The Most Viewed Photo Ever Was Taken in the Bay Area

Try to imagine the most-viewed photo in the world. With the rise of social media, maybe it’s a viral image of Justin Beiber or a similar modern celebrity?

Or maybe a historical image? Some of history’s most iconic images–like Joe Rosenthal’s image of the flag raising on Iwo Jima–have been spread around the world in newspapers and history books for generations now.

Not this one!

Maybe one of these historical photos is the most-viewed, just by nature of being around for a long time?

The Surprising Result

According to Far Out Magazine, the world’s most viewed photograph is likely a surprising one. It turns out the winning photo (at least by the magazine’s estimation) was taken right here in the Bay Area.

So, maybe one of the iconic shots of the Golden Gate Bridge in fog? A powerful image of the 1906 earthquake that was shared around the world for over a century?

Not this one either!

Stumped yet?

According to Far Out’s reporting, the most viewed photograph in the world is likely the photo Bliss by Charles O’Rear. Why? For a decade, it was the opening screen that everyone saw when they booted up Windows Xp.

You remember it, right? The rolling hills, the other-wordly clouds, the bright green grass?

It turns out the photo was taken off Highway 12 in Sonoma, California.

The Story of Bliss

The iconic image isn’t Photoshopped or retouched in any way. O’Rear took it with a Mamiya medium format camera using the analog film Velvia. It’s an iconic film that’s known to produce amazing, saturated colors.

Nature photographers have always loved using Velvia. I’ve personally used it in my own photographic work. It’s a finicky film to shoot properly, which makes Bliss even more amazing photographically.

One of my own photos on Velvia. Notice the deep blue of the sky.

So why is it the most viewed photo? Think about how many times people started up their Windows XP computers each year, and how many copies of Windows XP Microsoft sold. The operating system is still in use on legacy computers, and I’ve seen it used on inexpensive hardware outside the United States even today.

Many people have tried to recreate the photo today, but it’s a big challenge. Wineries have taken over the hill, and the bucolic location is now covered in grapevines. The drought has done a number, too.

In short, Bliss is basically a historical photo itself at this point!

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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