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The Art of Critique - an interview with John Acurso

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H o g n e is a group administrator H o g n e says:

Some of us know your contributions under the name mona chrome on the discussion threads in the Art Of Landscape group but could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your reason for being active here on Flickr?

First of all, I will say that I am extremely passionate about photography and the art of photography. Last year, 2008, I celebrated my 30th year as a photographer. This event sort of snuck up on me as it really doesn’t seem like it has been that long.

My journey with photography started in more or less what is the usual way, although maybe later than most. But what I thought would be a hobby quickly became an obsession. Soon, I was shooting large format black and white photography, had my own darkroom and my work represented in a prestigious gallery. Along the way, I had the opportunity to study with, among others, Richard Misrach, Linda Connor, Frank Goelke, Jerry Uelsmann and Ansel Adams, who I was to assist the year he died. In addition, I was fortunate to figure out the value of a foundation in the arts and enrolled in classes to learn the basic principles of art and design and art history. I have been honored to have my work included in several Museum shows, including a one person exhibition. My work has also been added to the collection of the Portland Art Museum.

My involvement in the arts extended beyond producing my own work. In the early to mid 80’s, I was on the board of the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies and was advisory board chair for the Orange County Center of Contemporary Art. During the late 80’s through the 90’s, I served on the College Committee of the Portland Art Institute’s Board and then the Board of Directors of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where I also taught in the early 90’s. In 1990, I took off my corporate suit and decided to do what I loved full time and pursued a career in commercial photography.

In early 2005, I decided to re-hone my verbal skills with an eye to some day return to teaching in a more formal situation. I hadn’t really had to do spontaneous critiques for some time and when I discovered a photo sharing site (not this one), I figured it offered a great opportunity to force myself to critique all sorts of images. I also decided to experiment and do the critiques and discussions anonymously, relying solely on words to create an identity and my credibility—on that site, you could actually find/track every comment the person had ever made on their home page—actually, a great feature I wish Flickr had. What I found was that I was soon being contacted by many people through e-mail who I had never come across in discussions or critiques. I was getting requests to do portfolio reviews, to act as a mentor and others just wanted to make contact. Eventually, I had established a group of friends—and eventually even a wife! Of course, there were some who just couldn’t accept the anonymous person—oh well!

Through a turn of events, the group of people I had met at the other site and I moved to Flickr in late 2006 where I continued to pursue my experiment. But I do think the experiment has run its course and if you wish to see my work, you can do so at www.acurso.com.


In this interview we would like to focus on the "art of critique". What is it in your mind that constitutes a well written critique?

Each critique one gives is going to have different circumstances. I know that I take into consideration many things before I offer up my own analysis. I generally look at the person's other work to see where their concerns might be as well as for a reading on their skill level in seeing, creating and presenting (post-processing) an image and I take into account any statement they might have in their Flickr profile. And then, of course, I read what they might have said regarding the image they are presenting and what they are wanting from a critique.

What I am trying to do is to figure out what I might be able to say that will end up giving the person the best feedback for where they are in their development and solid information they might actually be able to use.

But all of this is really just based on what the goal of critique is really all about, to -as the viewer - be able to Describe, Analyze and Interpret a piece of art. The underlying reason for learning the proper way to critique, is for one to be able to approach any piece of art and begin to understand it—to have a device that can help us grow in our own visual experience. The best critiques will consider and incorporate the elements of art and the application of the principles of design into the analysis. Incorporating some contextual reference to the work is also important. The result should be an indication of how the piece affects you based on your more objective analysis of the image. This doesn’t guarantee that we will understand, but we do generally get a better insight into the work in this way versus just relying on our visceral reaction to an image. And there is no shame in saying that you just really don’t get what the person was trying to do, but at least you probably will have learned something in the process of coming to that conclusion.

Sounds complicated, but it is really easier than most think. If we discuss how the large, dark, square, texture-less objects at the edges of the image create a claustrophobic feeling and the disharmony in the colors of the subject are almost nauseating, we might actually be starting to understand the point of the piece—it sure gives everyone more information than “I don’t really like this!” or “I think you should crop off the objects at the edges of the image because they are distracting and I think this would probably look better in black & white”.

