The world’s most famous photograph

Quick, ask yourself what the world’s most famous photo is. Is it this one?

This photo taken at the end of World War II shows a sailor forcibly kissing a woman thought to be a nurse. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

How about this one?

“The Blue Marble,” an image taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972, is certainly influential as it shows the world in a way most of us will never see directly. It’s also the image that adorned the first iPhones. If that was your first impulse, you’re getting close.

Maybe the photo we’re searching for is one of Time’s 100 most influential photos.  There’s no question that the photos there represent important moments in our history.

But it’s not one of those.

The world’s most famous photograph, seen daily by about a billion people at its peak, is so common that you probably don’t even think of it as a photograph at all. It’s this one.

You’re probably hearing the Windows XP startup sound about now, and I don’t blame you. This photo adorned every Windows XP installation ever, and many people never even bothered to change it so they looked at it every day. It’s called “Bliss,” and it’s the most famous photo ever.

It’s a fun story

There are a lot of ways to find out the story of this particular photo. There’s a short video you can watch:

or if you prefer long reads, I’d recommend this story at Artsy that goes into more detail. Or, if you’re in the mood for a quick drive-by and you’re in Sonoma County, CA, you can even see it for yourself.

The basics go like this. Photographer Charles O’Rear was driving through Sonoma County back in 1996 after a pest infestation had caused a lot of grape vines to be removed from hills. He saw this particular bit of green, fairly rare for that part of the world, and took out his pro-quality camera. He intended it to be used in a book about wine country, but eventually turned it over to a stock photo service to try to monetize it a little.

Microsoft found the photo and asked Mr. O’Rear for the rights. It’s claimed to be one of the most expensive photo negatives ever sold, and it was so expensive that Mr. O’Rear had to deliver it by hand. It turns out that no shipping service would insure it.

The world learned about “Bliss” in 2001 when it was used as the default background for Windows XP, and it’s been part of our lives ever since

The real hill

Mr. O’Rear claims he made no digital manipulation  on the photo. That’s probably true, at least not while he had it. It was shot on film and later scanned by someone at Microsoft who had some latitude to adjust colors, remove grain, and make tonal adjustments. But Mr. O’Rear claims that the spirit of the shot is the same as it was when he first shot it.

The hill, on the other hand, has changed quite a bit.

Goldin+Senneby, AfterMicrosoft, 2006. Image via the artist and Wikimedia Commons.

This is the way you’d find this hill today. It’s a working vineyard, and while it does show green for some of the year, you’re more likely to see it in golden tones. That’s just characteristic of working vineyards. The shape is unmistakeable, but you’d be forgiven if you thought that the trees in the background are proof that the original was altered. Mr. O’Rear says it’s not true, and it’s just the effects of ten years of growth.

In the meantime, the whole thing does transport you back to a different time, when our worries were different, our joys and sorrows were different. When floppy disks still walked the earth, and every internet connection started with a dial up. Ah, the good old days.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.