Archive for September 2009

I was planning to write about this subject some time, but now seems an appropriate a time as any. You may have read last week how the audience roundly booed the new production of Puccini’s classic opera Tosca that opened up the new season at the Metropolitan Opera. (Stephen Haynes wrote about in a blog posting – here.)

I saw the old production a few times, and as Stephen mentioned, I also acted in it as a supernumerary. I have not seen the new production yet, so I can’t comment on it, but I am interested in seeing it – perhaps toward the end of the season when the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel will be in it.

Unlike many operas, the scenes of Tosca take place in specific, very real places in Rome, and and at a particular time, too. So, when I was in Rome earlier this year, I thought I’d visit all of these locations to perhaps get a feel for what Puccini was thinking and to compare them to what I’d seen on stage.

Here’s a basic synopsis of the opera’s three acts followed by my thoughts on the actual locations - with some photos, of course.

Act I

The story: the painter Mario Cavarodossi is in a church making a painting of Mary Magdalene when he discovers his friend Cesare Angelotti hiding in a private chapel. Angelotti is a political prisoner who has just escaped, so Mario gives him some food. Mario’s girlfriend, the famous singer Floria Tosca, is heard coming in, so Angelotti goes back into hiding. Tosca is a woman with a suspicious, very jealous nature, and having overheard Mario talking with someone, she suspects him of infidelity.

Tosca leaves, followed by the two men, who head off to Mario’s villa so Angelotti can go into hiding. Entering the church is the evil police chief Scarpia, searching for the escaped prisoner. Not only that, Scarpia has had the hots for Tosca for a long time. (“Tosca, you make me forget God!” he sings at one point.) His henchmen find evidence that Angelotti has been there, and when Tosca returns, he suspects she might know something. Preying upon her jealousy, he makes her think that her lover has been unfaithful, and as she rushes off to him, Scarpia sends some of his men to follow her.

The location: the church in this case is Sant’ Andrea della Valle, a church located in the old historic part of Rome. I had to do a fair amount of searching to find it, as there are a great many churches in Rome (yeah, no kidding), but finally I did come across it. As you can see from the photos, it’s a very large building with a beautifully decorated ceiling.

When I appeared in Tosca at the Met, I was in Act One, so having been on stage in the Met’s version of the church, it was interesting to see the genuine article. While the Met’s version was in a similar style, it was not the same in layout or design. For example, the Met’s version had a large podium at the front of the church, while the real one (as you can see) does not. The real one has a straight-through design from entrance to the front, while the Met’s – due to the necessity of having the entrance and the front both on stage, does not. (When I was in it at the Met, my character was a vagrant who wandered in to the church to attend the service at the end of the act. I sat down in the front row of the church – so I like to tell people that I had the best seat in the house.)

As I mentioned, Angelotti hides out in a private chapel – that of the Attavanti family. Well, there is indeed a gated private chapel in the church, but in reality, it was that of the very wealthy, very powerful Barbarini family. I guess Puccini didn’t want to involve them in the story, so he changed the name.

Act II

The story: Scarpia is in his apartment eating supper. Mario is brought in by his men for questioning, his having been found via Tosca. He’s taken into the next room where he gets tortured. Tosca is brought in following a concert, and Scarpia tries to get information from her so he can stop torturing Mario. Reluctantly, she agrees. (Angelotti is eventually discovered but kills himself rather than be taken alive.)

Mario is brought into the room, and when one of Scarpia’s men brings news of a victory by Napoleon – a defeat for Scarpia’s side – Mario shouts out “Victory” and is quickly sentenced to death by Scarpia. Once again, Scarpia tells Tosca she can save him. She asks how much money he wants, but says that money is of no concern to him. He wants her. (Not body and soul. Just the body.) Tosca sings one of the most famous soprano arias, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (“I live for art, I live for love”), wondering how she ended up in this predicament.

Finally, she agrees. Scarpia says he can’t be seen to allow Mario to get away, so he says he’ll set up a mock execution, without real bullets. He calls in one of his men and tells him to set up the execution the way it was done for a certain Count Palmieri. He then writes up a note guaranteeing free passage for Tosca and Mario, who will get up and leave once everyone has left the execution site.

