Image and irony


by David Airth, Airth’s Democracy

I am looking at what I consider a very striking and revealing photograph. Not only is it conceptually and aesthetically pleasing, but it reminds me of events that caused untold financial damage. It’s a picture I took in New York City in 1997 of two buildings that, it subsequently dawned on me, house two financial companies that are now notorious for losing billions of dollars for their clients. One of those firms is no longer in business because of the extent of its wrongdoing.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This one certainly is because of what it also inadvertently represents. I took the picture while waiting for a bus. It's a photo of two imposing buildings juxtaposing one other, the Citigroup Center on Lexington Avenue and the so-called Lipstick Building on Third Avenue. (It was nicknamed the Lipstick because of its color and resemblance to a lipstick container.) The Citgroup building, in the foreground, stands about 10 stories above the ground on four columns and a central core, creating an open space beneath its towering 50 stories above. (In the photo, I just captured two columns and the lighted underside of its 50 stories.) The open space created by the columns acted like a window through which I could see the Lipstick Building behind.

The photograph is really a striking composition of two contrasting architectural structures. I obviously was enamored with the view, hence my taking the picture, and for the fact that I like tall buildings. There is also a kind of irony about the picture in that it shows two very solid structures that housed two firms whose foundations later turned to sand.

As I said, what also makes the photograph noteworthy is that it captures two buildings that housed firms that were instrumental in bringing unprecedented financial turmoil, inflicting much pain on individuals and institutions that invested with them.

The most notorious of the two companies is Madoff Securities, which operated from the Lipstick Building. Bernie Madoff, its president, is now infamous, and in jail, for perpetrating the largest Ponzi pyramid scheme in history.

Citigroup is famous for being one of the largest participants in the subprime financial market, which contributed to an unprecedented real estate bubble that eventually exploded.

What also sunk both firms is the ethos of the day, and that they got ensnared in exotic financial instruments and the extreme leveraging of capital that had been sweeping the financial markets.

In a sense I find it extraordinary and poignant that I have this picture of two of New York’s most famous and noted buildings, historically and architecturally. They are not only famous for their design and presence but for the two firms they housed - two firms that embodied much of the excesses of capitalism that eventually overwhelmed America, New York City and the world.

PHOTO by David Airth, 1997.


Thanks, David, for capturing and sharing this poignant image.


A brief post follows.


Debra said...

David Airth,
Thank you for sharing the picture and story. It is amazing that you could put your hands on the picture after all these years. You must have a wonderful filing system to be able to find a picture 12 years after it was taken.
I am a picture taker and file by year, but remembering the year the picture was taken would be my problem. haha
Thanks again,

airth10 said...


I didn't have to look far for the picture since I had it hanging on the wall for most of that time. Imagine, it has been twelve years. My, time flies.

tom said...

So, it’s not just terrorist attacks which can change the NYC skyline. Irreputable financial dealings could leave it lying in the sand like the Statue of Liberty found by Taylor in “Planet of the Apes.” A very thought-provoking essay, Mr. Aith.

tom said...

Apologies, that's Mr. Airth.

Tiny said...

Very interesting photo and story. Not sure a thousand words would cover all that Madoff and Citigroup have caused people to say.

Such greed is as unfathomable as the thought of how one person can destroy so many people without giving it a second thought. I read where Madoff has hired a prison consultant to find the best prison cell for him. What gall! Perhaps his victims should pick it for him.

Thanks for sharing the picture and story with us.

Frodo, a Circle Line devotee said...

When Frodo goes to New York, he enjoys leaning his head back as far as it can go, staring up at the all the tall buildings, and exhorting a multi-syllabic "Gawlleee" (in Canadian that would be translated as "Eh?")to catch the attention of passersby. He does this every 50 feet or so, giving him the opportunity to amuse a little over 50,000 people who exist in a land without good humor. Sadly, Frodo never sees the buildings at all, just the people.
Thanks for giving him a peek at the light and the shadow which reflect upon a piece of real estate which has cost us so much more than the cash value of the beads manufactured in Holland.