Collisions

Funny how ideas can collide, if you're in the right frame of mind to be aware of them. Our brains are such coincidence machines. That's how I felt when, only hours after posting the previous entry, I discovered the work of the Swiss/Italian/German/Japanese (!) artist Mario A.

Mario's recent "Ma Poupée Japonaise" is a brilliant re-invention of Han Bellmer's 1938 "La Poupée," setting it on a sort of collision course with modern pop fetishisms like those of Mariko Mori (or on a related tangent, Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture — I might be mistaken, but when Courtney & I were in Harajuku a couple of years back, who did we see wandering through the teeny boppers & sporting a 6x7 Mamiya? I'm pretty sure it was Greenfield (we'd run into Jim Natchwey in Ebisu just the day before)).

Mario's work is able to reference the past without longing to repeat it. While his project is B&W, he doesn't just repeat all of Bellmer's affectations, like the pink paper and the hand coloring. This Lens Culture page has a five-minute audio interview with Mario A. Mario's commentary about gallery visitors in love with his poupée are fascinating.


Ben Lifson is back with his column on RawWorkflow — his two latest entries, on specificity in art, are exactly addressing a subject that's been grinding at my brain for many weeks.

Posted March 26, 2005 | Comments (0)

Natural Colors Part 2

While I was typing Pt I (without even thinking that it would become Pt I), part of the paradox vexing me was there on the desk, staring intently from the cover of the January PDN in the form of Jude Law, shot in classicly-crisp B&W by David Bailey, with the tag: "The Legends Issue." So here we have Jude Law, promoting Alfie and dressed-up in 60's Saville Row. Knockout pic, but — part of The Problem of B&W Nostalgia, right?

The "Legends" in PDN have a little gallery here — Bailey, Donna Ferrato, Danny Lyon, and Sylvia Plachy. Last year's Legends Issue included Sebastaio Salgado, who was mentioned on the last post's comments.

Such "Legends" present their own paradox — photographers who continue to do new and inspiring work even as the world seems to be moving off in some other direction. Plachy's last couple of books, for example, have knocked me flat — terrific, inspiring, humbling stuff throughout. But are artists like these exceptions partly because they can carry that history with them like a shield?

The problem that was picking at me in the previous entry really was: where are the great new B&W photographers?

I admit, I'm showing some awkward bias here. Why is new so important? Maybe it's not. There are plenty of folks for whom pictures are pictures. The subject of my pondering is black and white work that isn't the continuation of work begun long ago, and simultaneously work that doesn't lean so heavily on nostalgia for its interest and authority. As the ever-contentious Bee pointed out, for him all B&W that he sees these days he considers "morally suspect." As much as I hate it, I'm more than a little inclined to agree with him.

Years ago Walker Evans derided color, saying it "sentimentalized" images. He chose not to use it. Today, due to changing fashion, it seems like it's B&W that all too often sentimentalizes.

Deuce of it is, I love black and white.

Salgado's latest project (and his last, he claimed when he visited fotovision/UCBerkeley a few months back), Genesis, is shot on B&W film. One assumes the Tri-X he's long admired, probably run by the same lab in Europe, developed by inspection in Rodinal. But even Salgado has bent, releasing his well-loved Leicas for a 6x7 camera (the better, one assumes, to create the large, detailed images that recent technological changes have brought to the art and publishing worlds).

Salgado loves black and white. Says he doesn't know what else to do (though he certainly has worked in color back in his working-PJ days). Some other established shooters, like Josef Koudleka, have said much the same thing. It's hard to imagine, say, Keith Carter or Michael Kenna prints in color. Some folks just love black and white, and always will (for me it is the natural color for photos, and color is more an addition). YMMV, but fashionable or no, those people will make (are making) the next great B&W pictures.

In the same magazine rack beneath the PDN were a few recent issues of Shots. A great thing about Shots is its pattern of growth and change even as it has changed hands — I can still remember when it was crudely pasted-up by hand, printed on newsprint, and now under Russell Joslin it's still not the slick reproduction-fest of the relatively-conservative Lenswork or uber-conservative B&W, but Russell keeps getting The Good Stuff. Instead of seeking-out new B&W work, good work seeks out Shots, because people can recognize what a Labor of Love it is.

