Category Archives: photography

Miscegeny! Miscegeny! No escaping that for me!

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

I wanted to avoid writing about the PolicyMic What Americans Will Look Like in 2050 article. Part of this is because I don’t really like the photographs. I’ve found that portraits where the photographer’s style overwhelms the photo don’t really do it for me unless I’m looking at a show which is about the photographer. There are, of course, exceptions here—e.g. I really like Avedon’s West—but in general I’ll echo Wayne Bremser and think of these kinds of photos as caricatures rather than portraits.

National Geographic is not a magazine I expect to see caricatures in. Nor is race something I enjoy seeing caricatured. It takes me into uncomfortable territory, especially when the race in question is mine.

In addition to the Martin Schoeller all-look-same effect, another part of why I wanted to stay away is because the photos felt a lot like the continued fascination with how strikingly beautiful mixed-race people are supposed to look. There’s an odd fascination here with physical appearance that all-too-often strays into exoticism if not straight-up racism as mixed-race people are used as a way of being both acceptably foreign and white-assimilated.

It all gives me hives. Especially when PolicyMic framed the photos by claiming the cure for racism is miscegenation.

The responses to the article though have pulled me in. In particular, I’m finding that I want to add on to Sharon Chang’s response asking why we’re still hung up on pictures of race.

Chang’s post points out the history of racial-type photographs; the kind of ethnographic, white-centered values they promote; and puts the Schoeller photographs in this context along with much of the rest of National Geographic’s (undeniably excellent) photography. To read National Geographic, or at least to look at the photos and maps, is to see otherness and “explore” the world from the safety of your home.

It’s the colonial viewpoint which I’ve become tired of. It’s equating culture with appearances. Chang’s absolutely correct to call it out.

I just don’t think she goes far enough.

First, this kind of racial-type imagery existed well before photography. Second, we’ve had multiracial societies in the past and there was never anything post-racial about them.

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148x104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

Anonymous. Las Castas. 18th century.

The way National Geographic displays the Schoeller photos in a grid creates an obvious Casta painting connection. And it’s not just the grid layout but the way we’re invited to compare and guess who looks part Asian or Black or Indian or White and in what quantities. Focusing on looks. And focusing on parentage. And comparing proximity to whiteness.

It’s important to remember that we’ve gone down this road in the past and only succeeded in creating dozens of racial divisions all ranked by how close to whiteness and reason they are. Yes, you could breed your way up the ladder. But that the ladder exists is the problem.

Merely showing a multiracial society is not enough. Casta paintings show. Schoeller’s photos show. What are we being provoked to do or think about instead? Especially regarding how we address race, and how we’ll address it in the future.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

I wish the critiques had gone into photographic work which is actively critiquing the concept of racial boxes. One example of this is Angélica Dass’s Humanæ* which matches the people’s skin color to a specific Pantone number.** Dass has managed to create a project which, despite being only about one feature (skin color), manages to both show a multicultural society and actually critique racial values.

*Note: Dass is from Brazil but what she’s doing is completely relevant to the multiracial discussion in the US.

**The purist in me is bothered by the fact that she’s not sticking to a single Pantone swatch book but that’s me being a print nerd. This in no way detracts from the actual point she’s making.

Where Schoeller’s work results in a number of images which all feels the same. Dass emphasizes the point that we’re all different. Everyone. Looking at her work doesn’t result in comparing mixes or trying to figure out who looks like what. Instead we’re realizing how unique everyone’s skin tone is—and how stupid colourism really is.

Dass isn’t making a claim about how things will be. She’s provoking us to think about how things are and asking us to think about alternatives. What she shows us is designed to break the existing racial checkboxes and even if all it accomplishes is laying bare how ridiculous the way we call clothing or makeup “flesh-colored,” we’ll have made some improvements.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Which brings me to the other work I wish Sharon Chang had mentioned in her post. While she talked about Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, she didn’t mention Mixed Kids.

Fulbeck’s Hapa Project is about himself and finding his own community. It’s a necessary project of self-representation but indeed doesn’t go beyond and ask anything provocative. I like it. But then I’m hapa. And I have it on my shelf as evidence of my community and a reminder of how many different stories people who share backgrounds similar to mine have.

And it’s a completely necessary project to get out of the way as a stepping stone to Mixed Kids. The Hapa Project is about coming to grips with our identities and how we grew up and who we are now. Most of the book features adults and their stories—whereas Mixed Kids is only kids. Our kids.

Mixed Kids is about their potential. And about ourselves as parents. And how we want to raise them.

