Photography as a Medium Research Paper

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For over a century and a half, photography has been the most popular and widespread means of making images. The first and primary tool of photography is the camera, and changes in the medium and its applications are often attributed to technical developments in making, reproducing, and distributing photographs. Equally if not more significant, however, have been changes in the ways people think about photography, including ideas about what and how photographs represent, and the roles they have played in social, political, and economic life. This research paper examines developments and conflicts in the idea of photography within a historical framework of changing cultural practice.



1. Photography’s Origins

The invention of perspective in the fifteenth century laid the foundation for the system of visual representation that became photographic. The camera obscura, used by scientists, artists, and magicians since the Renaissance, is the most important precursor to the camera. By the eighteenth century this device had evolved from a large clumsy apparatus for projecting an image onto a plane surface, to a more portable instrument, used for the curiosity and pleasure of looking at images of all sorts of objects and scenes projected by the lens.

A knowledge of light-sensitive materials was popularly available in Europe by the 1720s, and one of the riddles of photography is why nearly a hundred years passed before this knowledge was applied to fixing the camera obscura’s image. Despite a broad fascination with display forms, such as the diorama, that created illusions of realistic representations of nature, the idea of the photograph as a permanent copy apparently did not exist. Suddenly, in the 1820s a range of experimenters began simultaneously to compete to be the first to successfully fix the photographic image; the desire to photograph had emerged.

Photography’s invention is generally dated to 1839, when breakthroughs were announced nearly simultaneously in France and England. Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s induplicable monochrome on a silver-coated copper plate, and William Henry Fox Talbot’s reversed image—the negative—were the first successfully publicized and patented processes. The daguerreotype enjoyed an immediate popularity, setting off a craze which by the end of the year the French press had named ‘daguerreotypomanie.’ Talbot’s calotype system, on the other hand, based on a negative image that could be used to print a potentially infinite number of positives in as many different sizes, laid the foundation for all subsequent developments in photography. The refinement and diffusion of these two systems, alongside many competitors, had an immediate impact on European social life and spread quickly to North America and colonial outposts.

Photographs appeared in many display forms, as cartes-de-visites and stereographs, in albums and as lantern slides, and photography surfaced as a theme in popular music, on the stage, and in artifacts ranging from home furnishings to fashion accessories. Photography as an idea permeated mid-century European popular culture.

2. Early Applications Of The Medium

At the same time that photographic tools and processes were being simplified, an agenda was being established for how the new medium was to be used. This included the people, places, and events represented in photographs and, equally important, who was taking the pictures and who were the intended viewers.

2.1 Photographs Of People

Within months of Daguerre’s announcement, professional portrait studios had sprung up in Paris, and soon studios were established in other major European cities, in New York, and in Washington. From 1860 onward, portraiture expanded to provincial towns, to less industrialized European countries, and to Australia, China, Japan, Mexico, and South America.

The photographic portrait represented a democratization of the painted portrait, and was commissioned first for private use within a family. The rising status of certain photographers led to commissions from men in public life whose positions required an official portrait. Most portraits of individuals followed the strict visual conventions of the painted portrait, a head-and-shoulders composition, with the sitter’s head slightly turned to avoid a direct gaze into the camera. Portraits of family groups were common, and a custom quickly developed of photographically commemorating important events such as weddings and graduations. Photographs of deceased relatives, lying peacefully in their caskets, were also highly valued.

In the 1860s, studios began to turn out millions of inexpensive carte-de-visites, full- or bust-length portraits of workers, tradespeople, members of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, native people of the colonies. These mass-produced images were often instrumental in establishing the status of a politician or celebrity, and both the French and British royal families permitted the sales of their images as cartes. Through its broad distribution, the carte-de-visite also contributed to forming Western ideals of feminine beauty and fashion, as well as ideas about people from the nonindustrialized parts of the world as exotic and other. The carte craze further generated a surrounding industry of albums and holders for cataloguing and exhibiting the growing image collections.

