The photograph showed apparently soused starlet Lindsay Lohan passed out in a car, mouth agape, oblivious to popping flashbulbs.
That image, with everything it says about Hollywood excess and youthful indiscretion, ran on the front pages of yesterday's New York Post and its rival Daily News, accompanied by headlines that yelled "Smashed" and "Party Pooped."
For X17, the paparazzi photo agency that owns the picture, it was a good day in L.A.
"We are overwhelmed," X17's founder and president, Frank Rohmer, said yesterday from his Beverly Hills, Calif., office as he fielded phone calls from media outlets clamoring to buy photos of the party girl's unconscious visage, snapped by X17 photographer Roberto Maciel early Monday. Lohan was caught slumbering in the passenger seat of a car at a gas station. Lohan's publicist, Leslie Sloane Zelnick, later released a statement that said Lohan had checked into "an intensive medical rehabilitation facility on Memorial Day."
By midafternoon yesterday, Rohmer said, he had sold the image about 100 times, to CNN, MSNBC and magazines, newspapers, TV outlets and Web sites, not only in the United States but in England, Australia, Sweden and Germany. In New York, the Post and the News each paid about $10,000 for the picture, he said, although smaller news organizations were not required to pay that much.
The latest ignominious Lohan moment came less than 48 hours after the 20-year-old actress drove off a road in Beverly Hills during a similarly celebratory evening and, abandoning her 2005 Mercedes-Benz SL-65 convertible, hotfooted it from the scene with two friends. X17's photographers caught exclusive images of that incident, too, Rohmer said. Police charged Lohan with driving under the influence. They said the actress had not been carrying a substance, believed to be cocaine, that was found at the scene.
The demand for such images has made a major player out of X17, founded by Rohmer and a fellow photographer in 1996 with Hollywood stars as a target. It now uses the work of some 100 photographers who, Rohmer said, are "supposed to" work exclusively for him.
X17's Web site says the agency provides "the hottest photos of the day, including the stars at their best and at their worst." The site breathlessly advertises its pictures and video sightings of Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, Christina Aguilera, Matthew McConaughey and, inevitably, Paris Hilton, who next week will begin serving 23 days in jail for violating probation after driving transgressions of her own.
That kind of story is gold to photo agencies like X17, Splash and FilmMagic, and Web sites like TMZ.com.
None takes its work lightly. In November, Rohmer sued gossip blogger Mario Lavandeira, aka Perez Hilton, for $7.5 million in damages after he said Lavandeira persisted, without permission, in using copyrighted photos on his site that originated with X17 and other photo agencies and media outlets.
The size of the damages sought illustrates the stakes for photo agencies in Hollywood, where the latest escapade by errant celebrities becomes instant and profitable material.
"It's just a fascination with how these people live and their antics," said Colleen McAllister, a 23-year-old New York blogger who writes about the famous and the infamous on starkedny.com. "Essentially, it has no effect on our lives at all. It's something people get sucked into. Who did Lindsay scream at today? It's almost like they're not really people - it's a soap opera. It's not interesting, but it is interesting, you know what I mean?"
Rohmer, a Frenchman who covered the Persian Gulf War in 1991 for the Paris daily Le Figaro and first went to Los Angeles to cover the 1992 riots for Paris Match, considers that he is covering real news when celebrities like Lohan and Hilton fall from grace.
"I wonder if it's not part of a big game between them and us," Rohmer said. "All these girls, there's some kind of competition between them: Who is going to get the most attention? Their fame is based on our coverage."