Chuck O’Rear had made it dozens of times that road, leading, in a little more than an hour’s drive, from St.Helena (California) to Marin County, where waiting for him was Daphe Larkin, who later became his life partner.
It is January 1996 and Chuck is driving through the “Los Carneros” wine-growing area in Sonoma in search of some shots for the book on the area’s wines he is working on with Daphne. His many years as a photographer for National Geographic have accustomed him to carrying his Mamiya RZ67 with him at all times, ready to catch the unexpected, the right shot at the right moment. O’Rear turns his head and looks out the window, sees a gentle hill, the green is emerald, the sky blue. He stops the car.
During those weeks the Sonoma area had been subject to heavy rains, which regenerated the area’s lawns, just like the one Chuck is now standing in front of, ready to take a picture about which he has no particular expectations. The film chosen is Fujifilm Velvia, which will help to better saturate the colors of the landscape. The shot is successful, Chuck and Daphne nevertheless do not choose it for the book and so it is put up for sale thanks to the Corbis agency.
Silicon Valley at that time was not only green hills and beautiful landscapes, but the great season of invention in technology and computing was growing every day. It is a few years after O’Rear’s stop along the way, this is 2000, that Microsoft is looking for the default wallpaper for Windows XP, its new operating system that Bill Gates will launch in October 2001.
The choice falls on the photo of Sonoma Hill, immediately renamed “Bliss.” The photographer never disclosed what Microsoft bought all the rights to “Bliss” for; he recounted that it is “the second highest sum ever paid in the world for the purchase of a single photograph” and that a nondisclosure agreement was signed with the company.
Chuck O’Rear does not know why Microsoft chose “Bliss” as the photo for Windows XP, but over the years he has observed how it has become probably the most viewed photograph in history. Microsoft changed the sky colors slightly and cropped O’Rear’s shot slightly to the left, but otherwise that photographer’s oh-so-ordinary journey has entered billions of computers around the world.
“Bliss” has appeared on the biggest billboards in Time Square, in the private lives of many of us, and in events of historic significance. For example, Chuck and Daphne told People how they noticed “Bliss” in the computer background in the first historic diplomatic link between North and South Korea.
The story of “Bliss” is simple, a California hillside that has become private space for billions of people is the story of an opportunity, one that could have been seized simply by looking out the window.