The Online Manhunt To Find The Photographer Of Windows XP's 'Autumn' Wallpaper


Windows XP was a widely popular operating system developed by Microsoft.

Released in 2001, it quickly became a significant milestone in the history of personal computing. The operating system boasted a far more stable experience, a user-friendly interface, and released right at the time when the world was starting to grasp itself with an emerging tech called the internet.

To those who had experience using the operating system, or at least installing it, should know the iconic green hill landscape wallpaper called the "Bliss." This wallpaper has a clear history and who made it right from the start. But the second most popular default wallpaper, called "Autumn," didn't.

Vanity Fair journalist Nick Tosches, a user of Windows XP, was fascinated with Autumn, that he decided to track down where it was taken, and who took it.

This led to an online manhunt that lasted for about a year.

The 'Autumn' wallpaper for Microsoft Windows XP
The 'Autumn' wallpaper for Microsoft Windows XP

Tosches began by browsing the internet to find clues, but that to no avail.

He then began contacting people, which also didn't give him much lead. That until he was informed by Microsoft that Autumn originated from Bill Gates' stock photo agency Corbis. Tosches then began browsing the Microsoft's co-founder-owned website, and found the wallpaper, just like what Microsoft said, but the dedicated page for the wallpaper didn't give him the details he wanted about the file.

First of, it didn't mention its location.

And second, most importantly, it didn't say anything about its photographer.

This happened because Corbis owned the rights to the photo, meaning that it's not required to publish the photographer's name or any detail it didn't want to provide

The only useful information the web page provided, was the months and the year the photo was taken.

After a few months into the manhunt, Vanity Fair's senior photo research editor Ann Schneider was able to find out the photographer's name.

Schneider gave the heads up to Tosches, which led him to reach Peter Burian.

Tosches contacted Burian, and Burian finally exposed himself as the photographer of the iconic wallpaper.

Burian also agreed to share where he took the photo, which happened to be a farmhouse owned by the Harris family, who were once the first European settlers in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

To satisfy his curiosity, Tosches even contacted the property's owner, who agreed that it was the right spot.

A screenshot of Windows XP's Display Property, and a photo of Peter Burian
A screenshot of Windows XP's Display Properties with the Autumn wallpaper chosen, and a photo of Peter Burian.

Peter Burian said that he took hundreds of autumn photos with his Nikon F90 in Burlington during his stay in October 1999. At that time, he said that he was testing his lenses for a photography magazine.

He didn't think about selling it, nor expecting that one particular photo he took would become so popular years later.

What he did, was submitting two of his photos to Corbis, all of which marked as royalty free images. The first photo, is the popular landscape photo, and the second is the vertical photo of the same image.

It was in 2001, when Microsoft bought a license to the horizontal version for around $300 for Windows XP's wallpaper set. While Corbis owns the rights to the two photos, Burian said that he received 15% of the sales from it, meaning that he received $45.

This is a huge contrast to Bliss, which was reportedly bought by Microsoft for a staggering $100,000.

Microsoft selected the photo, which was taken by Charles O'Rear in Sonoma County, California, United States, out of the thousands of images in their stock library, because the team concluded that it could illustrate the philosophy of Windows XP.

So here, Bliss and Autumn is like a tale of two photos.

Whereas the first one earned the photographer a hefty sum of money, widespread recognition, and deals with big brands, the other earned the photographer enough money for just one nice meal.

Bliss, Autumn

Regardless, despite coming second place, and earning a lot less, Burian is happy that the landscape photo of Autumn became his most successful and well known image.

Although it is not as well known as the default wallpaper Bliss, it is still one of the most popular XP wallpapers.

"I was more shocked to find out that one of my photographs is available to hundreds of millions of people,” said Burian.

“I didn’t think anything of it when I took it.”

In January 2022, a fundraiser was initiated to raise money to purchase the full-resolution version of Autumn. When the goal was reached, the image was purchased and shared online for free.

Tosches' findings were discussed in a 2007 Vanity Fair article titled Autumn and the Plot Against Me.