Bruce Barnbaum workshop: trip report

By Barry Sherman for the Large Format Page

CAUTION:   The following posting contains non-sacreligious profanity.

CAUTION:   The following posting challenges some cherished notions.

CAUTION:   This is *really* long.

NOTE:      At times below I'll "quote" Bruce Barnbaum.  Mostly these
           aren't precise quotes but are used to try to capture the spirit of 
           what he said and how he said it.

I just returned from a 5.5 day workshop with Bruce Barnbaum and Don
Kirby.  Since there are occasional queries about good workshops to
attend, I thought I'd do a big write-up about this one.  I'm not going
to go into great detail about techniques as I think that attending the
workshop, or at the very least buying Bruce's book, will be of more
benefit than the sketchy details that I could discuss here.

Cost:   $475 + $75 lab fee.  I understand that the lab fee is going up to
        $150 as of now.  This cost is exclusive of lodging, food and 
        transportation and inclusive of use of Bruce's outstanding darkroom,
        equipped with 7 Saunders 4500 enlarger.  Lodging 
        at the nearby Mountain View Inn runs $20 per night if you're willing to    
        room with someone (recommended as there are 12 students in the workshop
        and only 6 rooms at the motel, the only motel around).  I, however, 
        made it known that I really wanted a private room and was able to have 
        one.  (thereby saving some poor soul from utter exhaustion from being 
        kept awake by my snoring  :-)  This made my lodging $40 per night.
        The lab fee includes all the 8x10 Kodak Elite paper that you want to 
        use during the lab sessions.

        Come to think of it, there are camp grounds nearby and people with
        campers are welcome to stay on their grounds and use their shower.

Where:  At Bruce's home in the Northern Cascade mountains in Washington
        state.  He lives outside of Granite Falls.  Beautiful location.
        People flew and drove in from California, Michigan, Texas, Nebraska,
        Arizona, New Jersey and, even, Washington (state).

Title:  "Complete Photographic Process"  Bruce does many workshops.  This
        one is devoted to black/white photography from exposure of the
        negative to mounting/spotting of the print.  Although there are
        3 field sessions during which you can expose film, and darkroom
        time allotted to negative development, students are encouraged
        to bring negatives with them, especially "problem negatives",
        so as to be able to rework old images under the instructors'
        tutelege.  Printing in his great darkroom using Saunders 4500
        enlargers with Dichro heads is a promiment feature of the workshop.

        BTW - this was my first actual use of the Saunders.  Great enlarger.  
        Nice bright bulb, easy to use controls, very, very rigid and all around
        a pleasure to use.  If I get a second enlarger I'll give very serious 
        thought to this one.

When:   Four times per year - Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.

Contact:  Photographic Arts Workshops
          P.O Box 1791 
          Granite Falls, WA 98252
          (206) 691-4105

Who they are: 
--- ---- ----

  Bruce Barnbaum is one of the world's most highly acclaimed b/w landscape 
  photographers.  His work is available in galleries throughout the U.S.  I 
  was interested to learn that he has made stunning color (Ilfochrome) images 
  as well.  If "money is the most sincere form of appreciation", then 
  consider:  his UNlimited edition 16x20's now command $750 and his limited 
  edition 20x24's go for $2,500.
  But if you don't believe in price as a measure of one's work, then:
  He showed us his work every evening after dinner.  Beyond belief.  This guy 
  is incredibly good.  Image after stunning image after exquisite image.  He 
  showed us between 80 and 100 prints throughout the course of the workshop 
  and, while some were not really to my personal taste, the quality was always 
  wonderful.  One might say "What is this?  I pay hundreds of dollars to stare 
  at someone else's photography?" But these "exhibitions" involved lots of 
  questions and discussion ranging from technique to philosophy and were 
  highly worthwhile.  And just plain interesting.  Some of his anecdotes about 
  photographing in slit canyons (and just missing a horrendous flash flood)
  were fascinating and downright frightening.  And I can't wait to hike the 
  length of Buckskin Gulch!
  Bruce is one of the most dynamic people I've ever encountered.  He seems
  to bring an enormous passion to everything he does.  I'm certain that
  this is a large part of the reason for his success.  It doesn't matter 
  whether he's exposing film, printing, listening to classical music, 
  fighting the proposed quarry which may destroy his lovely community or 
  fighting the clear-cutting which is destroying so much forest habitat. 
  Whatever he does, he does with every fiber of his being.  At some times I 
  found his intensity somewhat off-putting but at the same time I developed 
  great admiration and respect for him.  Plus, he has an inexhaustable supply 
  of really great jokes and anecdotes, which he shares at every opportunity.  
  Incredible supply of "groaners".  Really terribly funny "groaners".  :-)  
  E.g:  "You gotta pity poor David Koresh.  All his life he wanted to be a 
  priest but in the end he was only a friar."  All together now:  
  Grrrooooooaaaaaannnnn.  :-)