The new self-portrait issue (87) is no exception, including not only PDN's 30 winner (for color!) Cig Harvey but innovative B&W champs like Arno Rafael Minkkinen (if you can, check out Arno's Egg episode, too).

(and on the subject of the PDN 30, I was remiss not to post links to the three B&W portfolios: Dave Anderson (also interviewed in Shots 85), journalist Casper Dalhoff and editorial shooter Matthew Pillsbury)

The toy-cam and "Antiquarian Avant-Garde" revival movements (often falling into nostalgic traps, but not universally) sometimes show up in Shots too: an older issue interviewed Gordon Stettinus and of course who can forget the "new dags" crowd, most-famously Jerry Spagnoli, who was working hard at alternative process long before his famous 9/11 photo (and its impressive auction price).

Great B&W that doesn't try to ape HCB, Weston, or Ansel is out there. We still have James Whitlow Delano, William Ropp, Alexei Titarenko, Jeff Cowen, Igor Lebedev... Life is good.

If you have more suggestions for B&W that should not be missed, please post them here.


A few days ago Joerg pointed out the self-congratulatory PhotoBloggies. They have a variety of categories, including nominations for "Best Black and White Photography of a Photoblog: Recognizing the best photoblog featuring mainly black and white images- digital or scanned from film." Funny that they feel they have to qualify film or digital in this category. Sadly, only two of the five finalists even meet the stated entrance criteria (ah, awards... who said popularity was only important in middle school? Oh yeah, high school students, dissed by college students. It all comes back to me now).

Of the remaining finalists, I personally voted for Ed Leveckis with rigent close behind.

For Toy Cameras I'd go with Gord Is Dead and overall for Orbit1.

Not that anyone in that voting crowd's listening to me.


(Link to Natural Colors Part 3)

Posted March 23, 2005 | Comments (4)

Cantax Part 2

A few months ago I wrapped up my Digital Rebel/300D "Cantax" in black gaffer tape. At first it was just a few pieces of tape on the large curved surfaces, then more, then pretty much everywhere that I could fit it that wouldn't cause operational trouble. Why so much tape? Is it useful, or just some dopey affectation (declared another shooter: "it's so, like, ghetto")?

My first thought in taping it was to knock-down the shine of the camera body. Silver bodies worked — sort of — back in the day when cameras were boxy, but todays rounded blobject cameras have lots of broad, shiny curved surfaces from most any direction. The highlights are big and eye-catching (see?). Canon's designers' choice to color the body silver makes the thing just too doggoned shiny and conspicuous. Good for selling consumer electronics, I suppose, but poor for use in a crowd. The newer black-body version of this camera is still shiny. Tape's not shiny, it's dull and quickly looks worn to bits. Which is good.

I also don't care for large brand names on my gear (or on anything else), so I covered them: on the body, the strobe, the lens caps. Just black.

But the surprise came in actual use. Taped-up, the camera is just a lot nicer to hold, a little bit firmer grip and more gentle to the fingers. Much preferable to the naked plastic. I've since taped-up other tools: computer mice, laptop palm rests, and of course electrical cabling. I may yet tape-up a lot of others. Love it.

Permacel gaffer tape: Nature's perfect food.


Additional note about using a small DSLR with manual lenses: it's easy to knock the eyepiece diopter wheel on this camera. If you don't catch it, it will trash your manual focusing and you might not even notice at first. Let that be a lesson to you. Or to me, at least. Ouch.

Posted March 23, 2005 | Comments (5)

Natural Colors

Three rolls HP5+, Xtol 1+1

A few weeks back, on a recommendation from Moleskinerie (or was it 43 Folders?), I picked up a copy of Howard & Barton's 1988 writing book, Thinking on Paper. At its core lay three fundamental propositions about writing. I think that the use of "writing" in these propositions is easily swapped-out with just about any expressive/reflective activity: writing, painting, singing, gardening. This is PhotoRant.com after all, so let's try it:

1. Photography is a symbolic activity of meaning-making;
2. Photography for others is a staged performance; and
3. Photography is a tool of understanding as well as of communication.

Works for me, especially #1, which both accepts and challenges the usual nominative function that so dominates photography (and computer graphics, an industry obsessed with "realism" — though its greatest successes, such as The Incredibles, wisely use realism merely as a point of departure and occasional familiar grounding for their audience (some folks think of computer graphics as just another form of photography...)). Only photography and writing have such a broad range, from startling immediacy of its simulations to abstract aesthetics almost totally removed from their nominative subjects.