Also, this approach is much more objective and tells the creator how the image is being received and most importantly, why. With this insight, they can then determine if their intent is being expressed effectively and if it is not, they might decide for themselves to crop or convert to black and white. They may also come up with some other solution that fits in with their intent better than what might have been suggested. And maybe even more to the point, they might actually start to really understand their own work!

The additional benefit from such a thoughtful approach is not only do you and the person you are critiquing learn some valuable things, but so do the others who read what you have said.


You talk about critiquing photographic works of art. What about all the average amateur photographers that only shoot for pleasure and hobby and only rarely with the ambition to create art. Most of photographers here on Flickr belong to this category. How can they benefit from critiques and will the same critique principles apply?

As I suggested above, context, even the context of why someone photographs, can certainly play into the critique that is offered. But I don’t think doing a critique as I have outlined is necessarily limited to art. It really has to do with you, the person critiquing, trying to meet a visual offering where it is, not where you want it to be or think it should be. It helps you understand your gut reaction to the image and learn to better use visual elements in your own work.

Even if you aren’t trying to make art, you are still offering up a visual communication—you wanted to capture something if not for others, at least for yourself. When you hear how your image affected others and what it is within the image that caused those reactions, you are just going to get better because you have learned something—as has the viewer and the others that read the comments. When we grow and make more effective images, everyone benefits.

But to be honest, sometimes that work is so basic that it is really a waste of time to go too deep. In those cases, it is many times better to just let the person know that the work is fairly primitive and that they really need to keep practicing and studying. (I know that I certainly was very effective at boring all of my friends and family with my slide shows when I first started.) Of course, there are times where one might find a blend of the two critique approaches to be most appropriate.

But remember, if you are asking for a critique and are in groups like this one or the Art of Landscape, you must be wanting something more. I just think that a majority of the critiques that I read on photo sharing sites are nearly useless and only reflect how the person critiquing thinks the image should have been created if they even go beyond some version of “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.


What in your view is the most common mistake people do when critiquing other images?

Well, maybe the most ludicrous statement I ever heard was when someone said that the purpose of critiquing was to tell the person how you would have made the image.

Although that statement is an extreme it does expresses a common perception that a critique is about praising or finding fault with an image. It’s not about how we think an image should have been done or how it might have been done better. Once we explain how what has been presented has affected our perception of the image, of course we might offer things that might have helped the image—if we are somewhat sure that the issue we are pointing out was not on purpose. But always remember that we weren’t there and don’t know the circumstances and can only suggest possibilities not absolutes.

When offering such possibilities, remember to also outline what the goal of such things might be. For example “I think that if you could have moved to the right you might have allowed us to more effectively move into the image along the diagonal line created by the foreground rocks rather than having them form a sort of visual barrier to our entry and a bisection of the image foreground”.


Critiquing takes time and effort - why bother? When is critique useful? Do you believe critiquing other images could help our own development as photographers?

Anything done thoughtfully takes a lot of time and effort and I think learning to approach a critique in the right way can be as beneficial if not more important to one’s own visual development as actually making images, at least at times!

The secret to getting better at anything is really practice and repetition. When one learns to critique in the right way and can start to analyze images in terms of line, shape, color, texture, space and how these affect balance, rhythm, emphasis, movement and such you really are reinforcing these things within yourself. These are the building blocks from whence come the “rules” of composition photographers seem to know but rarely understand. The rules are just short hand for an understanding of the elements of art and the principles of design. When we understand these basics we will start creating images that serve our purpose rather than a rule. And in time, with practice shooting, critiquing and viewing a multitude of images, we won’t even need to think about them as they will be just part of us and our visual understanding and will be applied as a matter of course.

When is a critique useful? When it is well done!


When a person receives negative critique or feedback that feels inappropriate or based on a misunderstanding - what should be done? Is there any point in "defending" your own work or start a dialog?

Of course, after everyone reads this interview this won’t be an issue—right?

Seriously, though, I think it takes time, but soon you just learn to let go of the things that have no value and to sift out those that are useful. Sometimes what truly offends us and creates anger are those very things we need most to listen to. The anger is sometimes because you already know, on some level, that what was said is valid but just haven’t wanted to face. And then sometimes people can just be jerks—just let those people own it themselves.