America in 2050 is a theoretical entity. Our kids are not. My kids are not. Fulbeck’s provocation is simple but huge. What am I going to teach them? About race. About themselves. About their world. About each other. It’s not about what percentages of what races they are. Or how they look. It’s about raising a generation which is smarter about race and privilege than their parents.

My parents had to fight the “but what about your kids” battle. I didn’t need to. Instead I get to look though Mixed Kids and rather than thinking, “what are you?” I think, “what will you become.”

First walk of Spring

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Spring is finally here. Finally able to take a nice long walk through campus in the sun again. Is a nice change of pace. And I’m enjoying the dryish heat before the humidity kicks in…

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Black in White America

NOTE: I wrote this post for Tom Griggs at Fototazo as part of his Photographers on Photographers series. I’ve crossposted it here with his permission since it fits in with my series of posts revisiting the books I grew up with. Compared to my post on Fototazo, my post here has a few more notes and a lot more links to related material.

"Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach." Coney Island, New York

Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach. Coney Island, New York.

When I was a kid—junior high and high school—I used to look through my father’s high school yearbooks. He grew up in Oakland in the late 60s. His yearbooks hinted at a very different world than what I saw in his family photos. The war stuff and the race stuff were both heavier than anything I had to deal with as a kid and suggested a different side of my dad than I’d ever known.

I’ve come to realize that I’m also unlikely to ever know this side of him. And while there are parts of our parents that we can’t ever expect to know, not many of them are so well documented as their high school years.

At the same time I was looking through yearbooks, I was also looking through my parents’ photobooks. They had what I’d consider to be the usual suspects for a liberal California couple: A few Sierra Club books,* Family of Man, America in Crisis, and Black in White America. Exactly what you’d expect from a liberal household. Yet, also not something that was common among my peer group growing up.

*Notably: This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and Down the Colorado.

I’ve been looking through these photobooks again now with adult eyes. It’s interesting, I never really paid attention to the dates when I was young. I recognized, roughly, what time periods they covered but never really put together that everything was happening at the same time. Re-viewing them has helped me understand the books, and my parents, a lot better. I’m also figuring a lot out about myself in the process.

In this post, I’m looking at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America.

I even read the text this time; when I was a kid, I only looked at the photos.

Absorbing the images was enough to make me realize there was an alternate reality, and an alternate history, in my country. I grew up in the suburbs, not just without all the turmoil my father experienced in his schools, but totally insulated from it. In particular when it came to race stuff. For all the “diversity” of the Bay Area, it’s remarkable how non-diverse it really is. I grew up without having to really interact at all with black people.* As a result, most of my sense of things came from media.

*I had maybe a handful of black classmates total in my 13 years of schooling.

Black America was outside the standard story of “American” society which I learned in school.* The only time it came up was in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in The South. Freed shows how the Jim Crow South and the suburban white flight in the North resulted in parallel, oppressed societies all over the country.

*Why Cars bothers me now, especially with its romantization of a specific white-male-versioned past, and why the Green Books need to be remembered.

What’s shocking is how much of the book still feels relevant today. The struggle between choosing to submit to the politics of white respectability—with its resulting acceptance of second-class citizenship in exchange for supposed safety—and choosing the struggle for more rights even though that struggle carries greater risks. The ease at which it was possible to be, and desire to be, a white moderate.* How technology—really information (via TV in the 1960s and the internet now)—impacts society by eroding the ignorance between them. How the narrative is always blaming Black America for its ills rather than recognizing how White America created Black America to begin with.

*From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

I can’t look at this project and think that we’ve made a lot of progress in the 45 years since it came out. Do things suck less than before? Yes. But that’s not something to be proud of.

This is another of the reasons why I have such a low tolerance for looking at photos where there’s a huge privilege difference between photographer and subject. A lot of those projects, in addition to being exploitative and boring, only serve to show our lack of progress on addressing the structural inequalities in our society. That so many also appear to have their only goal be portraying the photographer as a savior just for being there and taking the photo is even more infuriating.

Freed though is an example of how to do this kind of outsider photography really well. He’s aware of how privilege works in granting access and providing safety.* And while being close to a white-man-explains-the-world sort of thing, it’s not a quick superficial dip into the other world. No poverty or suffering just for cheap grittiness. He shows how pervasive the different world is and how it’s closely related to our own world.

*Albeit not as much safety as one might think. The ways that southern whites attempted to intimidate any out-of-town whites who fraternized with the blacks is indeed intimidating.