While Scarpia is writing the note, Tosca wanders around the room. As she passes the dinner table, she notices the knife and quickly picks it up, hiding it behind her. When Scarpia comes to her with the note, she quickly plunges the knife into him. “Die, Scarpia, die!!!” she says to him. “Choke on your own blood!” She takes the note from his hand and leaves.

(Most times, Tosca stabs Scarpia once in the chest and he’s down for the count. When I saw it in Budapest, she stabbed him three times in the gut and then threw him to the floor!)

The location: Scarpia’s apartment is located in the Palazzo Farnese. In a magazine story about Rome, I read earlier this year that the Farnese palace is the granddaddy of Roman palazzi. It is certainly an impressive building. Sadly, it is not open to the general public as it now serves as the French embassy. There was even a political rally going on in front of it when I was there. I guess I’ll just have to imagine what it’s like inside.


The story: Mario Cavarodossi is lead to the roof of a building to be executed. He bribes the jailer to deliver a farewell note to Tosca. He sings one of the greatest of tenor arias, “E lucevan le stele” (“And the stars shined”) as he writes the note. Tosca enters surprisingly, telling Mario of what’s happened. Scarpia is dead at her hand, but the execution will be a sham. She coaches him on how to fall and pretend to be dead – she’s a professional actress, she says, but he’s just an amateur, after all.

Finally, the execution team arrives and Mario is stood up in front of them. The guns are fired and Mario does, indeed, fall very convincingly. After everyone leaves, Tosca goes over to Mario to rouse him. She discovers to her horror that the bullets were real after all and that he’s dead. When men come back, now with the knowledge that she’s killed Scarpia, Tosca rushes to the edge of the roof. Not wanting to be taken alive, either, with a cry of “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio” (“Oh, Scarpia, before God!”) she leaps to her death.

The location: Act III takes place on the roof of Castel Sant’ Angelo, a circular structure that was built in ancient Roman times as the tomb of the emperor Hadrian. It was later enlarged and built upon by the popes, who built a secret escape passage to if from the nearby Vatican. One can still walk up the circular interior ramp that was used for the funeral procession of Hadrian, as can be seen in the photo here.

As for the roof, it affords a beautiful view of the northwestern section of Rome. It’s a little hard to know where exactly Puccini envisioned Mario’s execution as taking place, as the topmost part of the structure is off limits now due to the presence there of a large antenna.

The highest section that people can go to now, just below the antenna level, is open on three sides. Recent railings have been installed, as there basically weren’t any originally. If someone wanted to jump, it would have been very easy. (In fact, it would have been hard not to fall off if you stood too close to the edge!) As for the firing squad, it could have only been done on the fourth side of the rectangular roof section, as that’s the only side with anything behind it.

So, there it is. The story, with photos, of Tosca – a tale of love, lust, politics and deception. A friend of mine who’s a big opera buff tells me that it’s the only major opera in which all four main characters are dead before the final curtain comes down. Of course, it has some of the most beautiful music ever written, too. See it – or listen to it – if you can. Boos or not, I will again.

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I had a photo session yesterday in my studio set-up with Muse. For my last photo session, with Erin, I used the new quartz light that I had recently purchased. Yesterday, I mostly used my two reflectors with umbrellas on both of them. This is the lighting set-up I used for my recently developed photos of Sibyl Nin from last November, and as the images on the film looked good, I thought I’d try it again.
Here are a few digital snapshots from yesterday’s session. The film images should look better.

My friend Dave Levingston told me a few weeks ago about the website of Vietnamese photographer Thai Phien, that he himself had come across on the Art Nudes blog. I looked up Mr. Phien’s website and he does indeed do beautiful work of different varieties – art nudes, landscapes, people, etc.

I also looked up an English language interview with him posted on a Vietnamese website. You can see it by clicking here, and if you have a few minutes, I think you should read it. Titled “Painstaking Nude Photography," it’s not very long, and it will give you an insight into what attitudes are toward nude photography in that part of the world and what he’s had to go through to get some of his images.

