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Last pics of Gary Coleman stir taste debate

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
Photos reportedly of Gary Coleman in his last moments of life are running on the cover of The Globe.
Photos reportedly of Gary Coleman in his last moments of life are running on the cover of The Globe.
  • Photos of Gary Coleman on his death bed are scheduled to appear in The Globe
  • Images of Michael Jackson, David Carradine, and others have also stirred controversy
  • Journalism professor says in a celeb-driven culture, nothing is sacred
  • According to a head of celeb photo agency, people offer to sell any pic tied to celebs

(CNN) -- A picture of Sandra Bullock posing as a new mom on the cover of PEOPLE magazine sold millions of copies. A photo of an actress on her wedding day could go for hundreds of thousand of dollars. Fans love images of their favorite star as new parents or getting married.

But celebrities dying? That's different.

Or is it? With images of Gary Coleman on his deathbed appearing on the cover of The Globe today, observers say the pictures may cause controversy -- but they sure sell papers.

"People, for some reason, are interested in dead bodies," said Brandy Navarre, vice president of the celebrity photo agency X17, which was not involved in the sale of the Coleman images. "Through life and into death, we can't get enough details about a celebrity's life. No detail is too small and we want to know everything."

The sale of the photos, reportedly by Coleman's wife Shannon Price, drew condemnation from the executor of the actor's estate, Dion Mial.

Video: Coleman death photos for sale?
Video: Gary Coleman death mystery

"Knowing Gary, as well as anyone could have, I assure his closest family, friends and fans that his disdain for this behavior would be unquestionable and paramount to any foregoing profession of 'love' for Shannon that might have ever poured from his lips," Mial said in an e-mail to CNN.

The final images of Coleman, purchased by The Globe tabloid, are not the first of their kind.

Last summer, OK! magazine came under fire for a picture of Michael Jackson being taken to the hospital on its cover. Recent pictures of celebrities after death include David Carradine in a Thai newspaper and Anna Nicole Smith all over the internet.

One of the most famous such images, showing Elvis in his casket, was published by the National Enquirer, whose parent company, American Media Inc., also owns The Globe. That 1977 Elvis issue remains the Enquirer's biggest-ever seller.

More than 30 years later, in a world that has an accelerated news cycle and an ever growing competitive media market, "the rewards of sensationalism in terms of attention are ever more seductive," said Northwestern University journalism professor David Abrahamson.

"For those that are genuinely offended by it, buckle your seat belts because there are going to be more."

At the heart of the argument is the right to privacy, but in today's celebrity-driven world, there is very little that is held sacred, the professor said.

"What we are really talking about is the border between the private sphere and the public sphere," Abrahamson said.

"And the public sphere is just expanding exponentially and the private sphere is shrinking."

Matt Nardi, general manager of the Los Angeles-based Shooting Star photo agency, said that as the public's appetite for more and more information about celebrities has grown, so has the business of sensational imagery.

"We have standards, but I can't speak for anyone else," he said.

"This has just become nothing like it was in the 1990s and 2000s. If you look in a magazine, 75 percent of the photos are paparazzi photos and they are paying big money for them."

X17's Navarre said her company receives constant inquiries from people willing to sell all kinds of images, including screen shots of Web pages containing embarrassing (and sometimes deleted) Twitter postings, pictures of text messages and nude photos of stars.

"People are finding all different ways to try to make money off of this stuff," said Navarre, who added that her company never purchases the nudes and has passed on acquiring images it's deemed too graphic, including photos of Anna Nicole Smith's body being wheeled from the hotel where she died. "I am never surprised any more by what people are offering."

After all, taste for morbid photos has a long history. The New York Daily News once ran a picture of an electrocution victim on its front page; a photo of Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled bodies appeared across the country. Combine that taste with the draw of celebrity, and it's a potent and attention-getting mix.

Alan W. Petrucelli, author of the book "Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous," said he doesn't see anything wrong with the sale of the photos. There will be people interested to see what may be the last images ever of Coleman, he said.

"People do what they have to do to make a living," said Petrucelli, defending Price's right to sell the images of her now deceased ex-husband. "In death, there is still vibrant interest in a celebrity."