Charles O'Rear — he goes by Chuck — isn't a famous photographer like Annie Leibovitz or Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa or Ansel Adams. But one of his photographs has probably been seen by more people than any other image.
This is Bliss, the default background for Windows XP's 'Luna' theme.
Of course, there's no way to know just how many people have seen Bliss, and where it sits in the rankings of popular photographs — whether it's been more widely viewed than, say, Afghan Girl, which had an 18-year head start. But with over 450 million copies of Windows XP sold, and likely well over a billion views of its default desktop, Bliss is up there with the best of them.
How does it feel to be the photographer behind one of the most iconic images of the new millennium?
"It feels great. Do people come and pat me on the back? Not necessarily. But when it's all over, I think people won't say, "Oh, he's the guy that shot 25 stories for National Geographic", they'll say, "But he's the guy that took the picture that was seen by more people than anything else."
"I use the example of, if you're walking through a village in rural China, or in rural Africa, if there's a television screen, it's going to be on there. If you ask someone in the street, "do you recognise this?" they'll say "yeah, I recognise it."
Was Bliss a lucky shot, or was it planned and carefully executed? How did it end up in Microsoft's XP background library?
"I have made an awful lot of photographs where I thought, "God this is a great shot!", but nobody liked it, and it went absolutely nowhere. In this case, had it not been picked up by Corbis, it might have disappeared."
The stock photo agency Corbis is, and was in 2001, fully owned by none other than Bill Gates. O'Rear expands on the topic: "It's my theory that if I'm at Microsoft, and I need a photograph, I'm not going to go to Getty, I'm going to go to Corbis. Let's keep it in the family."
In 1998, Chuck was then dating his now-wife Daphne, who lived on the other side of the Napa Valley in California. "She lived about 50 miles away, and I would have to cross this location to get there. It's a beautiful winding road to get towards San Francisco, and there was always this one spot that I'd always noticed — beautiful.
"We only have maybe 10 days or two weeks when the green is that brilliant. The rains in December give the grass long enough to get brilliant green, then the storms come through in January — right after a storm we get this incredible visibility, and we get the white clouds that sometimes come by. I carry a camera with me all the time, and so I thought "hey, I'll just get the camera up and make a couple of shots here," and then I was on my way. If I hadn't been dating [Daphne], it wouldn't exist."
"There's a lot of serendipity, and being in the right place at the right moment."
The scenery of Bliss today, in California's Napa Valley.
Bliss is on its way out, though.
Windows XP bug-fix support, extended for five years past its original end-of-life mark of November 2009, comes to a quiet close at the end of next week. As of April 8, Microsoft is no longer releasing new patches or updates to plug security holes. That's why Charles is here in Sydney; he's on a small publicity tour with Microsoft to help convince Windows XP users — especially small businesses and larger operators — that it's time to move on.
These security holes are ones that have appeared, and been addressed, since Windows XP's debut in 2001. But it's an operating system designed for the early half of the first decade of the new millenium, and we're almost half way through the second decade. XP is thirteen years old in October; in that busy time, we've been introduced to seven iPhones (and countless Androids), eight major games console releases, and three complete overhauls of Windows (Vista, 7, and 8).
What are Chuck's thoughts on that?
"Do I cry when I go to sleep at night, and have tears on my pillow?" He laughs. "I would suspect that 10 years from now, if you show that photograph to anybody who today is over 10 years old, they'll say, "I remember that." I don't think it's going to go away that quickly."
Bliss was shot on a medium-format Mamiya RZ 67 film camera, in a happenstance one afternoon in California. The world has, by and large, abandoned film and embraced digital photography; the analogy of changing from film to digital is O'Rear's best way to address the question of old technologies, like Windows XP, dying off and being replaced.
"I hope I never see another roll of film again! We would go on a job for National Geographic with 500 rolls of film, and three or four cameras, because one of them would break. One of the differences now is that photography has improved immensely is that with film I only have 19, 20 chances to make this shot; with digital I can say "I want to try this angle, this angle," I can experiment and look at it and go, "oh yeah!""
Like photographic film, Windows XP won't be around in the mainstream too much longer. It'll still live on in small businesses, where an old CRT monitor and beige tower are tucked away in a corner for stock tracking, or hooked up to legacy hardware. Windows 8 is a lot more exciting and modern, though, like digital photography — and that's what Microsoft wants current XP users to realise.