I’ve been informed that Chris St. James, the force between the art nudes blog Univers d’Artistes, will be returning home shortly from his stay in the hospital. If you’re reading this, Chris, I wish you a speedy recovery and I hope that you’ll be feeling better.

Finally, a welcome to the latest Followers to the blog: Z, gRiMz and Adrian Popa.

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I know. It’s been ten days since my last posting. Sorry, folks, but last week was a very busy one for me, getting home late after work and getting to bed late, too, taking care of stuff.

So, I will begin by saying that the extended Labor Day week that I took off from work was a very productive one. During those ten days off, I developed 50 rolls of film and have done six more since then, taking me up to the photos made in Florence and Lucca during my trip to Italy in June.

That leaves 21 rolls left, but there’ll be more soon. I just set up my home studio gear as I’ve got a model scheduled to come over this week, plus another one next month, as well. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get caught up – and with the filing, too. It’s at times like this that I tell myself that I need to go a year without taking any new photos just to catch up with stuff, but somehow that never seems to happen.

I wrote before that I’d be going back to the Metropolitan Opera to try to get back into the cast of “Aida.” Well, I did just that back on September 12, and guess what? They didn’t want me! After two tours of duty marching with the Pharaohanic Fighting Forces (as I called them), this happens to me, so I guess my days as an Egyptian are washed up. When I did it before, there were no auditions. I was told what I’d be in and that was that. Oh, well – nothing ventured, nothing gained. Maybe I’ll try for “La Boheme” early next year.

Still, going to the audition wasn’t a total waste. I got to hear some of the rehearsal for “The Marriage of Figaro,” which I’ll be seeing next month, and it got me out and about, compared to staying in to develop all of that film. I also went to see the shows at several photo galleries on or near East 57 Street, the most interesting being the exhibit of vintage prints by Brassai (click here) at the Edwynn Houk gallery and the vintage Jacques Henri Lartigue prints (click here) at Howard Greenberg.

I also attended some opening nights after work last work, seeing a very nice show of Himalayan photos at the Tibet House by photographer Tenzing Paljor and a new exhibit of beautiful African wildlife photos by Nick Brandt at Staley-Wise.

While setting up my studio gear, I took some breaks now and then to watch Dancing With the Stars tonight. My mother got my interested in watching it when she was visiting me last year, and it is reasonably entertaining. Unlike shows such as American Idol (which I have never watched and have absolutely no interest in), at least I can watch some very attractive women strutting their stuff. The professional men are good, too, as are some of the celebs.

Having seen the show tonight, I’d say the one I’ll keep my eye on is the salsa star Mya (pronounced ‘maya’). She moves well, has a nice booty and, best of all, a rather Audrey Hepburn-esque face. Supermodel Joanna Krupa isn’t bad, either.

I didn’t see the male celebrities dance last night, but I’ll have to root for Donnie Osmond, simply because his professional partner, Kim Johnson, is a knockout. If he stays in, so does she. I’m going to have some mixed feelings, though, about another of my favorite pro dancers, Cheryl Burke. Her partner this time is Tom DeLay – yes, the former Republican congressman. However beautiful she may be, will it really be worth seeing her if I have to see him, too?

Well, it’s very late here and I’ve still got other stuff to do so I’d better end here, even though there were other things I wanted to write that I can’t think of now. What I do remember is to give a big "Get Well Soon" to Chris St. James, the force behind the art nude blog Univers d’Artistes. Chris is returning to the hospital to be treated for a serious illness and I wish him a speedy recovery.

Finally, at the top, another photograph of Stephanie Anne made last year at Joshua Tree’s Cholla Cactus Garden.

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I have for a long time admired photographs of star trails. I have for a long time wanted to make photographs of star trails.

I figure that three things are required in order to make good star trail photographs:
1. A location with very clear skies.
2. A location that does not suffer from light pollution.
3. A location where one can leave one’s camera outside without its being stolen.

Any of those three things could eliminate my home, New York City, from consideration.

