Want to find “Bliss?” Just search the “most viewed photograph in the world” on Google Images and you will be transported to a velvety hillside of electric green, etched against a cerulean sky splotched with cottony clouds.
If you’re a PC user, the picture will seem as familiar as your own backyard. And if you live in Sonoma, it almost is.
The default screen wallpaper for the Windows XP operating system, this ubiquitous photo, dubbed “Bliss,” has been seen by millions of eyes. Even though it was introduced in 2001, Windows XP has had remarkable longevity, with roughly a third of all PC users in the world — some 500 million — still using it. And people see it every time they fire up their computers.
Most can only gaze at that pastoral scene on screen and sigh. By its very anonymity, with no distinguishing features beyond the tiny cap of a mountain in the far distance, it could be anywhere.
In truth, X marks the blissful spot near the old Stornetta dairy on Highway 12/121 just south of the city of Sonoma. It was snapped on a January day in 1998 by former National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear of St. Helena. He was trolling for stock photos of green hillsides with his trusty Mamiya camera when he unwittingly hit the jackpot.
O’Rear, 73, calls it “just another ordinary beautiful spot in Sonoma.”
He submitted the image to Corbis, a stock photo agency in Seattle that is owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The company purchased it for a tidy sum that the photographer by agreement can’t disclose. He does say, “It was a nice amount. I’m still saying ‘thank you, Microscoft’ and ‘thank-you, Corbis.’”
Bliss has developed a cult following among computer geeks and artists. It has been reproduced and remade in countless off-the-wall ways with everything from a mushroom cloud to a bug splat, the Teletubbies to Hello Kitty, nuclear bombs to Dr. Who’s time machine, all Photoshopped into that bucolic Carneros hillside.
Bliss has also been the subject of endless speculation about where it was taken. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the hillside is now a vineyard. If you go looking for it, you won’t find it by sight. But plug 3101 Fremont Drive into your GPS and you’ll be within striking range. The Google coordinates are 38.250124,-122.410817.
As a photographer who has traveled the world — O’Rear worked 25 years for National Geographic — he has seen his famous picture everywhere.
“I saw the Russian president speaking with the screen behind him, and there was the photo,” he said. “I was looking at a series of photographs of people sitting at a control board for some nuclear plant in North Korea and there was Bliss.”
While he has a vast archive of images and produced 10 books on wine and Napa Valley, Bliss remains O’Rear’s lucky shot.
“Tony Bennett got so famous because he sang, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ but he had to sing it 10,000 times,” he said. “Whether it was the greatest song in the world or not, it clicked and it’s everywhere.”
And so it was for O’Rear. One click and he had found his Bliss.