Bliss. This wallpaper is the most viewed photo ever.

Last updated on May 19th, 2017

The standard wallpaper of Windows XP is without a doubt the most distributed and most viewed photograph ever.

‘Bliss’, default wallpaper of Windows XP. Photographer: Charles O’Rear

The name of the photo is Bliss, however Dutch users of XP may have noticed that the wallpaper is called ‘Ierland’ in their version. Understandably, we have since then come to see this as a typical Irish landscape.

You have probably never given it a second thought, but this photo has a maker. His name is Charles O’Rear, an Irish name confirming our assumption the photo was taken in Ireland.

Charles O’Rear took this picture 1996 and sold it a couple of years later to Corbis, the stock photo company owned by Microsoft. I could not find out how much he was paid for it, but I doubt if it was more than a couple of hundred dollars. Too bad for him, because had he entered a royalty-deal of one 1 cent per sold XP-license, his bank account would now show a figure of at least 4 million dollar.

However. This photo was not taken in Ireland, but in Napa Valley, California, USA, not far from O’Rear’s residence. And indeed, as it now begins to dawn on us, ignorance is bliss, O’Rear is not an Irishman, O’Rear is a born American.

Once I found that out, I became curious about what we are really looking at in this picture and what the photographer saw around him. My idyllic idea about this place was that he could have pointed his camera in any direction and still get the same picture. I have lived in the west of Ireland for two years myself and where I lived this actually was the case – except maybe for the fact that the skies were grey more often than blue.

But this illusion was shattered too. In the first place by the picture below, made by the artist collective Goldin+Senneby in January of 2006, form the exacgt same point of view as O’Rear. Not only the weather conditions were quite different from the original photo. The soil had been cutivated and was turned into a vineyard. Quite appropriate, considering that O’Rear made his living primarily out of photobooks on wine.

After Microsoft. Remake of Bliss in 2006, by Goldin+Senneby

That left me with one question. How does the rest of the scenery in this place actually look? What do we see left and right of the photographer, and behind him?

Google Streetview brings us the answers. Below are four pictures taken by Nine Eyes, the camera on top of the Google cars that collect streetviews. This camera rises high above the care, giving a total different angle of the scenery in front of us. And the rest of the scenery is, well, less blissful than I thought it would be.

By the way, the coordinates of this place are 38.248966, -122.410269. In case you ant to have a look for yourself.

Bliss by Google Streetview

Bliss. What the photographer saw at his right hand side.

Bliss. What the photographer saw to his left.

Bliss. What could be seen behind the photographer.

Update August 29: turns out the photographer actually did earn a nice sum with the photo. Read all about it on NapaValleyRegister.com

Note: this post about the most viewed photo ever was originally published on August 27, 2011 on the Dutch photography blog Picture This. The post was much quoted, shared and linked to. Nowadays, Bliss has its own entry in Wikipedia.

The Future of Photography

Last updated on May 17th, 2017

I don’t usually write about photographic equipment. To me, cameras are just boring hardware. More often than not they stand between the photographer and a good photo.

Let me make an exception for a new type of camera that may change photography even more than the invention of colour film did, a long time ago.

I am talking about a light-field camera, of which type a company called Lytro recently launched the first consumer model.

Three Lytro Cameras (Photo by Lytro.)

I won’t bother you with the technical details of how this camera works (but do read this article if you are interested). What the camera in essence does, is to allow you to decide where the focus in the picture is, after you have taken the photo. Each area in the picture can be in our out of focus, or in photographic terms: may fall inside or outside the depth of field of the photo.

The great thing about this: if the photographer can decide where the focus is after the photo has been taken, so can the viewer.

To give you an idea: these two pictures are actually two instances of a single photo taken with a Lytro. You really should have a look at the showcase website of Lytro to get an idea of how interactive and dynamic this is.

Lytro photo

Two instances of the *same* photo taken with Lytro camera. (Copyright Erik Cheng/Lytro.)

Now digital photography has brought us many gimmicks, which in the end have not proven to be very helpful in taking photography to the next level. On the contrary, ‘techniques’ like HDR and time lapse turn cameras into magic boxes without really turning the photographer into an illusionist.

The Lytro camera is anything but a gimmick. This camera will create a whole new kind of photography, in which the dynamic photo, changeable by the viewer, will play a central role. In the future, the role of the viewer will become much more important and the interaction between the photographer and their audience will become much more intense and direct.

The photographer will invite, even challenge, the viewer to see things completely different than the photographer did. And that is the complete opposite of what has been the approach of photography for nearly 200 years now: to try to show the audience what the photographer saw or wanted to see.

That is why I dare predict that this Lytro camera will change the course of photography more than any invention before. Except of course the smartphone.