In 1888 George Eastman launched the first Kodak camera, with the slogan ‘You push the button, we do the rest,’ and immediately opened the practice of photography to a much broader segment of the population. Studio portraiture declined as amateurs began to photograph family and friends. The repertoire of photographic events was also expanded as picture-taking became associated with holidays, family celebrations, and vacation trips. Photographic practice had entered the domestic domain, forming a bridge between personal memory and public history. A hundred years after the first Kodak camera, photography was fully integrated into family social life. In the mid-1980s, for example, over 90 percent of US families owned a still camera and amateurs were taking more than 11 billion photographs a year (Chalfen 1987). The majority of these pictures were of family members and friends and were rarely seen outside that social group. Nonprofessionals’ private photography today accounts for the largest single application of the medium. Studies have shown that people attach enormous value to these images, and losing photographs of family and friends, for example, through fire or war, is often experienced as a greater tragedy than the loss of other material possessions.

2.2 Distant Worlds

The early years of photography coincided with the period of colonial expansion and exploration of newly won territory for the industrializing nations of Europe and North America. Wonders of nature, the dynamic new cityscape and its architecture, and the exotic cultures of distant lands held a fascination and attraction for many. The camera was an ideal tool for showing what was new or previously unknown to an audience eager to marvel over sights they could not see with their own eyes. Photography also opened up new territories for tourism by people who, having seen a place in pictures, now had the desire and means to experience it themselves. A new aesthetic of the landscape also stimulated tourism, as for example when photographs of the rocky Scandinavian coasts brought British and German tourists north in the 1870s (Rosenblum 1984, p. 112).

Photographs of popular European tourist sites, such as the city of Rome and its ruins, were marketed as stereographs. Distant lands of North Africa and the Near East became accessible to the armchair tourists of Europe as early as the 1850s through Francis Frith’s photographs. Frith’s Egypt and Palestine Photo-graphed and Described (1858) was the first of 11 volumes and three sets of stereographs (Rosenblum 1984, p. 122). His work was motivated in part by a concern over growing French influence in the region, and must be seen in the broader context of British expansionist goals of the period. Local Egyptian photographers also opened studios and marketed their work to the growing European fascination with views of the ruins and landscape of the Near East. Similar patterns developed in India and parts of the Far East. By 1884, for example, several thousand native photographers were in business in China, serving both local clients and the Western trade.

In North America, photography was linked to Western expansion. Photographers accompanied survey teams in order to document areas for future mineral exploitation, rail routes, and civilian settlement, at the same time that they were contributing to the visual discourse of the American frontier and its native peoples. The natural wonders of the wilderness, including Niagara Falls, were immensely popular stereographic themes, used in lantern slide shows and collected in albums. This iconography and the photographers who produced it, such as Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson, established the grandeur of the mountain landscape as a symbol of transcendent idealism. Their work also contributed to lobbying efforts to establish a national park system in order to save the pristine wilderness from commercial exploitation by private interests.

Nor did the city escape the camera’s gaze. In contrast to images of untouched wilderness and ancient unchanging ways of life, here the focus was on physical transformation. New transport systems, bridges, and buildings made possible by new technologies and materials were transforming the city into a modern metropolis. Urban expansion was a source of national pride, and both governments and private interests supported photographic documentation of the major cities of Europe and North America. Cityscapes in panorama format were especially popular, a parallel to the painted panoramas and dioramas that had emerged as mid-nineteenth century forms of entertainment.

Photography’s prominent and various positions in the emergent discourse of modernity was never more evident than in the world expositions, the late nineteenth century spectacles of science and marketing, combining knowledge and entertainment. Beginning with the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and followed every few years in Britain, France, and the United States, these major events both symbolized and displayed industrial expansion, made possible by new technologies and materials. Displayed side by side with the symbols of modernity were the exotic products and peoples of the underdeveloped nations, the colonies. At this point in the medium’s development, photography provided an unproblematized means of expanding knowledge of the visible world, and served ‘the general urge in all industrialized societies to measure, describe, and picture the physical substances of all things on earth and in the heavens’ (Rosenblum 1984, p. 140).

3. Concepts Of The Image

Photography’s popularity as a democratic form of self-documentation, intertwined with colonial interests and industrial expansion, point to the camera as a tool that linked seeing and knowledge in new ways. Within the sciences, in the arts, and in social reform movements, distinct and often conflicting visual discourses have developed around the photograph as a source of insight and knowledge. We turn now to the ways of seeing with the camera that were generated within each of these broad fields.

