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Celebrity autographs are passe — fans’ proof is in the picture

Actor Darren Criss of "Glee," bottom right, poses for a photo with fan Coby Hillborne, 16, of Woodland Hills, at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards.
(Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times)

Like hundreds of fans lining the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards this past weekend, Karalee Miller was determined to memorialize a celebrity moment. From behind the velvet ropes, the 35-year-old Burbank woman screamed and screamed for actor Bradley Cooper’s attention.

When the “Silver Linings Playbook” actor finally approached her, she drew out her trusty point-and-shoot camera and at arm’s length snapped a strained cheek-to-cheek photo with Cooper. It was just the beginning of an evening of such pictures for countless other fans and performers.


FOR THE RECORD:
Autographs: An article in the Jan. 30 Section A about the diminishing demand for celebrity autographs misspelled the first name of actor Jamie Foxx as Jaime.


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“A photo is proof that I was near the people that, before this, only existed on my TV screen or in the movies,” said Miller, who earlier had managed to snag a shot with “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston. “A photo can show a smile or an outfit to your friends; a signature can’t.”

PHOTO: Celebrity portraits by The Times

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The time-honored scrawl that once was the gold standard artifact of a brush with greatness has lost some of its glow in the age of social media. Taking a photo of oneself for Web posting has become so popular that it has added a new word to the lexicon — “selfie.”

And a selfie with an A-lister is among the most prized postings of all.

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A photo with a famous person, said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an associate professor at USC and author of “Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, “supports the larger belief that we are just like them because we are standing right next to them.”

Indeed, celebrities, whether at a restaurant or on the red carpet, report they are spending far more time posing awkwardly close with fans than scratching off their names. The shift has left some longing for simpler days.

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“I would actually prefer signing more autographs,” said Zooey Deschanel, star of Fox’s comedy “New Girl.” “That’s not to say I don’t like interacting with fans, but I want the freedom to go about my day without having to worry, ‘Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t wear this sweater because someone will see it on someone’s Facebook wall.”

For the younger generation, asking for an autograph often isn’t even a consideration. Eddie Bautista, 21, of Montebello, had a chance encounter with Jaime Foxx and didn’t bother to ask for the “Django Unchained” star’s John Hancock.

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“It was almost a reflex to ask for a photo when he walked by,” said Bautista, who posted his photo with Foxx on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “Nowadays, friends don’t care about a scribble-scrabble. They think you did it yourself.”

PHOTOS: Memorable red carpet moments since 2000

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Sometimes, celebrities even get in on the action. During a recent Times interview, “Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook” star Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t help showing off a photo she took with Lionel Richie.

An extreme example of the photo-seeking fan is the 17-year-old Toluca Lake teenager known on the Web only as Sarah M., who explained she doesn’t reveal her last name for fear of online predators. Affectionately known as “Stalker Sarah,” the teenager has amassed more than 6,000 photos with Hollywood stars including Oprah, Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt and Miley Cyrus — that she posts to her Flickr account and tweets out to her nearly 65,000 followers.

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“Autographs never really meant anything to me,” she said. With a photo, “you see how stars are real people.”

Or at least the people fans want them to be. NeNe Leakes, who stars in “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and NBC’s comedy “The New Normal,” says photo-seekers expect her to display her larger-than-life persona.

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“People want to show all their friends, ‘Hey, I’m chilling with my girl, NeNe!’” she said. “It’s cute and I like it, but they got me looking ridiculous sometimes.”

Between the shift in celebrity culture and the ease of Web technology, postable photos are squeezing out the importance of an autograph.

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“Our celebrities today seem to be much more accessible than previous celebrities,” said Richard Austin, who researches the value of signed items for Sotheby’s in New York. “You can get a picture of Scarlett Johansson when you’re at a club. It used to be that people would commemorate their experiences meeting a celebrity by getting them to sign something.”

But it’s not as if signing autographs is a completely lost art among celebrities. Plenty of autograph hounds, clutching 8-by-10 glossy photos, still seek a star’s squiggly signature, usually for profit.

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PHOTOS: SAG Awards 2013 red carpet

If the star signs a relevant item — a movie poster, a piece of clothing, official documentation — the signature piece can still fetch huge sums at auction. Prominence and context are key.

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“If someone has importance in their field — whether in the arts or science or literature — there’s still going to be a market for their signature,” said Michael Hecht, president of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club — the largest nonprofit autograph collectors’ association.

The original contract signed in 1976 by Apple co-founders Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne, for example, fetched $1.59 million at auction in 2011.

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One of Beverly Hills-based Julien’s Auctions’ top-selling signed pieces was Michael Jackson’s famed “Thriller” jacket, which sold for $1.8 million, said its founder and president, Darren Julien. Less iconic pieces, like a signed magazine, brought in more than $750.

He added that celebrities like Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe have held onto their handwritten value. Something signed by Monroe can still nab as much as $20,000.

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In comparison, modern starlet Kristen Stewart’s autographed photo can be bought on EBay for under $15. Indeed, autographs from contemporary celebrities flood the pages of EBay (warning: experts say fakes are rampant) and are not as high in demand because, well, the stars are still alive.

“I had a celebrity ask me one time, ‘What can I do to increase the value of my items?’” Julien recalled. “I said, ‘Die.’”

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For those fans who want photos with their favorite stars — alive and kicking — self-proclaimed D-list comedian Kathy Griffin has some advice.

“A lot of people — a lot! — don’t know how to use their cameras,” said Griffin. “So you’re just standing there forever. And they’re accidentally taking video or the flash doesn’t go off.”

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“I’m a nobody. I have the time,” she added. “But know how to work your camera when it’s Angelina Jolie.”

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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