In 1996 on the way to visit his girlfriend, photographer Charles “Chuck” O’Rear stumbled upon Bliss. Stopping off amidst California hills, he noted that the lighting after a storm was doing good things for the landscape. The image he snapped would become what’s thought to be the most viewed image in the world, and if you’ve ever used a Microsoft computer, you might’ve seen it.
The famous image known as Bliss had humble beginnings, first sold as a stock photo to Corbis, the image licensing company founded by Bill Gates in 1989. It hit the big time when it became the desktop wallpaper for Windows XP in 2001, and is thought to have since become the most viewed image in the world, seen by over a billion people.
Some have argued that the perfection of the image means it must be digitally altered, but O’Rear has maintained that the arresting composition was simply a combination of good kit, timing, and weather.
“There was nothing unusual,” he told Slate. “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 had shot it with 35 millimeter, it would not have nearly the same effect.”
O’Rear now lives in Napa Valley north of San Francisco Bay, very near to where Bliss was taken. He was prepared to take the photo because of weather patterns in the region that see increased rainfall turn the hills a luscious shade of green.
Back in 1996, O’Rear was driving to see his girlfriend near San Francisco every Friday afternoon, and each week he went out with his photography kit in the car just in case. On one January day, he sees just the sight he’d been waiting for, so pulls over and sets up his equipment to take a few shots.
O’Rear admits that the final image probably wasn’t even the one he was aiming for since the clouds were moving the whole time it took him to set up his camera. Without digital technology, he also couldn’t check what he’d taken but felt confident he’d secured a nice shot.
Evidently, it was exactly what Microsoft was looking for as they contacted his agent to buy the rights. The price they were willing to pay was more than any courier was willing to take on in shipping the original image to them, so Microsoft paid for O’Rear to bring them the physical image in person.
“I had no idea where it was going to go,” O’Rear, who has since spotted his photo in the background of news reports at the White House and in interviews with the Kremlin, said.
From the rainy hills of California to a global audience. Not bad for an impromptu shot on a rainy day.