As per the title of the book, many of the photos include White America someplace in the frame. Maybe it’s leaking in via the television. Or through the gaps in the boardwalk overhead. Or the unplugged acquired-via-surplus refrigerator being used to store food. Or the absent landlord of the falling-apart house. Etc. Etc. The photographer, and his world, is constantly present in the photos. Despite much of the subject matter being foreign, it’s still anchored to the mainstream cultural narrative of the increased equity and comfort that occurred during 1950-60s US history.

And there is a lot of joy depicted. Weddings. Kids playing. Music. Families. Life is normal even if it is very different from the “silent majority” lifestyle that we supposedly want to return to now.* Nothing is trivialized into a cheap storyline about suffering or poverty or a lack of virtue—narratives we still hear all too often.

*Something I alluded to when looking at David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole’s work.

Looking at Freed has reminded me how of the way National Geographic in the 1980s was looking at US cities as if they were foreign countries. In the same way I’d see images from abroad, I’d also see images from our cities. Only those images didn’t inspire me to want to travel there. When I was a kid cities were scary. Not just the busyness. They just didn’t feel safe. Black America was scary and foreign to me.

I know now that part of that feeling is embedded and absorbed racism from society. I also know now that another part was the recognition that the entire system had failed there.

I look through Freed now and try to distinguish between what’s unchanged and what sucks less. I better understand the barely-contained anger and frustration I see on Black Twitter as each successive Stand Your Ground trial reëmphasizes how little society values black lives. I see how liberal whites’ insistence on being recognized for our progress as a society feels false when things are still horrible. And I wonder what kinds of things my father talks about with his classmates when he attends his High School reunion.

Tripod Holes 6

It’s been a while since I had one of these posts. In this case, I’ve been spending this extra-snowy winter along the Delaware and Raritan Canal as things freeze, thaw, get snowed on, etc. This is where the canal crosses the Millstone River. Before they dammed the river, this used to be an aqueduct over the river rather than a canal crossing a lake.

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Backlog Clearing: October

Moving on from September. This is full-on getting-used-to-the-area stuff. A lot of family. Not much exploration.

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Backlog Clearing: September

Restarting this series after a few months off. August posted in late November. I hope to finish and catch up in the nest few weeks though.

September covers my last days in California and my first days in New Jersey.

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Moving

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Photos from our move. Scouting our new home, moving out, temporary lodging, some last views of California, some first views of New Jersey, and moving in. What an exhausting ordeal.

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Santa Cruz Slides

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Since I’ve been scanning so many old prints, I realized I should also post some old slides from my inlaws. My mother-in-law took these at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. I found them among a bunch of old ephemera and selected a few which looked worth scanning.

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Form and Landscape

Camp Edison Art Adams 1965

One of the unexpected things about moving away from the Bay Area has been how, all of a sudden, I feel like Southern California is home too. I hear music or see movies, car ads, TV shows, etc. from Los Angeles and what I used to roll my eyes at is now something I feel possessive of. Even visiting now feels like visiting home.

I wouldn’t have been able to say this this before my move, but Los Angeles is an amazing place. In many ways it’s a non-existent myth which we’re familiar with through movies and television. In other ways it a perfect encapsulation of what 20th century America was—and how American created itself this way.

The Edison Archive at the Huntington Library manages to both document the growth of LA as well as define the myth. I’ve been looking through these photos for months trying to put my finger on what I love about them. Moving away from home helped me figure it out as I’ve become aware of LA’s dual nature as both my home territory and national myth.

The photos themselves are an interesting mix of some very striking images and a lot very mundane, technically well executed but kind of boring, ones. About what you’d expect from an archive produced by a power company documenting its efforts in the building of the Los Angeles metro area. Most of the the interesting photos appeal to our sense of nostalgia and directly reference a lot of the national myth of idyllic 20th-century America. The mundane ones provide context for that myth.

Family barbecuing in backyard Joseph Fadler 1957

What was that dream? As the whimsical buildings, manicured landscapes, and young, white, seemingly affluent people in these photographs suggest, it was a dream centered on privilege and pleasure; a dream of health, individual self-fulfillment, fun, and mobility; a dream in which seemingly every urge could be satisfied. Ultimately L.A.’s modern metropolitan landscape of recreation was a landscape of desire.

Marguerite S. Shaffer

Thrifty Drugs Interior Joseph Fadler 1953

These spaces were products of the Fifties, an age of superabundance that some U.S. historians characterize as the heyday of the Consumer’s Republic, when public policy and political economy converged upon the national ideal of mass consumption. After the crises of Depression and war, the United States government resolved to increase economic growth by promoting consumer spending.

Eric Avila

About that national myth. This is America as a place where workers have jobs which allow them to have leisure time, afford a house, and move out of the city. Many of the Edison photos are pure propaganda showing what Americans should aspire to. This is the land which Edison was building and the land it wanted to sell.