Nonetheless, I made the photo that you see at the top here. My title for it is “The Great Wheel of Heaven, “ and I think that I shall probably never forget the circumstances under which it was made. In fact, tonight – September 12, 2009 – is the eighth anniversary (not the “eight year anniversary”!!!) of the making of this photo. Here’s the story behind it:

It was on Saturday, September 8, 2001, that I traveled by air from New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico. My purpose was to attend an art nude workshop in southern Colorado organized by Steve Anchell. It would be a small group, with just three photographers and three models. I would be meeting one of the other photographers – a fellow named Bill from California – at the Albuquerque airport, and from there we would ride up together to Colorado.

Bill’s plane arrived in close proximity to mine, and though we had never met before, we got along well. Bill did the driving as I had not been feeling totally well around then, and we headed north toward Colorado, stopping for lunch in Santa Fe and then for the night in Taos.

The next day we continued on to Crestone – our destination in Colorado - passing places such as the Rio Grande Gorge (I guess they didn’t name it the “Rio Grande Canyon” so as not to confuse it with that other canyon in Arizona) and Manassa, home of heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. My biggest thrill, though, was seeing a Sinclair gas station for the first time in ages. As a kid, Sinclair was always my favorite gas station because of the dinosaur it had as its symbol, but Sinclair had disappeared from New York ages ago.

In Crestone, the three photographers – I, Bill and a fellow named George from Texas – stayed at a large B&B run by a woman named Betty. The house was basically a big log cabin and our rooms were on the second floor. My room had a balcony opening onto a clear view of the sky – a good place to set up a tripod and camera for a sky shot - but I was too tired from the drive that first day to get up in the middle of the night to end a long exposure. The following day, September 10, was the first full day of going out to photograph, and I was so tired by the end of the day that a night shot was also out of the question – and would seem to be for the rest of the week.

All of that changed, of course, on the following day – September 11, 2001. I remember leaving my room to go down for breakfast when I overheard Betty on the phone downstairs. “No. You’re kidding!,” she said. “It can’t be!” I figured that it was just some local gossip, like somebody’s wife running off with somebody else’s husband. Typical small town stuff like that.

When I got downstairs, the others there were watching a TV report of an airplane having crashed into the World Trade Center, which is only about three blocks from the office where I work. There weren’t many details at first, and I had just assumed that it was a small plane like a Cessna or a Piper. It wasn’t until sometime later that morning that the truth of it having been a terrorist attack on both of the Twin Towers became known. I was relieved that I wasn’t back at the office to have lived through that, yet part of me still felt guilty for not being there in New York with my colleagues.

Despite the horror of what happened and the stunned condition that we were in, the photo workshop continued as planned. Perhaps at that darkest hour the light of beauty was needed more than ever. There really wasn’t much else that we could do, anyway, except wait and listen like everybody else in the country. Of all the people involved with the workshop, the one who seemed the most visibly upset was a model named Jacqueline – and she was German, not American.

Still, there was more to come. When we broke for lunch and went to a local restaurant to eat, I heard a report on the TV saying that the towers were gone. “What do they mean by ‘gone’?,” I thought to myself. “They can’t be gone! How can two buildings so huge not be there any more???”

Well, I found out how soon enough. I even phoned a friend of mine from my office at his home number, because I knew that everybody would have been sent home. (I did find out afterwards that a woman in my office was initially not going to leave because she was afraid people would be forced to use their vacation time. Seriously.) My friend told me what it was like back in New York - the chaos, how he had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get back home and so on.

At night, the four of us at Betty’s place stayed up late the next several days watching the news reports on TV. It was at this time that I thought of my star trails photograph. If I was going to stay up to the early hours of the morning watching the news, I may as well set up the camera (in this case, my Fuji 67 rangefinder) on that balcony to attempt a photo.

So that’s what I did on the night of September 12, 2001, trying to create a little bit of beauty out of catastrophe. I opened the shutter on the camera around 9 p.m. and I returned to shut it at 1 a.m. I think the aperture setting was f/5.6. I’m pretty sure that it was facing south, and there’s a random streak of light at the lower left of the image that I think may be an airplane landing at the airport in Alamosa.

Of course, the story continued, as I still had to fly home to New York. I think Bill and I left on Friday and returned to Albuquerque, where we spent the night. I still had no idea if my flights would leave as scheduled, so the next morning I called TWA (my airline) to find out. While on extended hold, I saw a crawler going across the screen on CNN telling that JKF airport in New York was now fully open again. When I actually got to speak with someone at TWA, I told this to him. He told me that he had not even heard that yet!

