The Most Famous Photograph

After I bought my first camera and had spent some time pointing at things I started looking at the work of famous photographers. There is nothing like the work of the masters to make you feel bad about yourself. At some point, an un-fair question occurred to me. What is the most famous photograph of all time?

It turns out, this photograph has been seen by more people than any other:


Bliss was the default background for Windows XP. By virtue of that alone at least a billion people have seen it [citation needed]. Even as late as 2013, 25 percent of all the desktop computers on the planet still ran Windows XP.

Luckily, I thought, I lived only 15-minutes away from the place in Sonoma, California where the photo was taken. I would drive out there at lunch and on weekends with my first camera and try to recreate the image.

My first attempts were uninspiring. Really uninspiring:

Winter Bliss

I was crushed. After all, I was standing on the same spot, looking at the same hill, why shouldn’t I be able to at least make a decent picture? I could see a hill in the photo, but not the quality of the lighting or texture in the sky. I couldn’t see the choice of film. I couldn’t see the subtle framing decisions. The world seems so much simpler if you don’t know anything about it.

It turns out the original photograph was made by Charles O’Rear, who used to work for National Geographic; which might just be the hardest job to get in photography. He is so successful that he now spends his life traveling the world, photographing wine regions. That’s actually what he was doing when he made Bliss.

I have, sadly, moved away from the wine country. For a while I had the urge to go back and make a better image of the hill “knowing what I know now”. But it turns out they have built a road over the hill and planted grape vines on it:

Spring Bliss

Now no one can recreate the image. But that’s for the best. Even if I had been with Charles on the day he made that photo, mine wouldn’t have turned out as well as his. Even if I had been standing right next to him, I still would have been holding my first camera. And he would have had thousands of hours of experience I didn’t. In reality, how much practice was I getting, driving to that same spot all the time, trying to recreate one photograph? I was clicking a button on my camera, sure. But I wasn’t doing what Charles had been doing the day he originally took the photograph: just driving around and looking for things that struck him as beautiful.

If you’re ever in Sonoma, you can try and recreate the photo yourself. Or don’t. Instead, not 100 yards away from that same spot is my favorite restaurant: the Fremont Diner. I miss that place. It’s just a diner, but with Napa’s sensibilities about food. Instead of chasing someone else’s success, have a buttermilk bisquit. You’ll be better for it.

Published: May 11 2015