The most viewed photograph in the entire world is about to disappear. That familiar rolling green hillside with peaceful, white clouds, the iconic Window’s XP Desktop ‘Bliss’ is being retired, as next month, Microsoft is rolling out a new default ‘wallpaper’ image. It is inestimable how many people have seen this photo, but it likely numbers in the billions.
“I can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere,” said Charles “Chuck” O’Rear, the jovial and down-to-earth man behind the camera. “Even in a place like North Korea, where there are things you would expect to see… there’s the Microsoft picture.”
As the world is waking up to the fact that the photo is soon going to be replaced, people around the globe want to know about the man who clicked the shutter. O’Rear recently got a call from a London newspaper, a T.V. station from the Netherlands is coming to film a documentary, and Microsoft recently sent O’Rear to Australia to be interviewed about the photo.
The ubiquitous image was taken around 1998, on the Napa-Sonoma county line, using a hand-held Mamiya RZ67 film camera. Contrary to what a lot of people think, the photo was not photo-shopped, although some time ago Microsoft did admit to darkening the green hill. O’Rear recounted he was driving down Highway 121, on his way home from visiting his now wife, Daphne Larkin, in Marin. (“We were courting,” she said.) He was driving past vineyard after vineyard, when he spotted an open field that wasn’t planted with vines.
“It was a Friday in January, after a storm, the grass was green, and I thought ‘Oh my god! Look at that scene!” O’Rear said, then paused and turned to his wife. “So, if it wasn’t for Daphne, I wouldn’t have that photo. How much better can the story be?”
Well, the story does get better.
O’Rear put the photo in a Stock Photo Library, which happened to be owned by Bill Gates, with about 100 other photographer’s photos.
Some time later, the phone rang. It was Microsoft. They were looking for a photo that would illustrate the philosophy of their new 2002 operating system, and out of the thousands of photos in that stock library, they had chosen O’Rear’s green field.
Delivering the original image to Microsoft, however, was another issue. The Software giant paid an amount in the low six figures for the photo, something which still amazes O’Rear. Because of the value of the photo, however, the cost of insuring it was so prohibitive that even “Fed Ex wouldn’t touch it,” he said.
Ultimately, Microsoft paid for a plane ticket and he hand delivered the photo to their office in Seattle.
The success of the photo still leaves O’Rear himself a little mystified. It’s nice, he said, but “Who would want it hanging on their wall?”
Among O’Rear’s favorite photos are ones he took in Indonesia, while working for National Geographic. Over the course of a year he used 500 rolls of film shooting over 15,000 photos: Images of Muslims praying, 6,000 at a time, street scenes, and ghost-like images of school girls draped in white gauze.
O’Rear’s love affair with vineyards started in 1978, when National Geographic sent him to Napa.
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“They said ‘go out to this little place where they’re making wine and let’s make a story,’” he said.
O’Rear was so taken with the vineyards he moved to St. Helena in the 1980’s. He and Daphne have also published a dozen or so books, including three on Napa Valley vineyards.
For a man who has taken photos all over the world, why vineyards?
“They’re beautiful, and I love the outdoors,” O’Rear said after thinking a moment. “They have strong design patterns. They’re the most organized crop in America. I come from a rural area so I’m familiar with agricultural and rural settings.”
O’Rear grew up in Missouri, and picked up a Brownie Box camera at age 10.
“Probably, what happened at the same time, I realized the camera felt good, and airplanes felt good,” said the man who got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license.
“I like doing things with my hands.”
O’Rear was a photographer with National Geographic for 25 years. And, he was the only photographer to ever appear on the cover. (That is, he said, if you don’t count Koko the gorilla, who was pictured with a photo she took of herself.)
Another of O’Rear’s covers for National Geographic shows St. Helena’s Bob Pestoni, owner of Upper Valley Garbage, turning piles of rotting grapes for mulch, on a story about Bacteria in 1993.
National Geographic recently sent O’Rear two enormous, three volume, 75 pound compilation of Geographic photos for their 125th anniversary. Two of O’Rear’s Indonesian photos are in there, and he donated one of the set to St. Helena Library.
Does O’Rear know what Microsoft’s new photo is going to be?
“I don’t know,” he smiled. “I’m waiting for the phone to ring.”