They’re wonderfully nostalgic images. Looking at them now, I see a lot of what many Americans wish they could return to. Neon signs. Big clean homes. Swimming pools. Backyards. Gleaming supermarkets. Wide-open highways. No decay. This was the American dream back when America was creating the future and leading the way.

Or, at least, that’s the myth of it all.

 Kerry James Marshall  "Our Town," 1995

The condition of invisibility that Ralph Ellison describes is not a kind of transparency, but it’s a psychological invisibility. It’s where the presence of black people was often not wanted and denied in the American mindset. And so what I set out to do was to develop a figure or a form that would represent that condition of invisibility, where you had an incredible presence, but there was a way in which you could sometimes be seen and not seen at the same time.

Kerry James Marshall

Looking at the photos, it’s pretty clearly just the myth of the white middle class which we’re seeing. It’s the myth which Cars sells us. It’s the myth which made my viewing of David Goldblatt so uncomfortable.

When I look at the images or aspirational 1950s spaces, I see them with David Goldblatt, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Adams and Looking at the Land—not to mention the housing crisis and the way the subprime mortgage industry targetted minorities—in the back of my mind. It’s worth critiquing the myth while at the same time acknowledging that the myth exists.

Who’s getting left out of this vision of the future? What are the costs associated with it? Is creating a consumer society centered on building new housing really sustainable? Should a private company have this much power over the development of a major metropolitan area?

Residential lighting exhibit at a home show Joseph Fadler 1952

The increased number of appliances owned and operated by the average household was dramatic enough that by 1953, the average household use of electricity had trebled from that used in 1939. A 1954 House & Home article informed readers that new homes required 100 amperes service capacity and that builders should make sure to supply enough appliance circuits to support the more than fifty portable electrical appliances that were, by then, in common usage.

Dianne Harris

Big Creek, Shaver Lake Dam G. Haven Bishop 1927

Great dams trap and tame the water, hoarding its energy until needed.

Emily Thompson

Commercial Lighting Doug White

Greater Los Angeles came to function as a metropolitan region during the period 1940-1990 when systems for electricity, as well as for the provision of water, communication, and transportation were first among equals. We would struggle to make sense of urban growth and the emergence of an indigenous architecture in southern California absent that context.

Greg Hise

What I find more interesting is how the Edison archive shows us how much infrastructure had to be built in order to enable the myth. Suburbanization, the monoculturization of America, and the creation of our consumer society is thanks to a massive investment in infrastructure. Dams. Powerlines.* New home building. This is government and business working together to create a consumer class.** In order to enjoy the leisure time which came with being in the middle class, we needed to completely rethink how we built out homes and neighborhoods. More power was needed for all the gadgets. And more space to fit them all in. Voila. Suburbia.

*New Deal anyone? All those public works projects resulted in a ton of new infrastructure upon which we built our consumer culture.

**There are many things to dislike about Ford but his realization that his workers should be able to afford and use the products they were making is hugely influential to the way American culture developed.

And with suburbia comes car culture as we now we need cars in order to travel to our jobs, shop, etc. What used to be in cities or small towns is now spread out in sprawling suburbs. And the more we drive, the more things start to become the same wherever we go as towns get bypassed and shopping centers get put along the new highways.

Electrical workers fashion show Joseph Fadler 1970

He had a moral dilemma of all the work he had made in the name of progress and the pride he felt in those early days of a city being born. He longed for the simpler photographs that were purely descriptive. He felt his photographs now became propaganda for Edison: the smiling face of progress masking the evolving dangers in the city, things that even streetlights can’t fix: or a fashion show for women of the men who work for Edison like himself.

Catherine Opie

Transmission towers Joseph Fadler 1953

But Angelenos’ embrace of technology, like hugging a cactus, made them keenly aware of the downsides. Rockets that launched satellites, spacecraft, and astronauts into outer space left perchlorates in the groundwater. Nuclear reactors provided electric power but also nuclear waste and the threat of meltdowns. Proliferating freeways and cars meant Los Angeles became synonymous with smog by mid-century. A dystopian counterpoint to technological enthusiasm, limned most notably by Mike Davis and film-noir from “Chinatown” to “Blade Runner,” characterized technology as just more leverage for the powerful over the powerless.

Peter Westwick

By being propaganda, the Edison photos also suggest the darker side of all this reliance on technology and corporations. Our BS-detectors are good enough to realize when we’re being sold a line. So many of these photos are annual-report photos meant to show the companies achievements in the best light possible. We know better now.

