In a BuzzFed, Gawkerized World, Photos of Naked Celebs and Barnyard Animals Are Interchangeable

One Image Is as Good as the Next, as Long as It Gets a Lot of Page Views

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As I walked through a show titled "Mario Testino: In Your Face" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts the other day, I felt a vague sense of apprehension.

The show is a major retrospective of the London-based Peruvian fashion and celebrity photographer whose work you know even if you don't know his name, given that he's taken iconic photographs of everyone from Kate Moss, Stephanie Seymour and Gisele Bündchen to Madonna, Mick Jagger and Princess Diana. Testino's "gallery" is more typically the newsstand at your local CVS or Barnes & Noble, given that his three-decade career in creating provocative portraiture has been financed, for the most part, by glossy magazines -- in many cases, Condé Nast magazines, from Allure to Vanity Fair.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Seeing Testino's loud, larger-than-life prints at Boston's stately MFA -- home to works by the likes of Degas and Picasso -- is rather jarring (Testino's aesthetic is often sexually charged), but my apprehension had more to do with an economic subtext. If the print-media universe continues to contract, I kept thinking as I took in the show, who is going to finance the creation of the defining photography of our time, the work that will endure and find its way onto museum walls? Because right now, many of the photographers who matter the most are financed by glossies.

Newspapers have historically served up, in the words of journalist Alan Barth, "the first rough draft of history," while magazines, I suppose, serve up second and third drafts, thanks to their longer lead times. And while newspapers have published and continue to publish plenty of important photojournalism (particularly so-called conflict photography), magazines, with their better paper stock and full-bleed printing -- and more intensive focus on commissioned work from a broader range of photographer-artists -- have the upper hand in presenting what you might call the first rough draft of art history.

I thought about all this as I read New York Times media columnist David Carr's elegiac take last week on the end of the John Huey era at Time Inc. Assessing his legacy, Carr noted that "in his seven years as the top editor, the core magazines -- like Time , Fortune, People and Money -- have lost almost a third of their employees, and the future is no brighter." The media tends to focus on the job losses for editors and writers, but as magazines downsize, they shrink as canvases -- as galleries -- for artists as well.

As with Condé, it's impossible to imagine modern art history without the contributions of the photographers Time Inc. has employed and commissioned, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White at Life magazine.

Life, the weekly, shut down in 1972, and then, as a reborn monthly, was shuttered again in 2000 (it came back for a while as an insubstantial Parade-like newspaper supplement, which was killed in 2007). TV was blamed for killing Life, and now the internet is blamed for battering the business models of those magazines that attempt to carry on Life's legacy of supporting the creation of visual art of lasting value.

While at least Life-magazine-killer TV has served as a platform for the creation of some great artworks (HBO's "The Wire," created by newspaperman-turned-TV-auteur David Simon, comes to mind) and inspired the creation of new art forms (see the upcoming Smithsonian retrospective of the work of "father of video art" Nam June Paik), it's hard to imagine what of lasting value hot web-native media brands like Gawker and BuzzFeed are contributing to visual culture and art history.

Which brings me to an email I got last Wednesday from Gawker promoting its "top story" of Dec. 5., titled "The 13 Most Powerful Images of Naked Celebrities of 2012," which quickly racked up more than a million page views. It was a sequel to a Gawker post from the previous day titled "The 19 Most Powerful Images of 2012," which was mostly a shameless, edited-down rip-off of a BuzzFeed post titled "The 45 Most Powerful Images Of 2012," consisting of intense wire-service photojournalism from Reuters, the AP, Getty and others, which derive most of their support from old-school print-centric publications around the world. Gawker's excuse for its act of , uh, curation: "Who has time to scroll through 45 pictures?"

As for Gawker's naked-celebrity gallery, it consists of images with captions such as "Kate Middleton's Bottom" and "Justin Theroux's Pubes," as well as -- I am not kidding -- "A pig ... with poop on its balls," which is exactly what it sounds like. (The pig counts as a celebrity, I suppose, in that it's an internet-famous pig.)

The pig shot, which originally appeared on Gawker's sporty sibling site Deadspin, is just one of those random gross-out shots that 's always floating around the internet. It is , naturally, uncredited. Then again, none of the images in Gawker's "The 19 Most Powerful Images of 2012" gallery have photographer credits either.

In a BuzzFed, Gawkerized universe, celebrities and barnyard animals are interchangeable -- as are photographers and their photographs. One image is as good as the next, as long as it gets a lot of page views.

Anyway, I rest my case.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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