If you have been getting regular updates then you have been updating SP2 critical updates which may have reset defaults for Win XP's firewall, IE6, Outlook and Outlook Express security issues. These affect the way images are handled.
Here's a case in point concerning OE:
First off SP2 adds a new feature to the email preview and full view windows. When you receive an email with images embedded in it, the program blocks the images from auto viewing. This is helpful for several reasons. Primarily it stops you from viewing unsavory spam. No image is downloaded unless you click on a bar across the top of the email to show images in it.
The program also has an alert to let you know when other programs try to send email as if they were you. When this happens it can be indicative of a worm or spam program that is trying to send unauthorized email from your computer.
Options for both of these features can be access by clicking the Tools menu in Outlook Express then Options then the Security tab.
There is also a setting that specifies which sites are trusted and not trusted. This uses the settings in Internet Explorer
OE also will monitor attachments that are attached to emails that have arrived in your inbox and warn you before you open them.
You may want to view SP2's features here :Mico$oft SP2's Features
This concerning the firewall :
Windows XP SP2 turns on the built in Windows firewall, a piece of software in this case, on your system and makes it easier to get to. You can find it through either the Windows Security Alert shield in your System Tray (bottom right of your screen) or you can access it by clicking Start then Control Panel and then the Windows Firewall icon. You'll note that it is turned on when SP2 is installed.
As you use your computer after SP2 turns on the Firewall you'll notice that you are challenged when programs try to access the Internet. When you approve these connections an exception is added to the firewall's exceptions tab.
Again this may be affecting the way your images are handled. Defaults will have to be changed to allow these files to be opened normally.
My freezing problem was because of low resources. I have only 256Mb RAM and too many programs running at times. OE or IE6 would freeze on me. Your problem may not be related.
Hope this helps.