The default Windows XP wallpaper containing rolling green hills, blue sky and fluffy white clouds may be more recognisable than the Mona Lisa, but it earned its photographer a pittance.
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The man behind the Windows XP desktop
Charles O'Rear reveals where 'Bliss' was taken and how Microsoft discovered his iconic photograph.
Charles O'Rear, now 73, says he wishes he negotiated a better deal with Microsoft when he licensed it to accompany the launch of the operating system more than 13 years ago.
While he won't reveal how much he was paid for the photograph, a stock image library item at the time, he said had it been licensed to earn even just a fraction of a cent per copy of Windows XP sold he would've earned much more than he did under the deal he struck.
"If I had known how popular it would become and how many computers it would've been on I should've negotiated a [better] deal and said, 'Just give me a fraction of a cent for every time it's seen' and that would've been a nice arrangement," O'Rear said.
"It was not a royalty type of situation," O'Rear added. "It was a flat 'here's what we're paying you, thank you very much and let's get it on the [computer] screen and get moving'".
Technology commentators recently estimated that O'Rear's photograph, which Microsoft chose in 2001 as the default wallpaper for its XP operating system, had been viewed by no less than 1 billion people. If all 1 billion purchased a copy of XP (they didn't) — and Microsoft paid O'Rear 1 cent per copy sold — he would've made $10 million.
O'Rear is in Australia this week care of Microsoft to promote the fact that support and security updates are ending for XP, and that the estimated 1.5 million Australians still using it should upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8 to stay secure against malicious software, or malware.
Although he didn't reveal exactly how much he was paid for the photo, he did reveal how it was taken and responded to accusations it was digitally altered.
Despite many thinking the photograph, named "Bliss", was taken in Ireland, O'Rear actually captured it whilst driving through Napa and Sonoma counties in California on the side of the highway on his way to see his then girlfriend and now wife. Today the hills are home to a vineyard and it's unsafe to stop where he did to take a photograph of the hills.
On the particular day he was driving to see his then girlfriend in January, 1996, a storm had just passed through and he got out his medium-format Mamiya RZ67 camera. "Here were a few white clouds remaining and out goes the camera and there is the photograph. Bingo!" O'Rear said.
Microsoft later discovered it thanks to a stock photography agency he uploaded it to that Microsoft founder Bill Gates decided to form in 1989, called Corbis. One major reason for starting the agency was Gates' belief that people would someday decorate their homes with a revolving display of digital artwork using digital frames, according to the New York Times.
When Microsoft found the image through Corbis, because it had been scanned into its archives at a low resolution, the agency flew O'Rear to their headquarters to get a better scan.
"Corbis said, 'Please send us that original'. So we called the Federal Express [FedEx] ... and they said how much they would insure that photograph for and I said 'Well I don't think that's enough'. So Microsoft then said through Corbis 'Here's a plane ticket, bring us that image and hand it to us, it's too valuable'. I had no idea that it was going to become the most seen photograph or recognisable photograph in the world for how long? 10 years, 12 years?"
As for whether the photograph was digitally manipulated, or photoshopped?
"A lot of people ask was it a digital manipulation? [The answer is] no," O'Rear said.
Microsoft did, however, make a few minor changes to it, such as cropping the left side of the frame and altering the colour of the hillside to make it a much more vivid green.
O'Rear said even some engineers at Microsoft thought the image had been drastically altered.
"They'd had a bet going," he said.
Some engineers thought it had been photoshopped, while others thought it had been taken near Seattle, where Microsoft's headquarters were based at the time, he said.
"I said, 'Sorry folks, you're all wrong. It was taken near my home north of San Francisco and it wasn't photoshopped at all. It never got into the computer [to be altered]. So there'."
During his career, which spans 36 years, O'Rear has been a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, worked for National Geographic magazine, and was part of Environmental Protection Agency's DOCUMERICA project.
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