But, of course, you should defend your work if you feel strongly about what you have done, just don’t be defensive. Encourage dialogue, make the other person explain their position and set out your own. This should be about learning, not what is right or wrong! In the end, a nice lively debate will be of great value if not immediately, over the long haul. Some things take time to process, just try to keep things from getting personal and actually listen to the other person’s position. You may never agree with them, but there may be a gem hidden in what they say that seems unrelated but can be seminal in one’s own development.

I love dialogue and debate. I will stimulate dissention at times just to get a lively discussion going. I learn a lot from opposing views and ideas—it keeps you growing and thriving—and young!


Can critiques be neutral or will they always be somewhat subjective? Doesn't any critique boil down to if "it works" for the viewer or not?

I think I have described a way to take some of the subjectivity out of a critique. When you describe what you see in the image that is pretty objective. If we talk about how a diagonal line draws us into the image or that a heavy, centered foreground object seems to prevent us from visually entering the image, that is pretty objective. But at some point we do cross over into a more subjective interpretation. If we do it right and own our own words, it is not an offensive subjectivity and can be valuable feedback. But in the end, we make certain conclusions about how successful an image is and/or how we react to it. We might actually find an image to be extremely competent and expressive but that doesn’t mean we have to like it and yet we can still have an appreciation for it.


Do you think it makes sense to differ between different genres of photography or visual art in general? If yes, which genres would you define? Should a photograph be critiqued differently depending on which genre one feels it belongs to?

The basic approach is really all the same for any genre and where the analysis might differ is when you have learned that context is an important part of the process. For instance, if an medical image was created so that a doctor can evaluate a patient’s disease, there would be an entirely different set of criteria for its relative success versus one that was made as a piece of art to be hung on a wall. I would approach the latter much the same as I would a landscape, with maybe some minor differences.

A portrait will necessarily involve an evaluation of what you see in the facial expression, the body language and such. But much of this is because we are still looking at the elements that are before us and how they come together imparts meaning and interpretation, often ones that are more universal than truly subjective.


Do you see a conflict in critiquing technical execution? Do you have to assume the skill level of a photographer/artist to judge this aspect? An experienced artist may decide to overexpose a scene on purpose while a beginner may simply make a technical mistake?

Technical critiques are pretty much a learning device and at some point, they become essentially irrelevant to an individual. This is not to say that anyone is above missing something, but you do start to look at what has been done as purposeful.

As I said above, I always try to size up a photographer’s skill level before I comment on their work. Both their skill level with regards to their ability to see and their ability to put the image on film(card?) or finish an image. What I find will temper not only how I approach a critique (stronger, more challenging or more reserved) but what areas I might emphasize as well. I try not to do too much in one critique or it can become overwhelming, so you look to what might be the most important areas and concentrate there.

When I look at someone’s work and see a more advanced individual, I will generally stay away from technique and concentrate more on aesthetic issues of their choices or even cross over into conceptual concerns. Although there are times when a technical issue is missed and I know that it is a common miss with photographers, then I might highlight that particular issue even when the photographer is more advanced.


Can an experienced/professional photographer learn something by receiving critiques from less experienced people?

The worst thing an artist can do is to think that they don’t need to continue to grow and that growth and insight is somehow limited as to its source. Any art teacher will tell you that they constantly learn from their students, even those teaching grade school children. I know I have always learned things from my students and assistants and I often learn something from reading critiques on Flickr regardless of the experience of the person writing it.

A working professional has many opportunities to get feedback from people who sometimes know little or nothing! But that is another story, although I have really had incredible success with art directors and designers allowing me creative freedom.

But when you reach a certain level and you are doing your own work, you generally don’t seek out opinion except from an inner circle of friends and advisors, which is usually very small. These are the people that you might discuss your work or ideas with before, during and after they are fully developed. But the best way to suck the energy out of something is to put it out there before you have developed and refined the concept or work yourself. Many times I will avoid even discussing an idea with anyone until I have something to show and discuss.