  Don Kirby is, perhaps, less well known but is a marvelous photographer as 
  well.  Similarly, every evening he showed us his work and it was humbling.  
  His interests seem to be largely Anasazi ruins, which he's explored
  extensively for the last 10 or more years, wheat fields in their 
  infinite variety of form, and abstract patterns in rock.  Don is more
  laid back but I detect a passion for the natural world as deep as
  Bruce's.  Don's printing, like Bruce's, combines the bold with the subtle
  in a wonderfully expressive way.  Like Bruce, he's an excellent teacher,
  able to explain the complex, patient and genuinely interested in helping
  people to grow.

  I'm impressed with Don in another way.  He not too long ago realized
  a 10 year goal:  early retirement and delving completely into his
  photography.  For the last decade he's worked at building a body of work
  and taken much time off from work without pay in order to photograph and
  to assist other photographers in teaching their workshops.  He is now
  co-instructor of this workshop and others with Bruce and will be leading
  his own in the near future (exploring Anasazi ruins in So. Utah).  I'm
  really happy to see as good a person as Don being able to realize his

  All in all, two very remarkable people.  Oh, and for those of us in the Bay
  area, the work of both photographers may be viewed at the Photographers 
  Gallery in Palo Alto.  I've not been there since Bruce's exhibit opened 
  there 1.5 years ago but will get there soon to see Don's work.

What the workshop is NOT:  
---- --- -------- -- ---

  It's *not* about any of the following:

  * Lenses
  * Cameras
  * Lp/mm
  * "Rules of composition"
  * Rules of pretty much any sort - Mr.'s Barnbaum and Kirby are happy to
    tell you how they do things while maintaining that the student should
    be comfortable doing things completely differently if that's what works
    for the student.  For example, Bruce doesn't permit anything that beeps 
    in his darkroom.  But if you prefer a metronome, mechanical or electronic, 
    then use one.  Just find what works for you and then do it.  (As long as
    you don't try to bring chirpers or beepers into Bruce's darkroom. :-)
  * Introductory darkroom procedure
  * Mathematical formulae
  * A "fun photo tour"
  * A light skimming-over of everyone's work at the critique.
  * An ego building "soft-soap" praising of mediocre images during the 
  * Slides.  Although I do think that a "strictly slides" photographer or a 
    color printer could benefit greatly from the workshop, it's really oriented
    toward b/w printing.  My color work, and I was the only person in the class
    who showed color work, was well received by both Bruce and Don, but, as I 
    said, the real purpose of the class is b/w prints.

  Not once during the 85 hours that I was around Bruce and Don did they 
  mention gear other than wrt darkroom stuff and in response to questions.  
  They would discuss equipment in response to questions and at great length.
  But rarely did they raise the subject themselves.

  Bruce, btw, uses the old-style "Time-o-Light" timers on the enlarger, 
  refuses to have anything that beeps in the darkroom, and seems to time
  his dodging and burning by intuition.  With incredibly consistent
  results.  I made a point of not mentioning my two-memory, multi-mode, beeping,
  digital electronic enlarger timer.  Nor my Zone VI Compensating
  Developing Timer.  :-)

  They are concerned with the production of images and seem to have little 
  interest in gear, per se.  I found this refreshing.  I gather that Bruce 
  uses a Linhof Technika (from photos of him with his camera) with a Tilt-all 
  tripod.  He's becoming quite enamored of his Mamiya 645, although he 
  considers the image to be of insufficient quality to replace the 4x5, 
  deeming it more appropriate for "hand-held" work.  Don uses a Technika
  as well.

