#19 ‘Bliss’ by Henry Carroll

Bliss, Microsoft / Charles O'Rear, 1996.

 

On Thursday 25 October 2001, 44 days after the World Trade Center crumbled, Microsoft released their new operating system, Windows XP. Programmed into every system were 16 photographs – mostly tranquil scenes of nature – which could be used as desktop ‘wallpaper’. One of these photographs appealed to Microsoft’s sensibilities more than the others and was elevated to the grandiose heights of ‘default’, meaning it was seen by everyone who turned on their XP computer for the first time, and then every time after that, unless they decided to change it. The photograph was given the name Bliss and by January 2007 she had been seen by over one billion people worldwide, making her the leading contender for the most viewed photograph of all time.

As photographs go, it’s fair to say that Bliss gets about. In the past week she’s visited me on three separate occasions. The first was in Heathrow airport’s security lounge. All but one of the information screens were working. Bliss emanated from the faulty screen, unaware of her own existence. She just levitated above the hubbub, waiting to be rebooted. The second encounter was while playing the iPhone game Paper Toss (you flick screwed up balls of paper into a bin while judging the wind power from a nearby fan. It’s good.). There she appeared again, in the ‘office’ level, on a virtual colleague’s computer. The third occasion was in my real-life office. Backlit and beautiful, she passively radiated tranquility from a desktop in the far corner of the room.

This final encounter prompted me to conduct an experiment. That afternoon, by the water cooler, I nonchalantly approached the user of the Bliss computer. I showed him a printout of the photograph and asked if he recognised it. He did. Instantly. But when pressed he couldn’t recall from where. Incredible! How could someone be greeted every morning by the same photograph for the past three years but not actually ‘see’ it? And, believe me, this guy is far from stupid.

That’s the thing about Bliss, she’s recognised by so many while at the same time has the ability to remain absolutely invisible. She’s become a part of so many people’s everyday lives that she no longer gets noticed – perhaps she was never really noticed – and that’s the secret to her unrivalled ubiquity. There’s also the fact that you don’t choose Bliss; she is chosen for you. With her there’s no love at first sight, no catching of each other’s eye across a crowded gallery. Instead, this is an arranged marriage, in which Bliss plays an apparent subservient role and remains, literally, in the background.

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I can’t think of any other photograph known by so many that doesn’t depict a global event, person or place. Bliss is the antithesis of images like those captured on 9/11, which are lodged in our collective memory due to the world-changing atrocities they depict. In fact, in terms of subject matter, Bliss isn’t really ‘of’ anything. That expanse of green needs something in it. There are some faint lines running diagonally up the hill and what looks like a more permanent track in the foreground (I wonder if Microsoft likes these?), but I need a focal point. I want cows, sheep or maybe a carefree nude modelling her way down the hillside. Then there’s that pixel perfect blue sky dotted with white, ‘micro-soft’ clouds. But there’s no game to be played with these clouds, as none resemble faces, animals or anything else that might be inadvertently off message. They are, for all intents and purposes, just clouds, which is actually quite rare for clouds. And then there are the distant mountains, struggling to get a look in on the left and right. Without them the location of this scene would be impossible to pin down, but peaks like that don’t spring up anywhere. We could be looking at Ireland, somewhere along the Welsh border, the south of France maybe, or Switzerland.

I’ll cut to the chase. This scene is located along California’s Highway 12 and was photographed by Charles O’Rear in 1996, while apparently en route to see his girlfriend. He used a 6×7 medium format film camera and claims that there has been no digital enhancement. And yes, he did make a killing.

Knowing that this is another image of the iconic American West reveals another side to Bliss. She becomes a kind of double exposure or, more precisely, a double agent. Those tracks, which seemed incidental a minute ago, now take on more significance. And so does the shape of the hill for that matter, and the way those mountains perform a kind of compositional pincer movement. Is Bliss a nod to Timothy O’Sullivan’s Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada (1867) [see also: Tracking Shot, an earlier essay in this series] and other 19th Century imagery wrapped up in notions of manifest destiny?