Sometimes clarity in the work only comes after you have completed, or think you have completed, a body of work. Just the act of showing the work to someone else can help you realize you have some major holes in the work. Sometimes showing the work and verbalizing your intent in this way will actually reveal that you have done something different than you intended, something even stronger and more relevant.

I just think at some point, just as a technical crit becomes moot, seeking broad input on your work can be counterproductive. But that certainly doesn’t mean you don’t listen to what might come your way.


For the last part of this interview we would like to move over to some more general topics. Before the digital age photography required more time and perhaps more craftsmanship. Do you think something got lost through the conversion to digital photography or are you primarily positive about the development that has taken place?

I think that digital is a mixed blessing on many levels. I started manipulating film scans back in the mid to latter part of the 90’s and think that it was a major boon to what could be done with color. Black and white work always had a lot of options for expressing oneself after the fact, but color was substantially in the hands of Messr’s Kodak, Fuji and Ilford! Digital post finally allowed us to work color in ways similar to what we could do with black & white and have a chance to have a color image actually resemble what we wanted to express. Of course, we also gained a great deal more control over B&W as well, at least without some very technical masking procedures.

I think that the digital camera is a great tool for learning to photograph and to see as long as one really works at it. You get instant feedback, a recording of your technical choices for later study and you can virtually shoot for free (Actually, I think it is much more expensive in the long run, but that is another issue—once bought, it is free until it craps out!) But the big downside has really been that people think they need to share it all! I do think that editing skills have suffered and somehow looking at that file makes it seem like it is important and we certainly can make it so with post processing! I really think we would all be better off if everyone could learn to edit and only show their very best work!

To compare it myself, I used to go out for 9 days and come back with about 100-150 exposures when I shot LF film only (one sheet per shot). I just returned from a 32 day trip, albeit with a totally different intent, and made just under 8000 exposures shooting only digital. My first cut pulled this down to about 1900 exposures, with many being multiples from various portrait sessions. I will still work on an image for as much as a full day and might not actually call it finished until I have reviewed and tweaked it several times over a period of a month or two. Even then, it will most likely sit in my files until it fits into a body of work or serves some other purpose and will no doubt get further tweaking when I pull it out again. I don’t think everyone works this way though.

It is interesting to read your observations about the impact digital photography has had on color photos. But still BW photography is often considered more serious and more as work of art than color photography. Why do you think that is the case? Do we make a mistake and look to the past, to the old masters or to the basic techniques in our search for true art?

First of all, I don’t really agree with the premise of this question even though I still consider myself a BW photographer (shooting mostly color). I think this is a common misconception of where things are today, but certainly related to historical fact. Before the mid 1970’s, color photography wasn’t really accepted as an art by most. Stephen Shore and a few others broke through that barrier at that time. But when the majority of photography now being shown in museums is color work and the highest price ever for a photograph at auction, or otherwise, was in color, I don’t think the premise here is accurate.

Just like everything, basic technique and craft underlies great achievement. Black and white photography, to truly be good, must be well seen, beautifully composed and well executed because it can’t hide in the color! Most really great color photographs would make great black and white images, unless they are conceptually about color.

Development in any of the arts is based on learning the techniques and approaches of those who have gone before us. This is how we learn to move beyond what they did and explore what is new and different. Learning as much as we can gives us more points for departure and more tools to express ourselves.


What is your view on post processing and the "authenticity" of a photograph? Is it an issue for you if people blend different exposures or even blend in elements from other captures? Is it OK as long as you don't recognize it or do you see this being a great opportunity which should be used creatively?

I don’t think that blending a bracket or different outputs from a single raw file ruins the authenticity of an image at all—hopefully it is done with skill. That is just using the current technology that allows us to do what we did with burning, dodging, selective development, contrast masks and other “acceptable” analog procedures in film days. Our eyes have the ability to see more than film can and instantly, so why would using the tool we use to capture what our eyes can see be inappropriate? It is still what was there and what you saw and is captured photographically. (If you are a photojournalist, you may not feel that way, but you have a unique set of rules there.)

