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One of my all-time favorite art books doesn't have any art in it. "Unforgettable: Images That Changed Our Lives," a compact Chronicle Books paperback by British designer Peter Davenport, consists of almost entirely blank pages; at the bottom of each page is a caption for a visual that has indelibly entered the collective unconsciousness. It covers random art and pop-cultural images, such as:

SHOWER SCREAM, "Psycho," directed by Alfred Hitchcock
MARLBORO MAN, created by the Leo Burnett agency
CHESS MATCH, "The Seventh Seal," directed by Ingmar Bergman
LOVE, by Robert Indiana

And plenty of credited and uncredited news images, such as:


It's a deft little conceptual trick, and it's surprisingly affecting. Every time I pick it up, the book sends shivers down my spine as the images it doesn't show flood my mind from memory. It's like watching your life -- your media life -- flash before your eyes.
Montauk Monster: Turns out Monty left a grieving wife and five children behind.
Montauk Monster: Turns out Monty left a grieving wife and five children behind. Credit: Jenna Hewitt

I've been thinking about "Unforgettable" because as the world plunges headlong into Olympics fever, we'll all be seeing a steady stream of memorable images (of triumph! of defeat!) emerge from the proceedings. Sure, a lot of people will experience the Olympics through TV and/or streaming video, but what "Unforgettable" reminds us is that, as broadcast legend Walter Cronkite says in a quote that opens the book, "Memory seems to be made up mostly of still pictures."

What's striking about "Unforgettable" is that in thumbing through it, you realize that the vast majority of the images generally first came to us thanks to the old-school, mainstream media. The book's visual survey ends in 2001 (one of the last captions is PLANE APPROACHING SOUTH TOWER OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER), before newspapers started dying and before the broadband internet and bloggy DIY media became ubiquitous.

If you're a regular reader of blogs, consider the fact that the vast majority of images you see on them are not funded by the blogs but are, um, borrowed from the mainstream media. (This is because bloggers have come to believe -- and copyright holders have mostly not disabused them of this notion -- that "quoting" pictures to comment on them amounts to "fair use" under copyright law.) Think of all the images you've ever seen on, for instance, Gawker. Generally speaking: A lot of them are borrowed!

In fact, one of the truly unforgettable images of the summer of 2008, the Montauk Monster shot -- that image of an inscrutable animal carcass on a Long Island beach -- has been perceived to be a Gawker scoop (other media that picked it up generally credited Gawker). But the truth is, while Gawker ran the image on July 29, making it an instant internet sensation, it actually first appeared a week earlier in an East Hampton newspaper, The Independent. (The snapshot was taken by local resident Jenna Hewitt, who encountered the corpse with some friends on Ditch Plains Beach on July 12. Local buzz about the beast led to the Independent's pick-up, and an e-mailed version of the shot eventually got forwarded to a Gawker Media editor.)

As bloggy kingpins such as Gawker owner Nick Denton get richer and richer with a lot of help from free photos, it's been fascinating to watch the appalling spectacle of print outlets battling over images of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's twins. People reportedly shelled out as much as $14 million for U.S. and Canadian rights, with Hello chipping in for international rights. (Just imagine if they'd had triplets.) In a postprint world, of course, that sort of geographically demarcated auction will make no sense at all. Though People's website posted only its cover image of the happy couple with their twins, it took me all of 30 seconds to find additional shots of the spawn (scanned from the pages of People by helpful bloggers) from People's print-only "19-page family album" through Google.

Meanwhile, with the Olympics in full swing, it occurs to me that, for the first time in modern Olympic history, a critical mass (surely millions) of consumers will take in iconic images from the event not from media that pay for the images but from media -- like, say, Gawker Media's Deadspin sports blog -- that might or might not pay for the images.

Of course, as print outlets that actually pay photographers continue to fold, there's going to be a chink in the supply chain. I suppose what'll happen is that, just as there will be fewer and fewer full-time journalists producing words for pay, there will be fewer and fewer full-time photojournalists taking photographs for pay. Maybe five or 10 years from now, with the newspaper industry and old-school media empires such as Time Inc. decimated (or gone entirely), Gawker Media will simply fill its blog posts with free images it finds elsewhere -- like on Flickr.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: In a postprint world, who "owns" still images? And will anyone ever figure out a better business model than lifting content and getting away with it?

UPDATE: A couple former Gawker Media editors emailed me to point out that Gawker Media, now that it is itself Big Media, is increasingly cautious about using photography for free by citing the "fair use" argument. One of the editors added that "I know that thanks to a big flickr kerfuffle last year, Gawker Media sites are only supposed to use photos on that site that have appropriate Creative Commons licensing." Gawker Media owner Nick Denton himself emailed me to say that these days Gawker Media pays something "more than $20K" a month "company-wide" (i.e., across the dozen blogs in the Gawker Media network) to the likes of the AP, Getty, etc., for image licensing.

Incidentally, since someone asked me, the image of the so-called Montauk Monster used in this column we ran with permission (and, in fact, paid to use).

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I'm randomly giving away a copy of "Unforgettable." To be eligible, send me an e-mail with "Unforgettable" in the subject line on or before Sept. 12. (You must be at least 18 and have a valid U.S. mailing address.)
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