No, and yes, is the answer. On the one hand Bliss isn’t entering into a dialogue with previous images of the American West. Not overtly anyway. Like a beauty queen, she can’t be seen to push an agenda, challenge, question, controvert or self-reflect. On the surface she is merely Microsoft’s default hostess with the mostess: curvaceous, inviting and easy on the eye. But that’s us being duped, because Bliss is, in fact, a total bitch.

To understand her motivations let’s recap on the history of the American West: In the beginning there was sublime wilderness. Then came the big ideas, the geological surveys, the railroads, the industry, the agriculture, the people – including Ansel Adams – the cities, the National Parks, the gift shops, the packaged experiences and the pollution. Before long manifest destiny had lead to the exploitation and inevitable buggering up of the American West. I know it, you know it, Robert Adams knows it, and so does Richard Misrach.

Bliss wipes all this aside. She’s the rebranded West for the 21st Century: colourful, lush, safe and cultivated without being exploited. There’s no trace of manifest destiny here. It’s a vision of destiny manifested. Where photographs of the 19th Century West showed scenes of man conquering nature and epic landscapes full of opportunity, Bliss has none of that. Instead she sells us a new West, one that isn’t there to be exploited through hard graft. Here there are no adversities to overcome and there’s nothing to fight for. This West is an accessible, pristine, digital utopia offering a tranquil retreat from the hardships and pressures of daily life; it’s somewhere to escape to when the going gets tough and the numbers no longer add up. Yes, those fading lines on the hillside symbolise a past toil – but it’s not yours – and soon they will have faded completely, like one billion turbulent memories of how the West was really won (or lost). This is manifest destiny 2.0.

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Initially I thought it odd that Microsoft, with their famous slogan ‘Where do you want to go today?’, would present all their users with a destination so close to their own Silicon Valley doorstep. But it’s not odd at all. At the height of its popularity Windows XP had a market share of 83% and Bliss, with her post 9/11 ‘trust me, everything is going to be OK’ message, had infiltrated offices, homes and schools across the globe. Manifest destiny 2.0 has reached everyone, from Members of Parliament to members of Al Qaida. And just like William Henry Jackson’s photograph, Mount of the Holy Cross (1873), Bliss seems to wave at you from afar; ‘come join me’, she’s saying, ‘I am your destiny. I represent everything you believe in’. But what isn’t carried on the wind is, ‘whether you like it or not’.

Bliss is a new virtual frontier that’s devoid of people because she’s trying to seduce you into becoming a part of the picture. Let’s lie on that hillside and look up at those clouds before being led home by the sweet aroma of mom’s cherry pie. But in a world that’s never been so divided, Microsoft has planted a seed that’s cultivated screens across all kinds of political, economic and geographic landscapes. What do users of Windows XP in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea make of this very Western interpretation of bliss, I wonder? Does Bliss still represent bliss? Do people still want to become a part of the picture? Or is it the case that, for some, Bliss could be viewed as an everyday symbol that reinforces hatred and irreconcilable ideological differences?

Bliss appears so innocent at first, nothing more than an inoffensive emblem of hope as we struggle through troubled times. But there’s a snake hiding in that lush green grass. Bliss is an ideological masterstroke that’s slithered through everyone’s back door. Not only has she been programmed into four hundred million computers worldwide, she has also become forever hardwired into the minds of their users. Microsoft has succeeded where the American government has failed. Invasion complete. This really is ‘Mission Accomplished’.

 

Henry Carroll is a writer, photographer and entrepreneur. In 2008 he founded frui.co.uk, a global provider of photography holidays, courses and events. His latest book, ‘Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs’, is published by Laurence King in February 2014.

#14 ‘Tracking Shot’ by Glenn Adamson

Carson Sink, Nevada, by Timothy O' Sullivan.

Carson Sink, Nevada, by Timothy O’ Sullivan.