On balance, the middle ground — artful description — tends to be the most fertile. Even when the subject of a work is non-physical — say the social orders in Nikki Lee snaps, or the internal states hinted at in, oh, Elina Brotherus portraits. As Avedon says, all you really have is the surface. But by using its characteristics as a symbolic language, we open up a world of possible meaning.

A favorite personal saw is to say that every aspect of a photo has the potential to mean something, from the way the camera is aimed to the brand of printing paper. The photographer can sort through these meanings to extract, one hopes, their own points (or questions). Striped socks or solid? Large format or a blurry security camera? Paper or plastic? All can be mined for meaning, given an appropriate subject and sensitive eyes and imagination. Some veins are likely to be richer than others, of course.

Has the Great Black and White Mine tapped out? To wander fine art galleries these days, or to peruse the web, one could well believe it (even stalwarts like Michael Johnston, perhaps a bit disingenuous when he writes: "black-and-white is just a property, a result of photography's early difficulties with recording color"). It's becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone doing innovative work in B&W, rather than vividly re-visiting theses and themes from photos and days gone by.

Poking "black and white" as a keyword into the photoblogs.org search engine brought up dozens of links, but when looking through the most-popular of these supposed B&W sites themselves, I could see nary a monochrome image. Color, color. Pick through the listings on Conscientious and the B&W seems like an afterthought — not because Joerg doesn't like B&W but because it's a vanishing breed. Pick up the current issue of 8 and yeah, it's got a B&W cover, but inside, the pages are mostly dominated by reds and blues and browns.

Great stuff, don't get me wrong here. Is it possible that the best new work really is all in color?

Or is it just a swing of fashion? Joerg also points out this interview with Duane Michals:

"Really, I'm so bored with photography that I cannot tell you! And I'm so bored with new photographers because it's just old photography, except it's bigger and more boring and in color and much more expensive. No new ground has been broken in photography in ages. All those German photographers are just doing very large photographs of parking lots in Tokyo."

Personally, I don't think B&W is dead, though its familiar mannerisms are tough to overcome. When Digital Photo User published their special B&W issue (#76) they tagged "A Touch Of Class — Add a timeless feel to your photography." In other words, play to the familiar, to the sense of authority and age that nostalgia itself can lend to B&W imagery (and ironically, most of the B&W master photographers that Digital Photo User profiles — Ken Grant, Steve Pyke, Jack Picone — are still using film, rather than digital cameras). I can't help but feel that the popularity of Leica-toting "wedding photojournalists" reflect as much a desire to make a wedding album that looks like a record of some 1953 NY society event as it is to get a "more genuine" record of an important familial ritual. One can almost imagine seeing Jaqueline Bouvier in the wings.

The iconography of the B&W image has 150 years of social inertia. This can be useful or strangling, depending on how you approach it.

But not quite dead yet. As I've written before, I think B&W is as basic a part of our vision as color, with a lasting role in visual arts. In the latest PDN "30" issue, profiling 30 up-and-coming photographers, at least three of them presented portfolios in B&W. 10% isn't bad in a world where editors and buyers will tell you no one wants anything but color.

"Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected." — Robert Frank

If readers have any examples of what they think is forward-looking B&W work, let me know.

(Link to Part 2)

Posted March 19, 2005 | Comments (2)

PMD2

Two rolls HP5, one roll Acros.

This week's reschedule of Photography Made Difficult was smaller — just David Lee, Rebecca, and myself, alongside the larger regular group of folks from South Bay Bloggers (including Courtney and, later in the evening, myself). A couple of members have said Wednesdays are bad so I've shifted the schedule to Fridays starting in April.

David's grasp of stereography is far firmer than I even realized — he's got tons of experience, gear, great shots, and a history of exhibiting and selling them. Zowie. We talked a lot about stereo, it's such a technical hassle but it's really fascinating to me.

He also showed me his collection of test prints on lots of different papers, a recent photo book he had made, set me up with software... his generosity and output are so impressive. Thanks, man.