Indeed, my flights did depart as scheduled. At the Albuquerque airport, I remember seeing a very elderly woman in a wheelchair have her nail file taken away from her. That flight was pretty full, but when I changed planes in St. Louis, I saw that the flight to Kennedy was pretty empty. Once on the plane, I noticed a rather dark-skinned young man sitting in a seat. I think I stared at him for several seconds before I could tear my gaze away.

Finally, when we got to New York, the plane made a right turn to head south over the Hudson River. I was sitting in a window seat on the left side, so I got a good view of Manhattan. As we headed further south toward the Trade Center site, the plane got so quiet inside that one could almost hear the proverbial pin drop. I think everybody moved over to the left side to take a look – and there it was: a gaping hole in the ground with a huge plume of smoke rising high from it.

As the plane continued further on to the airport, I kept looking back to that huge plume of smoke. It was still visible when the wheels of the plane touched down on the runway at JFK. I guess I still haven’t forgotten it.

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Today is Thursday, and I am now into the sixth day of my ten day stretch of not having to get up early to go to work. Being the sixth day, it’s the first day of the second half, so it feels like it’ll be all downhill from here.

This has been unusual for me, as never before have I taken off a week from work just to stay home. Usually annual leave like this is reserved for going away somewhere, but I just decided to stay put this time. Sleeping late and not having to schlep into the office by subway is a bit like practicing for retirement. That won’t happen, of course, for another dozen years or so, but all I can say for now is that I like it!

Still, this hasn’t exactly been a retiring week, as I’ve mostly dedicated myself to developing film. So far, since I started on Sunday, I’ve done 27 rolls. I hope to do another 20 before I go back to work on Tuesday. I’ve finally developed all of my film from 2008 and am now working on the film from my trip to Oregon in May of this year. If all goes according to plan, I should even get to the first two rolls from my trip to Italy in June.

Looking over the negatives, I think I’ve got quite a few worthwhile images, but I’ve also seen some things that make my blood boil and make me want to smash my head against the wall in punishment for my complete stupidity.

Some of these mistakes that I should not have allowed to happen were in my studio photos taken right here, and I should be able to schedule another session with that model. (In fact, I do want to work with her again, regardless.) These mistakes were caused, in part, by my not paying full attention to what I was seeing in the viewfinder, and I might still be able to get around the problems by cropping and/or some burning in of the final print.

The other major problem images cannot simply be done over, as they were on location in California with two models from the east coast – and there was a full moon involved, to boot! I won’t go into details about it now, but maybe I’ll make a posting about it so the whole world can know how I messed up big time.

The photos I’m posting today are from that same trip to California last September. The model is Stephanie Anne Landers. I went out with Stephanie one afternoon to Joshua Tree National Park, and we spent most of our time working at an old mine that was a walk of over a mile from the nearest parking lot. We still had some time left, so we headed back to the car and drove off in search of another particular location.

We never found that spot that day (I think I drove right by it without realizing it), so we continued on much further south to the Cholla Cactus Garden. Obviously, nude modeling in close proximity to cacti has very real dangers, so I told Stephanie not to get too close, though I didn’t want her too far from the plants, either.

The other difficulty was the time. By the time we got there, the sun had already gone down below the horizon and it was quite dark. Not nighttime dark, mind you, but still very, very dim, which made for long exposures and difficulty in focusing. The photo of Stephanie with the moon gives you an idea of how high the moon was by then and how dim it was, too.

On the positive side, the light was certainly even, and the sky behind Stephanie gave the cacti a nice backglow. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten any good images at the time, but looking at the negatives so far, I think I did.

Expect to see more of my recently developed images in upcoming posts.

On another note, people where I work are supposed to get approval before they can undertake outside employment (or even volunteer work), and I found out today that I got approval to carry a spear once again at the Metropolitan Opera. I’ll be going to the theater on Saturday for the auditions for “Aida,” and while there’s no guarantee they’ll want me again, I may yet make my return to the grand opera stage. Stay tuned.