 

A photographer’s wagon stands stock-still, arrested in the midst of a long drag across the wide-open reaches of America. Four mules – famous for their bloody-mindedness – have swerved from their trajectory, doubling back along their plodding tracks. The wagon’s U-turn is marked in a great double sweep along the ground, a double swathe of sand displaced by the wooden wheels.

All around these features, containing them much as a canvas might contain a few brushstrokes, is a landscape of surpassing blankness. This is Nevada, but it could be Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon: a great empty topology, nearly as empty as the sky above. The shapes upon the earth are legible only thanks to tonal contrast. That is all that black and white photography affords, of course – the same chemistry which yields the silhouettes of animals, wagon, tracks, and scrub grass. The ground is so featureless, however, that it prompts thoughts of way the image is built up. One can almost feel the slow deposit of particles accumulating on the flat substrate of paper, creating an impression of depth, much as windblown sand continually builds the surfaces of rolling, textured hills.

And then we notice a feature in the foreground, cutting right across this slow drama of emergent, horizontal figuration, leading right up to the camera’s position, and hence our own: another set of tracks, those of the photographer himself. (Or are there two sets? Perhaps his assistant struggled up the hill alongside him.) No attempt has been made to erase this passage, to un-disturb the terrain.

Not surprising, really, since the subject of the picture seems to be that of operating on difficult ground. Timothy O’Sullivan, the man who made this image, was among the first photographers to ‘go West,’ and certainly the most ambitious. In the early 1870’s he carried his kit across miles of thinly populated country to capture craggy mountainsides, scrappy mining settlements, traditional Native American communities. In this one photo, however, his objective was different. Like a general turning his attention away from the front in order to assess his supply lines, O’Sullivan shows us the efforts required to make his work.

His pride was justifiable. Photography then was a new medium and an extraordinarily cumbersome one, difficult even to imagine in our own day of convenient pocket-portability. Today we might take three, five, twenty pictures of an only slightly interesting subject, knowing that we can delete them later. For O’Sullivan, every photograph was extracted from the world only with difficulty. That lends this mule-and-wagon picture another layer of meaning: for it prompts the question, ‘why this spot?’ What was it that made O’Sullivan go to the trouble of turning his wagon around, so that he could record this particular place?

At a stretch, we might guess that he saw a promising composition in this patch of earth – the asymmetry of the mounds’ silhouette, with two dark patches of background setting the lighter foreground in relief. But for me, the point of the picture is that the terrain is unremarkable, unspecific. I like to imagine  that he could have obtained a similar image at any point for miles east or west. That vast tract tacitly frames this image as one of arbitrary decision-making. Nothing visible in the shot prompted O’Sullivan to take it. He simply stopped – and took a picture for no good reason at all, except that of literal self-regard.

Of course, as we Americans have belatedly come to admit to ourselves, the space of the Wild West was not so blank after all. It was inhabited ground before the settlers got to it, and the tragedy that befell the Native Americans should not be far from our minds when we look at O’Sullivan’s work. He is no villain in this regard – he may have been proud of his achievements, but as I have mentioned, one of the most striking aspects of his work was the way he captured, even-handedly, the mixing together of peoples out on the frontier.  Even so, we might recall here Susan Sontag’s observation that ‘A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on.’  The American campaign of westward expansion was undertaken not only with wagons and guns, but also with images – both photographic and painterly – which cumulatively framed natural space as prime real estate. Those other pictures typically lacked the self-awareness of the photographic act contained in this picture. And certainly, they depicted nothing like the U-turn seen here – a motif that suggests a doubt quite alien to the ethos of manifest destiny.

O’Sullivan captured at least one moment when the photographer asked himself, for whatever reason, ‘what am I doing here?’ And today, when the patch of earth he shows us here might well be covered over by a roadside K-Mart, it gives us a way to imagine what might have been otherwise.

 

Glenn Adamson is Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His new book, The Invention of Craft, is published by the V&A in conjunction with Bloomsbury.