The shot above is on the first test roll of the new (old) 'Mat. I love what you can get from such a cheap old thing. I made some digi shots the next day to attempt matching it. At web sizes, the detail is there for the digi. But on a 12-inch-square next to one made from a 6x6 neg? No way. And the range of tonalities are night and day, even with this little flatbed scanner.

Posted March 18, 2005 | Comments (3)

instant

Larger formats supposedly make you more patient but so far it's not working.

A favorite cheap stunt these days is to grab for the digi as soon as the film is out of the processing tank, hanging in the shower to dry. Point a strobe at the wall behind the negs and SNAP then into Photoshop for a quick grayscale- invert- levels- crop tweak session so I can see what's there long before the film has dried, much less before I get a chance to print or scan anything "properly." Curls, out-of-focus digital camera, funky uneven illumination of the negative, whatever. Bring it all on, I just want to see the pic.

The purpose is to get a very very fast throwaway evaluation of the film neg. But I've come to like the direct results themselves a bit as well. I might post a comparison or two later on, between some instant-feedback versions and a normally flat-printed final.

Posted March 15, 2005 | Comments (1)

Stereo at GDC

GDC 2005 was in San Francisco this year, and it was the first GDC where we were able to get a good showing, out on the Expo floor, of the NVIDIA Stereo Driver. This came with the advent of two great display partners: the dep3d rear-projection display that you can see clearly here, and (where the knot of people behind the Dep3D are looking) a Planar SD1300 stereo display.

Both of these displays allow large-screen stereo, in color, with simple passive polarized glasses. The glasses are even comfortable. The Planar display is smaller, a desktop-sized device composed of two precision LCD monitors and a half-silvered mirror.

The NVIDIA stereo driver is a bit of magic that allows existing games and other software to use a stereo display without being written explicitly for stereo display. It's really quite amazing, hundreds of game titles work with stereo 3D right out of the box. The developers themselves may not have even known their game was 3D-ready. The stereo driver intercepts their 3D software calls to the graphics API (DirectX and OpenGL are graphics APIs, for readers unfamiliar with the lingo), and just automagically does the right thing with the multiple views.

These displays are so great — they really solve a nagging problem I've been concerned about: how to display large (and potentially color) stereo imagery? Sometimes a card doesn't cut it. Stereo slide displays are great but require lighting control. These new monitors have snappy color, work in bright light, and are useful for something beyond photo display: they work great with video games.

I'd be very interested to see, as these displays propogate, if more artists like Daniel Huenergardt appear — willing to paint directly in stereo.

(Finally, please excuse the slightly-sloppy stereo pair! It's hard enough to shoot a hand-held pair via the cha-cha method, mch less in a room full of moving people....)

Posted March 13, 2005 | Comments (0)

Too Hyper

"Too hyper to be useful." That's me!

Non-sequitur of the day...

...the context being: my plan to use two old Yashicas as a stereo pair camera. I have my 124G and an older 124 -- both the same lens, same format, the differences between the cameras are mostly cosmetic.

They can't be closer to one another than around 4 inches when shooting, or they can't be wound. Too hyper?

This pair was made with even greater separation, via the "cha-cha" method -- moving the camera by stepping to the side while waiting for the strobes to recycle. I stil think there are useful things to be found in this sort of "too close" method, however amplified the depth may be.

My next post will talk about some very cool developments in the world of stereo that I saw (at our own booth!) at the Game Developers' Conference, GDC 2005.

(Again, this post uses cross-eyed viewing -- if anyone has a specific request for a parallel pair, let me know)

Posted March 12, 2005 | Comments (0)

The Fine Print

It's always in the details. This weekend finds me printing and reprinting comparison pix, looking at differences between methods: between digital and medium format film cameras, and between different ways to print their results.

Since the beginning of the year I've found myself increasingly dissatisfied with prints smaller than 8×10", printing 11×14 and preferably larger. The Epson will deliver a predictable solid 12x18 from 35mm format digi, or 12x12 from a MF negative. And even that seems small a lot of the time...

Part of this inclination toward ever-larger paper came from printing the extended-family photos made at Christmas. I could print the faces at nearly life-sized, and was terribly excited by their immediacy. That immediacy, of the image and the object of the paper itself, is not something that can be carried on a smaller print or a book, much less on a web page. Calypso will make me prints even larger, for a price (a pretty reasonable one). Thursday I was looking over some of their B&W Lightjet output, and they've done a fine job at getting tones out of both the low and high ends of the scale.

