Wallpaper of the world

An utterly ordinary image is one of the biggest commercial successes in history—and nobody had any choice in the matter.

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Charles O'Rear

It’s just a hill. Not even: maybe a hillock. There’s nothing that great about the light, either: broken, puffy clouds admitting a single broad ray across unremarkable flanks. You just know it’s Velvia: green doesn’t really come like that. You’ve probably driven past a million such mediocre milieux, without once being tempted to reach into your camera bag.

Well, you should have, because this entirely ordinary scene—’Bliss’—became an extraordinary image.

Charles ‘Chuck’ O’Rear shot it on a Friday afternoon in 1996, while he was driving through the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco Bay, to visit his girlfriend. Somewhere near the Napa—Sonoma county line, he spotted the hill, and pulled over. He loaded his Mamiya RZ67 with Velvia and screwed it onto a tripod.

Then he shot four frames through a fence, absolutely straight: “I didn’t ‘create’ this,” he told The Napa Valley Register in 2010. “I just happened to be there at the right moment and documented it.”

And that’s how O’Rear collected what’s reputed to be the second-biggest fee for a photograph, ever. A confidentiality agreement conceals something “in the low six figures”. The picture was meant to go into a book about California’s wine country (vines, riddled with phylloxera, had recently been pulled off the hill), but instead, he placed it with stock agency Corbis. In 2001, he received a flight ticket from Microsoft, who wanted him to deliver a transparency personally—couriers wouldn’t take it, because the company refused to disclose the value of the item. “What did the engineers want? Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? That had no tension? I had no idea where it was going to go,” recalls O’Rear.

Microsoft scanned the image, cropped it to fit a computer screen, and put it on the desktop of more than a billion people.

It’s now claimed to be one of the world’s most-viewed photographs—wallpaper etched into the memory of Windows XP users all over the globe.

“I’ve seen it in the Situation Room of the White House,” says O’Rear.

The location of ‘Bliss’ went undisclosed for years, prompting legions to guess instead. France, England, Switzerland, North Otago, County Kerry were all suggested. Inevitably, some speculated that ‘Bliss’ is not a place at all, but simply a child of Photoshop, a claim O’Rear has rejected. Instead, he credits the extraordinary optics of the Mamiya, the expansive film area, and Velvia’s otherwordly colour rendition for the impact of the picture. He points out that, on the CRT screens of the day, the resolution and the colours “were probably not that good. I think, if I’d have shot it with 35-millimetre, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect.”

Other photographers have shot their own take on the famous hill. But now that grapes clothe it again, O’Rear’s image may never be replicated, leaving the art community variously bemused and resigned. In 2012, Amateur Photographer’s David Clark stuck up for ‘Bliss’: “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 felt the wash of sunlight gave the frame a dreamlike quality. “It’s attractive, easy on the eye and doesn’t detract from other items that might be on the screen,” he wrote. “It may also have been chosen because [it] promotes a sense of wellbeing in desk-bound computer users.”

While the sale of ‘Bliss’ might have made O’Rear’s fortune at the time, a decade later he was wishing he’d negotiated a better deal. “If I had known how popular it would become and how many computers it would’ve been on, I should’ve said, ‘Just give me a fraction of a cent for every time it’s seen’,” he said in 2014. “That would’ve been a nice arrangement.”