Beyond that, what is your goal with your photography? My feeling about photography/art is that it is about creating images that express what we feel a need to express. So what you do to get to that is really fine. At some point, certain things you might do, like adding elements, textures etc. might make your image more of a photo illustration than a true photograph, however, I think both can be as powerful and valid as the other. Taking out elements that detract has never been an issue, many of the great landscape photographers took out tree limbs, man made intrusions etc. and others added, or embellished, more attractive skies. Some things we might not like, but I don’t think we need to put our art in some restrictive box, or if we choose to do so, don’t put others in it with you.

I do believe that one should not misrepresent what they are doing though. Omission does not bother me in most cases, but to explicitly represent your work as something it is not is going to be an issue.

If I have any problem with anything, it is when one uses push button actions to create another art form, like a painting or drawing from a photograph, and pass that off as art. That might be my box, but it just seems lazy and a bit dishonest. But as I was writing this, I remember having seen someone who sort of did this and created some pretty spectacular, original images, so maybe it depends on the result more than the method!?!


When does a photograph become a cliché? Haven't all photographs in a sense already been captured? How or why should we look for uniqueness and creativity?

To be a cliché, something needs to be predictable. There are certain items or places that have been done so many times, like Half Dome, that it would be difficult to photograph and not create a cliché, but it certainly can be done. I think to overcome cliché has much to do with having an original concept and having an image fit into that concept. I also think that it is possible, although very difficult, to create an image of such beauty that it transcends the cliché.

With regards to the latter, I met a fellow at a workshop that took most of his landscape shots from all the predictable overlooks around the southwest and elsewhere. They were of such incredible beauty that they were actually better than those they might have been emulating. I think it was Richard Misrach, or Linda Connor, or both that made the comment that these images had transcended the place and the cliché and had become things of singular beauty—Misrach actually did do, or at least offered, a print exchange with him. But this is truly a rare occurrence. On the other hand, there was also a pretty clear concept, albeit a simple one, behind that work and everything he presented was consistently stellar work.

I do think that the lack of a clear and strong concept is the bane of most photographers who have progressed beyond the need to make those cliché photos to hone their skills. If you look at the photographers in any genre who are getting attention and critical acclaim, it is those who work within a conceptual framework in whatever they do. This is maybe one of the least understood of all things in photography and yet may be one of the most important if one aspires to more than just making photographs.


How can the amateur photographer benefit from a clear and strong concept when all they want to do is to explore the jungle of photographic opportunities. Don't you think it can be limiting (and boring) to focus on just one strong concept if you are not aspiring to become a well acclaimed artist but simply just have fun with photography? What is wrong with diversity - even for an artist?

Like I said, concept is really greatly misunderstood. I think there is always some sort of concept behind what we do—maybe even anything we do! Of course, that certainly doesn’t mean everyone needs to develop a clear concept for their photographic work, it can add a great richness to someone’s work, but may be more relevant to those wanting to create art and move forward in that arena.

Certainly, there has always been more acceptance for those that work in a narrow conceptual framework. This is true in many endeavors, you are a specialist and easily boxed into a convenient slot. Jasper Johns’ dealer really wished he would just have continued making flag images, they really sold well—or was it the bullseyes!

I do think a greater acceptance for a more varied output has emerged in recent years. But I still think that working in bodies of work with a strong concept, even if conceptually disparate, remains an important element to one’s success in the art world. Richard Misrach, for one, has moved around a bit with great success. He was first recognized for his street work and book about Telegraph Ave in Berkley. He then gained recognition for his original approach and concept with night landscape, then his work that was more traditional landscape embodied in the work “Desert Cantos”, then his Beaches work and now he is doing work with negative imagery—I haven’t seen enough or read enough to know the underlying concept of this work yet. And I skipped a few other bodies of work he did along the way! I also think that the use of photography by so many artists in other media has added to the sense that a certain level of “variety” in one’s work is acceptable.

Personally, I think we need to do what we need to do, it isn’t a choice and if it is one thing forever, so be it. If it is many things, so be it. Art is about self expression and you need to be true to what is motivating you—and working in a conceptual framework is partially figuring out what is really motivating you and how you can most effectively express it!


We have come the end of this interview and I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk about critique in particular as well as some more general topics. Is there anything else you would like to add?