What the workshop *is*:
---- --- -------- ----

  * Intensive.  We went from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. every day except
    the final day which as a half day.  Monday morning through Saturday
    noon.  I normally drink 50/50 real and decaffeinated coffee as the pure 
    stuff really affects me strongly.  But during the workshop I was drinking 
    the real thing all day and most of the evening and hardly noticed the 
    caffein.  Not a place for those who cannot function on less than 8 hours 
    of sleep per night.  Nor a place for those for whom photography is a minor 
    part of their lives or whose interests lie more in hardware than in images.

  * A place at which people who are committed to this form of artistic 
    expression have the opportunity to grow.

  * As much about what's going on inside the photographer as about 
    specific techniques.

  * Excellent in every respect.  Oh, BTW, Bruce's wife, Karen, was a 
    wonderful hostess, making everyone feel welcome and comfortable
    in their home.  I've come to think that once one leaves the urban
    areas it becomes impossible to find a cup of coffee that tastes like
    coffee instead of warm water.  But they served really great (and really
    strong) coffee and great goodies to munch on during the long sessions
    and this added to the pleasure of the class.  Even their dogs and cats 
    added a lot of enjoyment to the class. 

What they teach:
---- ---- -----

  * Composition and light.  But he never once mentioned "rule of thirds"
    or other "rules".  BTW - if you ask "then what is there to discuss about 
    composition?" then you *really* need to take this workshop.  I did.

  * Intro to the zone system 101.  Or advanced study, depending on the
    group.  But he's not a fanatic about it.  He believes in making images,
    not in spending a lot of time testing materials.  He notes that he's yet
    to see an exciting image from those people who are heavy into testing
    of materials.  He didn't mention names, but I'd already noticed the
    same thing in the articles on materials testing by the "big names" that
    I see in the magazines.  (Well, John Sexton might be an exception, but
    there are always exceptions.)

  * His film development techniques.  Basically he uses Tri-X in HC110,
    exposed at EI of 160, although he's switching to HP5 because he thinks
    that it's "smoother" and he can expose it at EI 300.  He uses hangers/
    tank development and uses extremely dilute HC110 for "extreme contraction
    and compensation" development, such as for his exquisite slit canyon
    images and his awe-inspiring series on the interiors of the great 
    cathedrals of England.  These go down to N-6 but the prints are 

    I questioned them because I noticed in some test prints that Don showed
    featuring extreme contractions that highlight contrast was really low.
    The highlights printed along with the shadows on #2 paper but were very
    flat and lifeless.  I was puzzled because I knew that the highlights in
    their fine prints are lively and full, even in those cathedral interiors
    where I knew that extreme "-" development had been given.

    The answer was that you just have to use a higher grade of paper so as
    to get the sparkle in the highlights and then you live with having to 
    dodge the shadows and burn and flash the highlights.  

    Bruce went on to say that he considers it a major error to try to select
    paper grade based on what will allow both highlights and shadows to
    print without dodging or burning:  paper grade should be selected on
    the basis of local contrast and overall effect, not by an arbitrary 
    standard based on how much manipulation you have to do.  He said that
    when people do select contrast grade based on overall density range in 
    the negative, the prints seem to be flat and uninteresting.  I wouldn't
    make so general a statement about other's printing, but have noticed 
    that to be true in my own printing.

    This was very heartening for me as I used to think that I had problems
    with highlights because I had to burn them a lot if I chose a contrast 
    grade high enough to make local contrast look pleasing.  Now he's 
    confirmed what I've been coming to realize on my own:  it's just in 
    the nature of the medium.  My "problem", always having to do lots of
    burning of highlights, is this master printer's normal way of working.

    He had a "self-published" copy of his text book (which will be formally
    published in the near future) and it contained his development times for 
    both N +/- and compensating (extreme contraction).  I'll not post them 
    now as this is available from him in either the workshop or in his book.

    I bought a copy of this self-published version for $20 and think that
    it's worth far more.  The formally published version, complete with
    photographs and other illustrations, should be an outstanding text,
    delving into the philosophy of photography and composition as well
    as the mechanics of the process from exposure through mounting and

  * His sophisticated printing techniques.  We watched him print three new
    negatives for the first time.  In 1.5 hours he had created  what I
    consider to be a masterpiece, far beyond anything I've ever accomplished,
    regardless of how many weeks I've worked on a print.  He employed the 
    following techniques:

    - contrast grade selection (he works with Oriental Seagull graded and
      O.S. VC Select almost exclusively and for this print he used
      the graded).

