumably took Bill Gates’ fancy? In an attempt to find out, we chatted to O’Rear about his design process and the origin of his hugely successful desktop background.
“The trick to capturing the perfect desktop background, or any photograph for that matter, is all about serendipity,” O’Rear claims. “In the case of [XP’s Bliss] it was serendipity with a capital S. When I drove by those hills that day, a storm had just passed through which gave this great visibility. I stopped my truck and ‘made’ a photograph of that scene — I prefer this phrase to take, it sounds sexier.
“The photo then went to my stock photo agency called Corbis which is where Microsoft found it. At the time that the photo was selected, I didn’t even know Microsoft was in the process of building XP. So it really was a lucky string of events. It just clicked at the right place and the right time.”
According to O’Rear, while there’s a certain amount fortuitous happenstance involved with taking a great photo, it’s not just about blind luck — preparation and location familiarity are also incredibly important.
“My 25 years at National Geographic taught me that you have to make serendipity happen; it doesn’t happen for us,” O’Rear explained. “In other words, you need to be prepared.
“With the Windows XP photo, I knew that the area with those amazing green hills only lasted for a maximum of about two weeks of the year. So I did my research and was prepared even though I didn’t know exactly what I was going to find.”
Naturally, if you want to take a great desktop background, it helps if the subject has some kind of significant meaning. ‘Bliss’ holds a special place in O’Rear’s heart that goes beyond the Windows XP connection — it was actually taken on his way to visit the woman who later became his wife.
“Before we got married, I used to drive from my home to hers which was about fifty miles away. We’d spend the weekend together and then I’d come back. The road passes through this gorgeous area of Californian wine country which is where Bliss’ was taken. So if it wasn’t for my wife, the photo probably wouldn’t exist.
“Obviously, if you’re going to create an image for your own desktop, you want something that you like, whether it’s your dog, cat or favourite car. Choosing the right photo will make you feel good every single day when you turn your computer on.”
O’Rear says that the key to taking a good desktop background — especially for commercial purposes– is to convey something positive. In the case of ‘Bliss’, Windows XP engineers were looking for an image that would express serenity, peacefulness and a nondescript calmness.
Or as O’Rear quips: “It’s got green hills, blue sky and white clouds — how could you go wrong? Nobody is going to look at it and say “oh my god, I want to throw up!” (We’re guessing he’s unfamiliar with hardcore Linux users.)
As a final piece of advice, O’Rear recommends that you take a lot of photos — even if that means leaving the camera at home and using your smartphone:
“Finding the right moment has always been the challenge for professional photographers; we would roam the world never knowing when that moment would happen. Nowadays, with instant, high resolution photography at your fingertips, it’s hard to make an unusable photograph.
“So to anybody who wants to create an image for their desktop, just be always ready and prepared.”