Last night Rebecca & I visited an opening reception at Modernbook in Palo Alto, mostly to see Brad Evans and his prints (Brad also introduced us to Jeff Spirer, who has a show in SF in the coming few weeks). At least one of the artists in the group, David Hibbard, had printed most all of his work at Calypso.

The gallery also had, in the upsatirs area, some Mona Kuhn prints (annoyingly, I missed her show there, which was hung while I was out of town). Like the ones Courtney & I saw last weekend at Scott Nichols Gallery, the prints are moderately sized. Well within the reach of the Epson. It's good to remember that big and better are non-aligned factors (even as I brood over the printing techniques C & I also saw last week: 2- and 3-meter prints by Thomas Wrede, Candida Höfer, and Michael Wolf).


The detail comparisons are the obvious ones. Can a 2K×3K digi-cam image stand up next to a 5K×5K scan from a 6x6 negative? I keep asking this same question. My feeling so far is that the MF always wins on tonal range and the look of MF bokeh. My MF cameras these days are my old YashicaMat and a recently-acquired even older cheapo one, but at f/8 or higher they are fantastic in tone and sharpness, easily close to the level of a Rollei (flare notwithstanding). The digi is the Cantax. The Contax Zeiss glass really seems to pay off best as the sensor gets smaller. It's also a flatter field.

In raw detail from the scene, the digi holds up well against 6×6 TXP and Neopan 400, processed in Rodinal 1+50. Though the visible grain of the film itself could be considered an extra edge. Against Neopan Acros, the old Yashica wins again. Guess I'll be using more of that — at the moment, Acros is one of the cheapest MF films that B&H stocks. Sodding chore to scan it on my flatbed, though.

The second comparison is between B&W printing via Harrington Quadtone RIP (I'm still on the version 1) and printing directly to the Epson driver as a duotone. I'm a sucker for the brown tone but fear metamerism or worse. Still, some pretty sweet-looking shadows.


PS: Yes, I know that Kyocera this week announced that all Contax film camera production is halted, and digi by the end of the year. I almost never seem to buy any gear new anyway, heh.

Posted March 05, 2005 | Comments (1)

Heap

Sometimes journal entries gestate for a bit, maybe they just ferment. Or rot. This one's been in the mulch for three weeks, even as other entries came and went. Maybe it could be several different posts. This is what I have tonight, rambling and ranting.

At the last Bay Area Photologgers event over at Cafe Reverie, there was some talk about the Creative Commons Copyright. I'm not a big fan of it, it seems to be just one more bit of legal grease for the ongoing zero-cost transfer of all creative rights to the hands of publishers. What's wrong with the existing laws, why is Creative Commons needed? Are people that desperate to feel validated by commercial publication?

Call me jaded, but it doesn't work for me. Especially when you know just how much commercial image theft goes on already. Don't believe me? Try this news tidbit on for size: SAA Trial Reveals High Rate of Commercial Misuse of Getty Images Online.

Why would anyone think that making pictures would be a good idea as a business? Sometimes it looks like playing drums or autoharp would be a safer career move for most people.

Is there a sensible business model for photographers? For painters? Musicians? Anyone?

The media world has changed a lot over the past years, but one thing has stayed consistent: the steady vortex of value that centers around the priveleged and powerful publishers (now "diversified media corporations"), who seem more determined than ever to make sure that no creative person can own any of their own output, or find any significant venue that's not under publisher control (even as publishers lobby in Washington to extend non-author copyrights, to protect the value of their long-vested properties). Even individual print sales are now as much a corporate business as a personal one, as yet another PhotoTalk post informs: Selling Prints: A Dead Issue? The Biggest Success Ever? Success for whom? Not, apparently, for the photographers and other artists whose images are being printed at a profit by the publisher.

At the same time, technological change pushes from below. Our society is more dependant on images than ever, but more awash in them as well. The torrent of snaps just keeps coming, and the signal::noise ratio keeps going down. It's perhaps partly driven by the electronics and communications industries, whose pricing is in turn dominated by Moore's Law. Every 18 months electronics density and speed doubles; or in other words, prices drop by half. So chip manufacturers have to keep producing ever more powerful and faster chips just to stay in business, or compete against their own previous successes. Digital cameras enable more good work than ever (mostly executed by folks who were already producing well before they ever had a digi), but they also bury us in roughly-properly-exposed bright colorful and largely empty pixels.