    - Split developing to fine-tune contrast using both Selectol-Soft and
      Dektol on the same print.  (Using his personal system of diluting the
      stock solutions double what the manufacturor recommends and then
      doubling development time.)  With his long development times he doesn't
      worry about timing things.  Just goes with how the image looks and
      his own (very accurate) internal clock.  His intent is to develop
      to completion and as long as that happens he figures that timing isn't
      terribly important.  He also doesn't measure terribly accurately.  When 
      he thinks that the developer is getting a little exhausted, he just 
      picks up the jug of stock solution and "pours a bit in" without 
      measuring.  Yet he gets very consistent results.  Methinks that there's 
      a certain amount of intuitive genius going on here.  And maybe my 
      mechanistic, timed, measured approach is not really needed.  Might even 
      be distracting me from the important parts of printing?

      More than anything, I think that he was trying to wean us (or some of
      us? :-) from our mechanical aids and toward a more intuitive and
      sensing approach to photography.  He was very disgusted with the
      "focus gauge" that I've been using, for example.  "Too mechanical!"
      "Gadgetry won't make your photos interesting!"  (Not real quotes,
      just attempts to capture the spirit of his comments.)

    - Dodging and burning using some really neat home-made burning tools.
      I've used something similar but he's refined the idea.  I'll be
      making some for myself asap.

    - Selective pre-flashing of dense (in the negative) highlight areas.
      Hmmmmm.  Actually it was "post-flashing" as he gave the flashing
      exposure after the main exposure.

    - Ferricyanide (aka Farmer's Reducer) bleaching of selected areas of 
      the final print.  This, btw, is different from dodging.  Dodging reduces
      density overall in the area dodged.  Bleaching increases contrast by
      affecting lighter areas more than darker ones.  Select your tool
      as the individual case suggests.  Also, bleaching can affect a far
      smaller area than can dodging.
      I've used this technique myself but never had any idea that you
      could do the things that this guy does.  The difference between
      the unbleached and the bleached print was subtle but dramatic.
      The difference between a "nice print" and a masterpiece.

      I'll not discuss bleaching in greater detail, but will note that both
      Bruce's textbook and Ansel Adam's "The Print" give good pointers to get
      you started.

    - Print washing:  he's somewhat cynical about the entire archival
      ruckus.  He pointed out that every time you turn around there's some
      new theory about what's going to produce an "archival print" and
      how to wash, etc.  Plus he has, as do I, minimal confidence in
      accelerated aging tests.  Putting it all together, he didn't quite
      say that "archival processing is a crock of s***", but came very near
      to doing so.  And, being a fairly earthy person, that's pretty close
      to how he would have expressed it.

      I didn't really know quite what to expect from him but was pleased 
      and made to feel quite comfortable when 1)  He commented that "if
      this isn't an archival wash I don't really give a s***" and 2)  First
      thing at dinner was to get the carafe of red wine *NOW*!!.  This
      guy I can identify with.  :-)
      He puts his prints in a holding bath for anywhere from several hours
      to a day or so.  Ack!  We're leaching out all those brighteners,
      right?  He contends that he can see no difference between a print 
      soaked for 24 hours and one soaked for 10 minutes.  Personally I've been
      thinking the same for some time now.  His prints glow.  Absolutely glow.  
      Unexcelled luminosity, especially in the highlights.  If this what a 
      print looks like after it's lost its brighteners, then you can remove 
      all brighteners from my paper, thank you very kindly.

      After the holding bath he selenium tones and uses an HCA bath.   BTW -
      he uses quite dilute selenium to minimize his use of heavy metals
      and soaks prints for a long time.  At that point he figures that there 
      can be virtually no fixer left in the paper.  So his final wash consists 
      of soaking each print individually in a try of water for at least 10 
      minutes and then pouring the water out.  He goes through this loop 3 
      times, squeegees the prints and air drys them on screens.

      Yup.  He doesn't own an archival print washer.  And here I just
      bought one!

      I also note that experts agree that using his "soak-drain" method
      of washing for an hour will produce an "archival wash", whatever
      that means.  He's only doing so for 30 minutes, but with all the soaking
      that they're getting before the final wash, I strongly suspect that
      he's, unwittingly :-), getting an "archival wash", whatever
      (once again) that is.