Finally, I want to welcome another Follower to the blog. This time, it is the very lovely St. Merrique. This beautiful young woman is a model from the French Caribbean, I believe, and you can find her blog here. St. Merrique lives on the other side of the country from me in Los Angeles, but if we are ever in the same place at the same time, I would surely love to work with her. For now, I will simply say “Bienvenue!”

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It’s Labor Day weekend, folks, so for those of you right here in the U.S. of A., enjoy. This will be a long weekend for most people, but I’m taking the whole week off from work. Yesterday began my ten-day stretch of sleeping late and not having to go into the office – proof that life can be good every now and then.

My good friend Dave Levingston had invited me to visit him in Ohio this week, and though he enticed me with the lure of some beautiful locations in which to photograph, I eventually had to put his offer on hold. I’d love to have gone, but I need to save money and I’ve got a ton of stuff to do right here at home. I’m planning to tackle some of that “stuff” this week, primarily developing film. I’ve got about 70 rolls to develop, going back to September last year, and I’d like to take care of at least 40. We’ll see. (I've already done three today, from September last year, and hope to do three more before my head hits the pillow tonight.)

Still, I began the weekend yesterday by going into Manhattan to pay a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m a member and hadn’t been there for a while so I was due. There are also some special exhibitions that are closing this weekend that I wanted to see.

The primary exhibit I wanted to see was one of 19th Century photographs, “Napoleon III and Paris.” This dealt with the changing of Paris from a medieval city (a place where one could not go out at night unless accompanied by a gang of armed men with lanterns) to the beautiful city we know today, based on the designs of Baron Hausmann.

This was a relatively small exhibition, placed in a smaller gallery, but it was nice to see these old salt and albumen prints and to marvel at the skills of those 19th Century photographers. There were some engravings and lithographs, too, including a striking one by Edouard Manet of a soldier killed during the Paris Commune riots – the type of thing that it would have been impossible to photograph with a large camera on a tripod due to the danger of the time and place.

Two photographs that depict this change in Paris are these by Charles Marville. The first here shows the Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche – a street that was basically unchanged since medieval times. Apparently much of Paris still looked like this in the middle of the 19th Century. This next image is a well known one by Marville showing one of the many ornate street lamps that were installed according to Hausmann’s plan. Finally, one of my favorite photos from the exhibit was this one by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg made in 1871 during the time of the Paris Commune riots, showing guns barricaded with cobblestones. As I said, some of the photographers in the old days certainly knew what they were doing. You can see more photos from the exhibit by clicking here.

Following Paris, I went to see another exhibition, those of treasures from the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan. These were believed to have been lost due to the civil war and the Taliban, but they were found packed away in a vault in Kabul’s Presidential Palace. We tend to think of Afghanistan only as a place of recent conflict, but centuries ago it was one of the crossroads between east and west. It was also the easternmost outpost of the Hellenistic empire founded by Alexander the Great.

Many of the works on display came from some of those outposts, but there were also some amazing items made of gold from the late Third Millennium BCE and, especially, some beautifully crafted items found in tombs of local nomadic tribes from the First Century CE, such as the one below. After that I just wandered around, gazing upon favorites old and new. One of those new ones was a wonderful pastel drawing by Renoir titled “The Milliner.” This rendering of a shopgirl has got to be one of the most charming and delightful artworks I’ve ever seen. It’s just too bad that the only photo of it I could find is in B&W (below); the original is in color.
I do have to admit that I had one disappointment. One of the temporary exhibits that I failed to see was of Michelangelo’s first painting – something that apparently has recently been attributed to him following the painting’s cleaning and restoration. After I left the museum, I saw a sign outside promoting the exhibit. It noted that it, too, will be closing this weekend. In Italy I saw what may have been the last work that Michelangelo worked on. I guess I have only myself to blame for missing one of his first.

In the “Welcome” category, I’d like to thank Nettie R. Harris as a new Follower of the blog. Nettie is a wonderful model who I plan to work with in the near future, and her blog, Rhythm Before Unknown, is certainly worth following.

Finally, at the top, another photo from my trip to Colorado last year.

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