In January 1998, National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear was driving down Highway 121 through Sonoma to see his girlfriend in San Francisco just as he’d done plenty of times before. But this time the view caught his eye. The grass was especially green after a winter shower, which had passed to reveal a blue sky dotted by fluffy white clouds. He stopped his car and shot the scene with his medium-format camera.
O’Rear used Fujifilm’s Velvia (said to rival Kodachrome), a film often used by nature photographers, which created the image’s saturated tones. He says the image was completely untouched when he uploaded it to Corbis, a stock photo site founded by Bill Gates.
In 2000, Microsoft called to see if they could use his picture for its new operating system. O’Rear sold all the rights for an undisclosed sum—but a sum large enough that no one was willing to insure the images to be shipped. O’Rear flew to Seattle and delivered them in person. Since the release of Windows XP in 2001, the image has graced the screens of over a billion computers all over the world.
Now people come to photograph the same spot, creating seasonal updates of the iconic image, but countless unwittingly drive by the idyllic scene everyday, possibly even on their way to computers adorned by the very hill pocked with wildflowers.