3.1 Photography And Science

Within the discourses of science, photography was to be a witness to scientific observation with greater accuracy than the human eye was capable of. In medicine, photography provided close visual description of the human body, and was an aid in documentation and diagnosis of medical problems and also psychological reactions and mental aberrations. Examples are portrait photographer Professor John William Draper’s book Human Physiology (1856), illustrated with woodcuts based on photographs and Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, also known for his pictorial art photography, who documented women inmates of the Surrey County Asylum. Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) was illustrated with photographs from a variety of sources. Microscope lenses were developed and the discovery of X-rays by Conrad Wilhelm Roentgen (the 1901 Nobel Prize recipient) led to their immediate use as camera images in medical diagnosis. Motion studies and stop-motion experimentation depended heavily on photographic documentation. Eadward Muybridge’s 100,000 images analyzing movements involved in animal locomotion and a range of human activities (including walking, curtseying, and bricklaying) provided a new if contested way of seeing that also influenced the arts, in particular Cubist and Futurist painters.

Taxonomy was a unifying concept of the nineteenth century scientific paradigm, and studies of the human species were formed by the delineation and elaboration of physical and cultural distinctions. Anthropology became a dominant discourse of explanation, based on historical and biological notions of culture, and relying heavily on comparative taxonomic methods in order to systematically catalogue the world’s peoples (Edwards 1997). Photography was central to the anthropometric systems developed to produce comparable data for analysis and classification. The system used by the distinguished British biologist Thomas H. Huxley for the Colonial Office, for example, involved posing individuals naked with a measuring rod in order to produce ‘a systematic series of photographs of the various races of men comprehended within the British Empire’ (cited in Edwards 1997, p. 56). These studies of human physiogomy, used to expand evolutionary theory, contained a strong moral dimension, concerned with both creating and sustaining the complex system of social knowledge in which the images operated. Variations on the method were applied in hospitals, prisons, and other institutions where photographs of inmates were used to establish and classify social types.

The 1870s and 1880s also brought about an awareness of the contributions photography could make to anthropological fieldwork, by Edward B. Tylor and others. Yet there are few examples of systematic photographic documentation in ethnographic field studies. Early photography of the ways of life of diverse folk groups was most often carried out by missionaries and educators or by artists working in the pictorial tradition. Edward Curtis, Adam Clark Vroman, Robert Flaherty, and Frances Flaherty documented native American tribal life in its positive aspects, romanticizing in particular the close relationship to nature. Nor was it uncommon for ethnographic photographs from the turn of the century of peasant customs made in a pictorialist style to be used to advance the cause of nationalism, as in several Eastern European countries. The most common reference to an ethnographic photography worth emulating is the classic study of Balinese Character (1942) by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, as the ‘first saturated photographic research in another culture’ (Collier and Collier 1986, p. 12). Visual anthropology at midcentury was more closely associated with documentary film than with photography. Ethnographic photography survived as an ideal, however, despite the general absence of large-scale systematic studies. The British ‘Mass-Observation’ project in the mill towns of northern England in the 1930s, for example, was designed as an ‘objective documentation’ of working class life, in the manner of an anthropological study.

The archive has worked hand in hand with the scientific endeavors of accumulating and systematizing evidence. Seen as a repository of visual knowledge, the archive is related to the ideal of a comprehensive collection of images that together represent the whole (other examples being the family album or collection of carte-deisites). The structure of the archive and its classification system was intended to mirror the physical and social world that the collection represented. Following Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking archeology of the human sciences (1970), museums of natural and cultural history, as well as police, medical, and other archives, can no longer be seen as disinterested institutions that sustain and perpetuate value-free systems of knowledge, but reflect instead the structures of political and economic interests that gave rise to them. The photograph’s evidentiary authority is thus inseparable from the archive as a repository of knowledge and power.