As electronics go, so too go images: each new wave of media tools brings with it waves of pix. One of the latest tools has cropped up close to home in a manner of speaking: my old buddy and housemate JBum and his flickr color picker — or better yet his flickr graffiti color picker (Are we convinced that colorfully "arty" digi grafitti shots are a cliche at this point?).

This sort of tool is perfect for graphic design hacks who really don't care about content, just that they fill frame "X" on a web page with color #a0df30 (and despite Creative Commons, they may well make off with the pix without so much as an email "thank you," much less any sort of proper rights agreement). Just so much decoration, a perfect expression for a world in which people will bang through 700 frames in an afternoon (or "15,000 pieces of crap") to get one mediocre one, rather than spend the time to work on one really good shot. As Ken Kobré has pointed out, even photos that wire services commission end up being just so much tiny-rectangle filler, something with little function other than to occasionally break up the visual monotony of long columns of text.

Okay, I'm complaining... but not really. This is the nature of the world circa 2005. If I expected it to hold steady at 1996 or 1986 or 1956, that would be complaining. Instead I wonder: what's the best way to embrace this circumstance, and what is likely to come in the future.

The flickr model seems to be to just open the faucet to full — the owners of the pipes make some money by the force of raw flow, while image-consumers make money by grabbing pix, publishing them without payment while copyrighting the resultant pages and selling advertising space (e.g. "America 24/7" and its many variant derivatives). Actual picture makers get... well, nothing, including even a lack of recognition.

One alternative for image makers is the Big Art model — use the technology to make a small number of cool but exclusive objects, say giant Burtynsky or Gurky or Höfer prints. Great for the two dozen Top Artists who can manage that, pretty poor for everyone below them in the Big Art pyramid.

Another model is to separate Art + Commerce. In other words, get a day job. Subsidize yourself. The most common by far, and for most of the good shooters I know, the most effective strategy. In fact it's the strategy of choice even for Big Names: teaching workshops, giving lectures, occasionally shilling for Kodak — they're all day jobs, peripheral to the task of making art but crucial to subsidizing the Real Business: being able to make things that you love.


One under-represented aspect to the digital wave — under-represented in that few people talk about it — is the growing challenge of redaction. That is, picking which of the afternoon's 700 shots is worth posting to the web or printing. If any. Sadly, too often it feels like people would prefer to skip that step entirely. Web page upon web page of numbingly un-redacted galleries. New 1GB card will hold 500 shots? Post all 500! Oy.

Photojournalists know how much of a hassle (and often an unpaid hassle) redaction can be in the new day of digi. Others are getting used to it. What's funny is its absence in the general literature of photography and photo technique. There's no shortage of books about collectable Leitz accessories, about how to use the Zone System, about developer solutions and history of Chinese news photography; lots about selecting slide films or strobe units or telephoto lenses; but very, very little about selecting photos from a pile.

This issue has been known for a long long time — Cartier-Bresson insisted, when reviewing portfolios at Magnum, on seeing not only the portfolio shots but also the proof sheets, to "see how the photographer thinks."

It's also true that picture editors like to opine that photographers are unable to pick photos — that photographers need the picture editor to perform that for them. As if once the image is fixed in a rectangle the "good eye" of that photographer has become unfunctional. A strange, strange notion. Then again, browsing through some parts of flickr or pbase, maybe it's not so far wrong.

So multiple images are good — except for the raw tedium of picking through them. Whether it's flickr or photo.net, the fact is that the steady flow of middling pictures being published on web sites far exceeds the capacity of anyone to actually view it. And then services that should be cool and interesting just become another uninteresting chore, when you need to cycle through 50 or 150 web pages to see one actually compelling snap.

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the theory is set forth that what makes gold valuable is not inherent in the gold, but that it "collects" value from all the rocks that are not gold, and the vast labor of many people that's been spent looking for, and not finding, actual gold. To a degree, finding golden shots is much the same. It's just frustrating when so much brass is published in place of the Real Deal.

Posted March 03, 2005 | Comments (0)

 

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