Autumn and the Plot Against Me
The mysterious origins of a Windows desktop image.
by Nick Tosches VF.COM February 19, 2007
After about seven hours and as many six-packs, the computer guy has transferred everything from my old computer to my new, state-of-the-racket computer. The whole shebang is programmed, fine-tuned, and ready to go. The computer guy stands back, burps, and smiles.
I look over from the couch at the new 19-inch analog TFT-LCD flat-screen monitor delivering an 800-to-1 contrast ratio, 260 cd/m2 brightness, 1280 x 1024 resolution, 170/170-degree viewing angle, and a scanning frequency of 30–81 kHz horizontal and 56–75 Hz vertical, or so I'm told.
The elusive Autumn.
What I see are the green hills, blue sky, and stratocumulus and cirrus clouds of the Napa County bitmap landscape called Bliss, the Microsoft Windows XP default desktop wallpaper. It looks like an invitation to suicide on a Sunday afternoon.
"Can you change that thing?"
The computer guy goes into the settings. I look again and see a rustic path carpeted with beautiful autumn leaves from big old maple trees that bow, lush and dreamy, overhead. That's more like it. And it's also the beginning of a certain madness.
I go to Jersey City, I go to Paris, I go to the Arabian Peninsula, I come back home.
I sit on the couch and stare at that rustic path and those big old maple trees. By now I know the name of this particular wallpaper or background or whatever it is: Autumn. Moving to the desk and gazing more closely, I see a vague, dark, summoning something at the end of the path. A cabin? A covered bridge? A barn? I want to be there, for real, on that path, under those maples, moving slowly toward that dark, summoning something.
I return to Paris, go from there to Tokyo, from there to Milan and Lake Como, then back here. I'm tired of everything, everywhere. I want only to go to Autumn.
It's a lead-pipe cinch, I figure. I'm a good detective. I've found opium dens in Vientiane; been granted interviews by cardinals, mafiosi, and sheikhs; discovered the meaning of "half-and-half" in the old song "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee"; conned the Vatican into bestowing a doctorate on me so that I could gain access to hiddenmost archives; deciphered the cryptic message Ezra Pound scrawled in his own copy of the Cantos while in the bughouse; tracked down and interviewed Phil Spector's first wife, long presumed dead; charted my way to the sacred stone of the Great Mother, in Cyprus; gotten Charlotte Rampling's cell-phone number; even come close to understanding the second page of my Con Ed bill. Finding out where a picture was taken—a picture plastered on millions of computer screens—seems a shot away.
What fools we mortals be. Clicking on the picture's display properties yields the response: "What's This?" My question exactly.
Going deeper, a file called "Autumn Properties" reveals only that it's a five-kilobyte Windows Theme File. When I try to find out what a theme file is, the Windows Help and Support Center suggests, "Check your spelling."
Well, hell, somebody at Microsoft ought to know. As it turns out, if they do, they're not telling.
Curiosity becomes yearning, and yearning becomes obsession. Several friends are drawn into my search. I no longer want merely to find Autumn and go there. I now want to go there and look for a little place to live not far from that leaf-covered path. Photo editors, editor editors, fact-checkers, researchers, computer guys and computer dolls—my motley, shifting, devoted crew come to be known as Team Autumn.
Every member of Team Autumn begins as I did, confident that finding the location pictured will be a quick and simple matter. As the months pass, many of my volunteers, rather than admit defeat, resort to the exculpatory "maybe it's a computer-generated picture" premise and retreat to their real lives.
Queries to Microsoft are redirected to the public-relations firm of Waggener Edstrom. The following e-mail exchange between a member of Team Autumn and a member of the Waggener Edstrom Rapid Response Team is representative:
"Hello, I'm a journalist writing about computer desktop artwork and I have a question—can you tell me the name of the photographer and the location depicted in the wallpaper image that comes with Windows XP entitled Autumn? The exact image is attached. I know this is an unusual request; any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated."
"I am happy to look into this request. Please give me a chance to connect with colleagues about your inquiry. Will this be for an article, and if so, what is your deadline and how will the information be used?"
"Thanks for getting back to me so quickly! Yes, this is for an article. My deadline is July 10. The article is about the ways in which people's desktop wallpaper effects their work habits. This particular photograph is my personal favorite, and I'm going to write about the ways in which it has inspired me and stimulated my imagination while writing. Finding out who took the picture, and, particularly, where this photograph was taken, will be very important elements of the piece. I will of course acknowledge your assistance on Microsoft's behalf and will send tear sheets upon publication. Thanks again."
"Hi. I am following up per your last e-mail and have connected with colleagues concerning your request. Unfortunately, we will not be able to participate in this opportunity. I apologize for the inconvenience. Best regards."
"Can you tell me why not? Thanks."
"Hi. Unfortunately, I was not in the decision process for this request and am not able to comment on my colleagues' reasoning. I apologize for the inconvenience. I would suggest the Web for more information about the images. Best regards."
I see people in black hoods and robes sitting round a table, bound by blood oath never to divulge the latitude and longitude of Autumn.
Why this wall of silence and secrecy? I've never before known a company to resolutely shun good publicity.
