Inside the Real-Life Love Story That Inspired Microsoft's 'Bliss,' the Most Viewed Photo Ever
It's a picture anyone who's ever used a computer has likely seen before: a brilliant blue sky stretching out atop rolling green hills, the colors so vivid they hardly seem real.
But as the photographer behind it will explain, the beloved photo known as "Bliss" is as real as it gets — and so, too, is the enduring, picture-perfect love story that made it possible.
"I always carry a camera with me, because you just never know," Chuck O'Rear, the photographer who took the famous photo, tells PEOPLE. "I used to pull over often to take photos. I think the scenery there was so beautiful."
There, of course, was Sonoma, where he snapped "Bliss" in January 1996 during a pitstop on his way to visit Daphne Larkin, a former journalist with whom he'll celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary in June.
For the couple, who now call North Carolina home, "Bliss" is just a blip on the radar of their romance, which started in the most unlikely of ways: four combined divorces and the devastating loss of a child.
Larkin, 75, tells PEOPLE that the love story that ultimately brought the world "Bliss" actually began after her second divorce, which left her a single mother of two living in San Francisco.
Dating was difficult for Larkin, a journalist who worked at Newsweek and the United Nations, among other places, as much of her focus was on her young son Lucien, who'd been born with a congenital heart defect and had heart failure, lung disease and could not speak.
Though Larkin soon channeled the trials and tribulations of raising a child with disabilities into an award-winning column for Parenting magazine, she was more focused on raising Lucien and his younger sister Zoe than on landing a man. But in May 1992, Larkin's world was turned upside down when Lucien died at 10 years old.
"After Lucien died, I said, 'This is it. I'm done. I'm not going to date anybody else until l see somebody that I might want to spend the rest of my life with,'" she says.
Enter O'Rear. A longtime photographer for National Geographic magazine, he, too, had been through two divorces, and was also raising a son with a disability.
Their paths crossed for the first time in 1994, at lunch in Napa Valley with a mutual friend named Jane, and though O'Rear, 79, had a girlfriend in Washington, D.C. at the time, it wasn't long before both began to see their future in a whole new light.
"When I saw Chuck walk in that door I thought, 'That guy has some purpose,'" Larkin recalls. "He came in so assuredly and he was so attractive. Jane and I were waiting and he came and sat down at the table — poor Jane. She thought she was going to have a nice time talking to Chuck, and it just became a two-way conversation between him and I for the next hour or so."
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"It was really magical and I never had anything quite like that," she adds. "It was a magical thing that happened at that restaurant."
The two began as friends, meeting up for dinner once a month for a year, and growing close as they found common ground in their shared journalism backgrounds, and in raising children with disabilities.
"We do have that in common, an appreciation, an understanding, an empathy," O'Rear says. "If each of us had not had kids with disabilities, I'm not sure that would've allowed us to connect on the level we did. It really helped bring us together."
Once O'Rear broke things off with his East Coast girlfriend, the two were free to strike up a romance, and did so with a trip around the world drinking wine on assignment for Nat Geo.
"It was great fun drinking all that wine, and falling in love," Larkin recalls of their globetrotting.
Once they returned home, with their relationship in full bloom, O'Rear began visiting Larkin on the regular, driving about an hour and 15 minutes from his home in St. Helena, California to her house in Marin County on the weekends.
It was during one of his routine journeys that he took "Bliss" in a location he passed through during each and every visit. In fact, the act of stopping to take photos was so normal for O'Rear, Larkin didn't even know he'd taken the picture until Microsoft offered to buy it for six figures several years later, just before their wedding in June 2001.
"It was just another picture for Chuck," she says.
Soon, though, the image that was "just another picture" became iconic, as Microsoft plucked it from a stock photo agency called Corbis, named it "Bliss" and made it the default background of the newly launched Windows XP.
"I get emails maybe every week or two, something related to the 'Bliss' photograph," O'Rear says. "When I die, although I won't be buried, Daphne has said, on your tombstone, we're not going to say National Geographic, we're going to say 'Photographer of Bliss.'"
"Twenty-five years at Geographic and nobody ever gives a damn about that," Larkin quips of her husband's claim to fame.
Though O'Rear still has no idea why Microsoft chose the image, he knows it's one that has cemented his legacy, for better or worse.
"The picture, no matter where we've been in the world — India, Thailand, Greece — that picture is always there, either on some old computer in an upscale hotel that hasn't been updated in 30 years in the lobby the people are checking you in on, or, we saw that picture in billboards, airplanes, at airports," Larkin says. "We were walking through the Chicago airport years ago and there it was."
Adds O'Rear: "When North Korea agreed to sort of talk to South Korea a couple years ago, there was a news story online and the South Korean person is sitting at a computer and has a direct link to North Korea. That was the first moment of connection between those two countries, and what was on the screen?"
"Chuck said, 'My photo made peace between South and North Korea,'" Larkin finishes.
Despite O'Rear's claim to fame, the couple say they're actually Apple people, and don't own Microsoft computers. (Larkin has made "Bliss," which is widely considered the most viewed photograph of all time, the background photo on her Mac. "I never get tired of looking at it," she says.)
The pair, who have written a series of coffee table books together, relocated from the West Coast to North Carolina in 2017, and now live a, well, blissful life of their own near Larkin's daughter Zoe, 36.
"We start every day on a long hike," she says. "In the summer, we swim around lunchtime off our dock in our lake. We have a wonderful community of people… Three is a charm. We finally know how to do it right."
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