It almost feels like I wrote a book! On the other hand, the questions were quite broad and encompassing and I may have really only touched on what might have been said. Some of the issues we covered are quite complex and I think it will be important to try and read below the surface or behind the words--it can sound high minded and certainly foreign to some, but I think when one gets it, it really makes great sense and is almost ridiculously simple!


Once again thank you so much!

--Hogne






Originally posted at 2:42PM, 8 December 2009 PST (permalink)
H o g n e edited this topic 64 months ago.

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James Duckworth says:

Thank you for taking the time to share your views John. Your comments reflect your experience in photography and teaching and provide inspiration to anyone trying to improve their photography. I particularly enjoyed your comments about the digital age and the "need to share all".
Originally posted 64 months ago. (permalink)
James Duckworth edited this topic 64 months ago.

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Luís C is a group administrator Luís C says:

Very interesting and inspiring interview. Thank you John for your time and for sharing your ideas and knowledge. I'm a usual reader of your critiques and this interview helps me putting your writing in a broader context. Thank you also to Hogne for the interesting questions.

Several points in your interview triggered deeper thought and about one I couldn't resist another question. Do you think a photographer can evolve both as a photographer and as a critique to an higher artistic level without solid theoretical knowledge on the fields of art and design?

L
64 months ago (permalink)

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mona chrome says:

Luis, the simple answer is yes, of course. There are many great artists who never studied and I have seen people who create great images photographically that wouldn't know much about what I have talked about here. Sometimes things are innate and sometimes things are learned intuitively with time and exposure.

The issue for me is more one of how do we move our growth along a bit quicker. I have to assume that people that are in groups like this one are wanting to grow. So, why not think about using some of the time spent on these forums actually learning the underlying principles of what we are interested in--not just technical issues, but aesthetic issues as well? The result can only be more productive and beneficial time when we are here or out photographing. But also remember that the goal is not to be thinking about these all the time but for them to become part of us and how we see with our camera and interact with other visual imagery.

I don't think that the few classes I took in art gave me a "solid theoretical knowledge" but a foundation and they opened my eyes and a door. Because of it, I broadened my own horizons and I became more interested in a variety of art and when you try to understand something different, you sort of go back to those basics. I have never had any real desire to do other art forms, but I do think that my own visual growth was helped by looking around and I know I have much more fun in an art museum now than I did before 1978! (Note: there are a lot of resources right here on the internet if you just google art elements or principles of design and there are certainly many books out there on the subject--stay with art books, not graphic design books--unless you have an interest in that as well).

Just one other piece of information about me, my own perception of my artistic abilities when I bought that first camera in 1978 was that they were nil. I was already 27 and my only thought was that I could probably get better pictures of my backpacking trips than my brother made! That was my only motivation. Since I either didn't have any innate abilities or they were buried so deep, I think that being willing to look beyond just making photographs was key to my own development and successes in a relatively short period of time.
Originally posted 64 months ago. (permalink)
mona chrome edited this topic 64 months ago.

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NWPhotoGuy says:

An excellent interview, Hogne, and one which I would encourage anyone to take the time to read. While I've not yet viewed John's website, though will after writing this, it is clear that he knows of what he speaks.

Thanks
64 months ago (permalink)

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reathel says:

As a person at the beginning of his journey I found the interview to be very enlightening. John's explanation of the process he goes through as he critiques others work is something I'd recommend to others as I think it sets an experienced benchmark for us to compare our own critiques. I for one will be searching out a few of his critiques to learn from.

Hogne and John, thanks for the interview.

Cheers.
64 months ago (permalink)

tonmoySaha [deleted] says:

it was an experience i must say reading this.. so very true words.. i havnt read anything so flawless related to photography before.. i kind of feel grown up after reading this..
thanks a lot Sir for the insight and thanks a lot Hogne for coming up with such a brilliant interview.. indeed it has changed some very crucial things for me :)

tonmoy
64 months ago (permalink)

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garreyf says:

Excellent! Thanks guys.
I've provided a link to it in my random "How to critique" thread.

www.flickr.com/groups/545852@N23/discuss/7215760249301631...
64 months ago (permalink)

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