The dwindling members of Team Autumn begin making weird comments to me:
"There are horses nearby. You can't see them, but—there—see that old, falling-down fence here to the right? That's a horse fence."
"I think it's somewhere in Vermont. It feels like Vermont."
Thus, to the Vermont State Department of Tourism: "Hello, can you please tell me where in Vermont this photograph was taken? I'd like to visit there. Thank you very much."
And thus, from the Vermont State Department of Tourism: "We believe the photo is a stock screen saver that was bundled with MS Windows a few years ago. It's not from our stock library in any case.… I have queried the Vermont Life magazine editor to see if the location is familiar to him."
In the far, misty reaches of an exhaustive Internet image search, Autumn is found lurking, as Tender Autumn, at something called 7art-screensavers.com. An e-mail plea is dispatched: "Can you please tell me where Tender Autumn was photographed?" The reply is fast and friendly, seemingly from Russia:
"That photos come to us from opur friends so i don't really know there origin. But i know the origin of photos from Fallen Leaves scrensavers. It's Moscow Botanical Garden. Best wishes, Merry christmas, Roman Rusavsky."
I ask S. I. Newhouse if he knows Bill Gates. I ask people in bars if they know anybody who works at Microsoft. My e-mail to Gates—firstname.lastname@example.org—remains unanswered, but I know he owns the picture. He owns the goddamn Leonardo da Vinci Codex Leicester. He owns everything. He must own Autumn—the picture, if not the actual place. And at least one of the 70,000 people who work for him, if not he himself, must know where that picture was taken, or who took it.
He owns Corbis, which holds something like 70 million pictures. As it turns out, the Corbis library, where Bill Gates is willing to sell me pictures of me, has about 5,000 photographs under the subject heading of "autumn." I begin a methodical hunt through all of them. About halfway through, I find it: CB047623 (Autumn Leaves Falling on Road). Other Corbis pictures list the photographer, the date photographed, and the location information. This is payday, baby. I click on the image for the details. This is what I get, and nothing else: "Date Photographed: October 1999."
"Dear Corbis … "
I come across a picture by the photographer James Marshall, who lives in Brunswick, Maine. The picture, of fall maples in Hadley, Massachusetts, reminds me of Autumn.
"Sorry, Nick," he says, "but this one is not mine."
Some have tried to console me: "Hell, it's probably next to a toxic-waste dump." My buddy Bruce suggests there's a sinister element: "It could be like Blow-Up. Something bad could be happening at the end of the path. Maybe that's why they won't tell you anything."
But—toxic waste, dead bodies—I don't care. Autumn awaits me. Somewhere. Yeah. Over the rainbow. Yeah. And I'll find it yet.
I lay down my pen right there. An e-mail arrives in response to the one I sent to Bill Gates. It's not from Big Bad Bill himself but from someone at something called exchange.microsoft.com: "The location of the image is Campbellville, Ontario, Canada."
Now all I need is the name of the photographer to lead me home to where I've never been.
"The stock agency, Corbis, really doesn't want to give out the name of the photographer because the stock agency owns the rights to the image."
I don't want to infringe on any rights. Please. I just want the name of the photographer.
"Best of luck."
I reach out to Campbellville for help. Historical societies, the chamber of commerce, inn owners, realtors, librarians, horse farms. None can identify the scene. I call on Graydon Carter: "You know I am crazy, but … "
I hear from Ann Schneider, the senior photo research editor of Vanity Fair. I now refer to her by other titles—goddess, divine intercessor—for she lays on me, wrested through magic, the name of the photographer: Peter Burian.
I get out the crystal tumbler and the scotch and I smile wide. But soon the smile, like the scotch, is gone.
Peter, who lives in Milton, Ontario, says, yes, he did tell Corbis that the picture was taken in Campbellville, but, "as I think about it, it may have been in nearby Kilbride." He drives out, searches through both Campbellville and Kilbride. "It's not in either village," he reports. "I was wrong." But "I know it's within a 60-mile radius of my home in Milton." He himself refers to this as a "needle in a haystack" situation.
The man who found Autumn has lost Autumn.
But he is now as obsessed as I am. He is leaving for Paris in 10 days, and there is much work to finish before then. "And melting snow is not great" for roaming the rural byways. But "I am a determined kind of guy; we will find the location."
Winter, at last. www.peterkburian.com.
Meanwhile, at the first mention of Kilbride, I'd written to a score of people in Burlington, the closest place to Kilbride that had a score of people to write to. I hear from Jane Irwin, a volunteer archivist at the Burlington Historical Society: "Kilbride is part of the city of Burlington, but in the rural northern area, accessible only by car. I do not drive and have not been there for perhaps 10 years, but the allé looks vaguely familiar. My best guess, based on the fence and the glimpse of an old gray barn at the end, is that it's the lane leading south to the old Harris homestead."
Though Kilbride has been ruled out, I pass Jane's suggestion to Peter, who revisits the village the following Saturday. That night, I receive from him the words I myself have been yearning to say for more than a year:
"I found it."
So here I sit at dawn this winter Sunday morning, a cheap black mug of coffee in my hand instead of a crystal tumbler, smiling more serenely. As one far wiser than I once must have said, Nobody with a decent map needs rainbows.
Nick Tosches is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.