As a result, I kept these photos in mind when I went to see Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley photos. Misrach is the flip side of the gleaming Edison promise. Instead of glorifying light and power and consumption, Misrach documents how the resulting lifestyle has perverted nature and left huge wastelands of petrochemical byproducts.

Street scene at night with illuminated sign advertising the Mission Play at the San Gabriel Mission G. Haven Bishop 1915

Los Angeles’ vast metonymic system, comprising everything from the iconic Hollywood sign to the most inconspicuous graffiti on a freeway underpass, is a linguistic treasure trove that offers glimpses into the city’s collective imagination. No matter where in the city we find ourselves, oversized billboards, neon signs, posters, banners, and various other signage demand our attention, fueling every conceivable fantasy and desire.

Claudia Bohn-Spector

Mission Bell Streetlights Art Adams 1966

This process of racial formation took many forms. In southern California, it was particularly visible in the exoticization and appropriation of immigrant and minority cultures to enhance regional distinctiveness as a means to promoting tourism

Hillary Jenks

Ulrich Drive-In Joseph Fadler 1962

SCE photographers unintentionally (or intentionally?) documented not only the landscape of food across southern California but also the intersections of production and consumption, of labor and leisure, of the pedestrian and the lavish, of the taco and the hamburger, of the domestic and the commercial, and even of war and peace.

Jessica Kim

Aside from the national myth, there are also the things that are specifically part of the Los Angeles myth. In particular, the layering and papering over and re-creation of history and culture. It’s this element which made me react to Mark Bradford as a Los Angeles artist first. And it’s what I find myself enjoying and appreciating the most whenever I visit.

The layers and layers of transportation infrastructure. How you can see where the trollies used to run in the San Vicente median. All those gated-off freeway entrances and exits which are no longer safe. I love just keeping my eyes open while driving though to see pieces of the older grid and infrastructure—much of which was also built for cars, just for fewer of them. In a lot of places the old infrastructure is at a different scale from the new infrastructure. In LA, it all looks like things you should still be able to drive on if only they were open.

This shows up in the buildings too as you can see glimpses of older LA amidst all the new development or even catch complete neighborhoods which feel like they’ve been left to their own devices—although even there you can see the layers and layers of re-purposing buildings.* And it particularly shows up in the food infrastructure where you can see ancient dives mixed with any kind of ethnic food mixed with brand-new trendy expensive places.

*I really wish Camilo Jose Vergara had more LA-based work.

So much of LA also involves papering over the past with a new layer of pretending to be old or whitewashing things pretending to be ethnic—simultaneously catering to the myths and trying to reinvent it. Again. All these layers mixing old and new and pseudo-old and ethnic and white and pseudo-ethnic. It’s a lot of fun to see how the Edison archive has been capturing each layer as it’s been formed.

Our instructions were deliberately mild, even vague. Take a theme, and few preconceived notions, for a journey through the archive; search by key word, search by date, search by photographer, search any way you choose. Assemble a small collection of images, twenty to thirty, and bring to them an essay (a single narrative, a set of captions, even fiction).

William Deverell and Greg Hise

Aside from what the Edison archive is and my enjoyment of the photos, the Huntington’s project itself is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see more of.* At a basic level, it’s fantastic to see a project which involves over a dozen curators unleashed on the same body of photos. It’s really interesting to see where each curator goes and how the same image is used multiple times for multiple reasons. At the same time, despite the differences between each curator’s selection, it is absolutely true that as a group, all the different edits come together to jointly describe Los Angeles.

*See my Government Documents  and Posthumous Editing posts for more on this kind of thing. And a great post by Wayne Bremser basically proposing this exact approach to the Winogrand archive.

Note:

Two sets in particular work very well for me just by themselves as well. Mark Klett’s sequence is excellent. The visual sequencing of the photos is great but it also works for the development timeline and makes me think of this being the behind-the-scenes photos of what Robert Adams’s Colorado suburbs work.

And D.J. Waldie’s set, by using the photos to create his own Noir story, goes all-in on the idea of how LA is all about remaking and creating your own personal narrative. While there are plenty of Noirs set in other locations, there’s something extra-appropriate about setting them in LA. Taking the Edison photos and using them to explicitly evoke some of the most-prominent stories set in LA is brilliant.

Dad Scans II

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More scans from my Dad’s album. This time 1962–1975—covering his high school and college years. It appears that my grandparents switched to color film at this point and stopped shooting 116/616. Though the continued square photos suggest that they may have kept the Hawkeye around even after switching to a 35mm camera. Or they may have also kept an Instamatic around instead.

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