3.2 Photography And Art

Contrary to the idea of the photograph as an objective visual record, it has been argued that photography is inseparable from the Western pictorial tradition. Particularly in its relationship to landscape and nature, photography employed a set of conventions and aesthetic standards theorized by the European concept of the ‘picturesque.’ Emulating themes from the fine arts, many early photographers developed techniques that undermined the sharp literalness of the lens in their aspirations to make images that were at once truthful, beautiful, and inspirational. Exhibiting esthetic photographs in an appropriate context was a paramount goal of the turn-of-the-century Secessionist movements in Europe and the United States, and was important to establishing photography’s status as art. Pictorialism in photography was a synthesis of the realism of the camera image, with frequently formulaic romantic compositions of peasant or working class life.

A complex and uneasy relationship between photography and the fine arts has continued, even as the repertoire of art photography has expanded. This is generally beyond the scope of this research paper, apart from several developments relevant to photography’s relationship to the social sciences. On the one hand, themes drawn from peasant and working class life as well as of non-Western people integrated scientific inquiry with romantic images of an exotic or primitive Other as legitimate subjects of photographic art. On the other hand, attempts in the 1920s to define and explore the characteristics which distinguish photography from other visual arts laid the foundation for a more radical ‘straight’ photography, called New Realism or Neue Sachlichkeit in Europe and North America. The nonmanipulated or spontaneous photograph became a means of exploring and exposing familiar subjects in new ways. These different schools and genres of art photography became more or less systematized as museums began to add photographs to their collections. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is a noteworthy example of a leading museum where a series of influential curators established a vocabulary of photographic practice based on the premises of modernism. By the 1940s, a photographic canon was in place, including a history of art photography with specific artists, works, and genres represented in the museum’s collections (Newhall 1949). Of particular importance to the social sciences was the respect this canon established for the genre of documentary photography as a legitimate form of esthetic practice.

3.3 The Photographer As Engaged Observer

Parallel to their idealized representations of European peasants, from the 1850s onward artists began to be concerned with the social and ethical consequences of industrialization, preparing the way for documentary photography’s role in social reform campaigns. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ images became a staple of reform photography in the 1890s, as evidence of the positive effect the reform school or institution had on its residents. Photographs from the slums of New York (by Jacob Riis) and of child labor conditions (by Lewis Hine) were used to raise the fears and sway the consciences of politicians and a middle-class public. The photography of social reform was closely linked to new means of dissemination: the half-tone process for mass-producing photographs had been developed in the 1890s and a range of new periodicals arose in its wake.

Alongside the popular press’ increased use of photographs after the turn of the century, social reform journals were among the first to recognize photography’s ability to advocate a cause. Here the American Charities and the Commons is noteworthy. The American Journal of Sociology was also using photographs to illustrate articles, for example, on housing conditions. This visual material, often by women who held administrative positions in social action agencies, later declined under Albion Small’s editorship, as the journal aligned itself with sociology’s move to establish itself as a scientific discipline (Stasz 1979).

By the 1920s, documentary photography, as the genre came to be known, was recognized as an effective means of drawing attention to social issues. The best known example of such an effort was the photographers who worked for the US Farm Security Administration (FSA) under the leadership of Roy E. Stryker in the late 1930s, documenting the effects of the depression on rural Americans and the need for government aid. In other cases, photographers used the documentary form to draw attention to marginalized social groups, occasionally drawing on their own experience as members of the culture they documented. One of the clearest ideological expressions of photographers’ identity was the Worker Photography movement, most active in Germany between World Wars I and II. The International Communist Party, convinced that photographs unavoidably reflect the class of the person holding the camera, mobilized workers in a variety of documentary projects and publications. In direct contradiction to a claim of impartiality, this photography based its authority on the photographer’s membership in the group. It can thus be seen as a precursor to anthropology’s interest in indigenous photographers’ images as expressions of their specific cultural perspectives.

The authenticity of the documentary style was based on a complex set of factors. Seldom was the work based on a single photograph, but instead was built up through a series of images witnessing the photographer’s proximity to the subject over an extended time. Despite many exceptions, the images also tend to follow a specific visual code. Straightforward photo- graphs of people, taken in their everyday environment under available light conditions, are the most typical. If the subject appears to be aware of the camera, he or she is usually gazing directly into the lens. The photograph’s claim to truth is based therefore on the seemingly contradictory appeals of the photographer’s simultaneous engagement with and objective distance from the subject.

