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Life Support: Gloom Illustrated

Snap up those stock pictures of a bear market

Monday, July 22, 2002

By Hank Stuever

There's one thing to love whenever the market tanks: We get a fresh new batch of photos of traders on the stock exchange floor, looking wrung out, looking glum!

Trader Daniel Williams at the New York Stock Exchange last Monday. (Richard Drew, Associated Press)

You can keep your pictures of firefighters. Floor traders are the pinup boys of capitalism: ties askew, palms against foreheads, fortunes lost and gained. You can almost smell their Aramis cologne and sweat and hear them yelling (in Chicago accents in the S&P 500 futures pit of the Mercantile Exchange, in Brooklynese at the NYSE). It's dire, what may or may not be happening in these pictures. It's kind of sexy. It's the free world.

Cliche on every business page in America, the sad-trader photograph is nevertheless the only way to visually tell the story of the movement of money. Money is elusive, amorphous and often secret. It is up to the floor traders, many of whom don't really make much money themselves, to tell us what kind of day it was in Monopolyland: You open the morning paper and see a picture of a hangdog trader looking like he wants a scotch on the rocks. How exhausted? Chin in his hands, or rubbing his temples? Armpit stains through his jacket?

That's a triple-digit drop, baby.

It's guys with names like Vincent and Joe and Danny -- grinding their knuckles into overstrained eye sockets, as if they personally lost all America's money and now need to find a way to tell us.

Last Monday afternoon, as the New York Stock Exchange dove 400 or so points for a few hours, and then came to its senses and closed 45 points down (after tons of eye-rubbing photos and a 600-point drop last week) the Associated Press moved a lovely specimen, with a caption:

"Trader Daniel Williams rubs his eyes as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Wall Street's dramatic selloff intensified Monday with despondent investors seeing no reason to buy stocks while they await the release of second-quarter earnings results ..."

Or maybe the guy forgot he told his wife he'd pick up the dry-cleaning. And now they're closed.

Oh (bleep), he thinks.

And the moment he remembers this, a news photographer clicks the shutter -- in this case, the AP's Richard Drew, considered something of a house expert when it comes to shooting stock exchange pictures.

"We don't infer how [a trader] is feeling at the moment the picture was taken," says David Ake, a senior editor on the Associated Press photo desk in New York. "There's no way to know why he's doing it."

Yet something gets inferred anyhow. Business news is perhaps the most difficult to illustrate. Unlike sports or war or cucumber salad recipes, there's nothing to show.

"The market can be 200 points up or 200 points down, and the pictures tend to look the same," Ake says. "You can always illustrate the panic, the screaming and yelling on the floor. Or, if it's been a really busy day and there's one guy left after the market closes and he's sitting down and there's all this paper scattered around him."

Yes, we know that one.

Traders are also emblematic, in advertising, of capitalism's bodily strains: They show up in TV ads for antacids, for laxatives, for anti-diarrheals, for Visine.

The only letdown about stock trader pictures is that we never learn anything else about the guy. Sometimes you can see a wedding ring. But what's the rest of his story? How many years working the floor? What are his hopes and dreams?

And why so glum, chum? It's not as if it's his stock.

"If a guy is only executing trades for other people, what does he care?" asks Don Ostrowski, who worked the floor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and traded stocks for 20 years, and now runs a consulting service and Web site for traders.

"I'd say anywhere from 30 to 35 percent of them have a personal stake in it. So when you see a picture of a guy who looks like he's taken a pretty big hit, it probably means he's taken a pretty big hit."

The world hangs in a kind of balance, and it's about guys screaming at one another, in a flurry of paper and bells and lights. There is something both comforting and terrifying in that, and it's enough to make you want to put your head in your hands, or rub your eyes.

Hank Stuever writes for The Washington Post.

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