Photo Hunt: Desperately Seeking ‘Autumn’

In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Nick Tosches recounts his trials in tracking down the origin of a photo. You’ve probably seen it. The picture shows a fall scene, complete with golden leaves, dark trees and receding lines — and it’s found on millions of computers around the world. That probably includes yours.

Looking for AutumnIt’s the Autumn wallpaper that comes bundled with Windows XP.

When Tosches gets a new computer, he becomes mesmerized by the shot, as if the wind is whispering an invitation. A world traveler, he decides he going to pay a visit to this scene. He assumes that all he has to do is ask Microsoft where the picture was taken and who took it. Easy, right?

It turns out not to be quite so easy. Microsoft’s PR company rejects his request. Calls to Vermont lead nowhere. A curious question turns into a cross between a detective story and a wild goose chase. Eventually Tosches learns that the photo (and I’m about to give the ending away here, so if you haven’t read the article and want to, this would be a good time…) was supplied by Corbis, which in retrospect might have been an obvious place to look. The company was set up by Bill Gates.

But here, from the point of view of photopreneurs, is where things get really interesting. Corbis refuses to reveal the name of the photographer on the grounds that it owns the rights to the image.

Now, I can understand the agency trying to protect its investment. But I don’t understand how refusing to name the photographer — to give credit where credit’s due — might infringe those rights.

Fortunately, Nick Tosches is an experienced and dedicated journalist who has, he says, “found opium dens in Vientiane…; the sacred stone of the Great Mother, in Cyprus; [and] gotten Charlotte Rampling’s cell-phone number.”

He discovers Vanity Fair’s senior photo research editor, Ann Schneider, tells him that the picture was taken by Peter Burian You can see the photo here if you don’t want to look on your hard drive.

One of the odd things about selling pictures to stock agencies is that you’ve got no idea where they’ll turn up. It’s also one of the fun things. You might hope though that if your picture turns up on a few million computer screens and someone wants to talk to you about it, the agency would have the decency to put you in touch.

[tags]Autumn, Vanity Fair, Nick Tosches, Peter Burian, Corbis[/tags]

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