4. Photography And Mass Society

Closely related to the ways photography has portrayed its subjects is the effect of images on those who see them, the audience. Photography was a mass medium almost from its inception, as the idea of the photograph and the ways it was marketed had a broad and immediate social and cultural impact. The ‘very insatiability of the photographing eye’ and the ‘omnipresence of photographed images’ position the medium in a vortex of complex moral, ethical, political, and esthetic issues. Sontag’s influential book of essays On Photography (1973) brought many of these issues up for debate. Yet the exact nature of the photograph’s appeal and its effect on its viewers has remained elusive. Despite extensive research on photography’s impact on attitudes and behavior, results have been either inconclusive or too context-specific (regarding the viewer’s age and background or the viewing context) to support any general conclusions. What is evident, instead, is a widespread belief in the photograph’s influence which has in turn led to specific applications of the medium based on conceptions of the nature of photographic communication as a highly unstable synthesis of factual information and seductive attraction.

From the 1850s photographs began to be used alongside other illustrations in some magazines, and the widespread application of the half-tone process in the 1890s coincided with the emergence of new audiences in Europe and the United States. Photography was thought to appeal in particular to people who were either nonliterate or had not yet mastered the language of their new country. A new inexpensive illustrated press arose that used photography in often sensational ways, and photographs began to appear in advertising. Political campaigns made extensive use of photography from the 1920s onward, in documentary forms described above, but also in photomontage and posters. The reticence of many newspapers to make extensive use of photography (for example, the morning newspapers ‘of record’ in New York and London) is an exception which nevertheless rests on the same notion of the photograph’s communicative power. The photograph, if seen as an unmediated copy of nature, does not require language or reason to be understood, but appeals instead directly to the emotions. Newspapers and other media that wished to base their appeal on rationality excluded photographs from their pages. Even if an image were manipulated through technical or other means, the message that the audience saw or ‘received’ was accepted as representing reality.

The model of mass communication that emerged first in the United States and dominated research for several decades was based on the notion of communication as a successful ‘transmission’ of a message from an active and powerful source to a passive receiver. The origins of the model and the research it generated can also be traced to growing concern over the power of the media, particularly in the service of political propaganda and the rise of fascism in Europe after World War I. Although only sporadically applied in research on photography, the transmission model of communication served as the underlying framework of explanation of photography’s influence on its audience. The power of images is assumed to be greater, for example on the relatively unformed psyches of children and youth. ‘Moral panics’ continue to pursue the image and its influences, giving rise to research on Hollywood films in the 1930s, on comic books in the 1940s, on television’s effects on children in the 1950s and 1960s, and video games at the turn of the century.

Countering the transmission model of photography’s influence on its audience is the perspective that considers photography as a cultural practice and phenomenon which participates in the construction of power and meaning through the mutual and intertextual establishment of social and political institutions and forms of visual expression. The cultural perspective views the audience not as passive receivers, but as members of a (sub)culture who employ cultural knowledge as they produce, consume, and interpret photographs. The cultural perspective does not deny the power of the media, but rather sets it in a historical, social, or political context, and examines how the media use photographs to address or position the viewer in specific relationships to media content. The perspective shifts the emphasis from an inquiry into photography’s impact on individual or group attitudes and behavior to an examination of the ways photography is used in the construction of meaning, often focusing on social values and the use of stereotypes. The medium has been decisive, for example, in the production of visual representations of gender and gender relations, as revealed in Erving Goffman’s study of advertising (1979). Other studies have demonstrated how media images of women not only establish standards of feminine beauty, but also link the image of the female body to products and services in a process of commodification that objectifies all women (cf. Williamson 1978, Irigaray 1985, Bordo 1993, Solomon-Godeau 1991). Other analyses have provided insights into the formation and perpetuation of stereotypes of race, in advertising but also in the news media, with groundbreaking work carried out at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Britain in the 1970s.

Issues of media power and influence are also linked to photography through a growing concern over the image’s role in surveillance. Cameras, in addition to their continually expanding position in private life, are used increasingly in both public and commercial spaces for the ostensible purpose of increasing security and preventing crime. Yet the images taken by these cameras also raise issues of the photograph’s potential for restricting, documenting, and controlling individual behavior. As technology extends the capacity to send images over global networks, the specter is raised of expanding spheres of media influence and control that transcend the nation state. At the same time, the interactive aspects of many contemporary media raise the possibility of individual and group autonomy from transnational media content, and the ability of the individual to form and reform images that are sent and received. The cultural impact of these relatively new image technologies is a current topic of debate, particularly with regard to the moral and ethical implications of their distribution and use.

5. Technology And Revisions Of Photographic Meaning

A central question throughout photography’s history is whether the meaning of the photograph is a function of the medium per se and its technical, chemical, and optical relationship to the subject in front of the camera, or is formed instead through the culture which surrounds it. Benjamin described how photographic reproduction and mass distribution irrevocably altered the individual’s encounter with the original, following a more general argument developed within the Frankfort School over the hegemonic power of cultural production in mass society. Yet it was not until the 1970s that a number of theorists began to address the specific problem of photographic meaning, particularly issues related to what and how the photograph represents. Roland Barthes (1977) used a semiotic analysis to unlock the problem of ‘the photographic paradox’: that is, the photograph represents an analogic reproduction of reality or a message without a code, and simultaneously a connotation or coded message, representing what society thinks about the subject. The major task of the denotative aspect of the image, according to Barthes, is to naturalize the cultural, that is, to transform cultural values into a message that can be ‘read’ as self-evident, as nature.

The deconstruction of the camera as a cultural artifact and of photography as deeply informed by culture continued on several parallel fronts. The model of the observer that dominates Western science, defined by the Cartesian perspectivalism and the direct gaze, is encoded in the optical system of the camera. The model thus defines a particular relationship between seeing and knowledge that privileges the authority of this gaze and its representations. This ‘way of seeing’ was critiqued most forcefully in relation to documentary photography for its dehistoricized view of marginalized social groups, a view that in turn established a visual code for representing the Other (Bolton 1989). Because photography has been constructed as a predominantly male practice, reinforced by the observer’s gaze as male, female also becomes Other. Extensions of this critique to the uses of photography in the social sciences have implicated anthropology in particular for constructing its subjects as visually exotic. Related to this phenomenon, as mentioned above, is the institutional gaze, embodied and perpetuated through the archive, the museum, or the press (Tagg 1988).

In the 1970s, anthropologists also began to criticize the use of film and photography in fieldwork. Instead of being informed by anthropological concepts, the Western anthropologist’s visual records reflected ‘his’ own culture, coded through the practices of family photography. Within the subfields of visual anthropology and sociology in the United States and Britain and their influential journals, this insight was variously developed into a broader perspective on photography, film, and media in general as sources for studying the cultural values and perspectives of those who create the images. This in turn supported a shift from image analysis to the study of the social and cultural practices in which photography is embedded. This complemented the critique being directed at the field of anthropology as a whole for perpetuating its colonial heritage through techniques of ‘writing culture’ that represented its subjects as Other (Ruby 1982). Anthropology’s continuing interest in the photography of indigenous peoples and other subcultural groups reflects on the one hand a recognition of photography as a significant source for cultural analysis and on the other, attempts by the field to integrate the anthropological subject’s own understandings into research and reports. Current ethnographic studies of media practices frequently include investigations of how images are interpreted and used by ordinary people. The photographic practices of professionals has been largely neglected, however, apart from the many biographies of well-known photographers and analyses of their work.

Digital techniques of making, reproducing, and transmitting photographs have contributed to undermining the authority of the photograph as analog or direct copy of reality. In the mid-1980s, the digitized image was seen by many, particularly within the press, as a direct challenge to established beliefs about how the photograph represents. Gradually the technique has been integrated into professional and private practices of making and distributing images, stimulating the rise of new media networks. The immediacy of image transfer and the portability of the technology have vastly increased the number of photographs in circulation, including those depicting war and human suffering. Some analysts argue that this phenomenon results in ‘compassion fatigue,’ reducing the moral impact of the image (Moeller 1999). In the meantime, new applications of interactive image technologies are emerging in the arts, in youth culture, and in diasporic communities. The digital transfer of images globally has given rise in some quarters to a utopian vision with the photograph as a cornerstone of a global visual culture. More realistic analyses point to the diversities of culture worldwide and the continued vast inequalities in access to these technologies as critical impediments to a hegemonic visual culture.


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