  - There is no drydown!  Basically, drydown is an artifact of viewing
    prints with dark-adapted eyes under overly bright lights.  He has an
    article on just this subject in a recent edition of Darkroom Techniques
    so I won't belabor it.  But he demonstrated his "two light" viewing system
    and it worked.  The print, wet, looked no better than the dry print did.
    I *did* think that I saw a little more detail in some highlights in the
    dry print, but the sense of luminosity seen in the wet print was not lost 
    in the dry print.  Highlights did not look darker in the dry print than
    in the wet one.

    Get the Darkroom Techniques article.  It'll explain it all.

    BTW - I was gratified to at last find in Bruce someone else who has 
    noticed the incredible amount that FB paper swells when wet and who has 
    theorized that some of the accentuation of detail in highlights of a dry 
    print may be due to the print shrinking back to its dry size, compacting
    all the little specks of black silver. I've measured 16x20 paper 
    to be, indeed, 16x20 when dry but 16x20.625 when wet.  That's a large
    dimensional change.

  - In addition, many of his images are composites of two negatives.  We
    watched him create a new one.  A slit canyon image where two negatives
    had interesting stuff but also boring stuff.  He combined them into
    one print (using two enlargers and easels) so well that you could
    never guess that the image was "manufactured".  He did it in less
    than two hours "from scratch", never having printed it before, and did so
    without benefit of a scanner or computer.  :-)

* Don Kirby demonstrated using split filtration with VC paper to print
  a difficult negative (making a great image of a wheat field with storm
  clouds above it) and also printed an abstract in rock forms which he
  selectively bleached extensively, producing a huge change in the
  final image.  I was amazed.  I'd never known that you could use bleach
  to effect that great a change in a print.

* Dry mounting of prints, including fixing defects (dimples and pimples) in 
  the mounted print.

* Spotting of dust specks and etching out of black marks (from scratches on
  negatives and from dust on negatives at exposure time) on prints.

Other things that I learned:
----- ------ ---- - -------
  * Paper storage:  he removes the inner light-tight envelop and just 
    trusts the box to protect the paper from light.  Seems to work just fine.
    I find the inner envelope to be a pain and put my paper in a paper safe
    while working with it.  But this is a pain if I'm switching contrast
    grades often.  I'm considering trying his techinique.  After all, all I
    have to lose is a few hundred dollars worth of paper, right?  :-)

  * One of the "bibles" often cited here in, "Overexposed", the book
    on photo darkroom hazards, contains at least one notable error.  One of 
    their previous students was director of the USC Medical School.  The issue 
    of toxicity of selenium toner came up during that workshop and when he got 
    home he had a research team look into it.  They concluded that selenium 
    powder is, indeed, extremely dangerous if the dust is inhaled.  As we
    all knew.  But in solution it will not penetrate the skin.  Period.  
    So I've been wearing rubber gloves when toning for no reason.  Guess I 
    should probably refrain from drinking it, though.  :-)
    Although Bruce didn't go into the details, he also said that the 
    researchers found that the book contains several blatant errors on toxicity
    (all on the side of saying that things are more dangerous than they really
    are) and that it comments on the toxicity of at least one compound which 
    just doesn't exist.
    He notes that he's found that mixing developer, stopbath and fix produces
    an excellent fertilizer.  He used to dump it on his lawn and it 
    seemed to thrive on the mixture.
    He does, now, use a "Silver Magnet" to de-silver his fixer before 
    discarding it.
  * Get the hell out of PSA before you're permanently warped.  (PSA is 
    Photographic Society of America - the umbrella organization for many
    photo clubs).  He constantly criticized me for following too many "rules",
    as dearly espoused by the judges in PSA monthly competitions.  Especially 
    wrt composition.  He said that I needed to get the **** out of PSA before 
    the damage is too extensive.  Then said to forget it as it was already too 
    late and I need to spend some time seriously working to unlearn the 
    bullbleep.  That I seem to have a lot of rules floating around in my
    head, especialy wrt composition, and that they were limiting me.

    I have now consorted with maybe half a dozen top fine-art photographers at 
    workshops and classes.  Not one has had anything good to say about this 
    organization.  I also note that I've not heard of any member of PSA who
    has attained the stature of any of these top fine-art photographers.  I'm 
    starting to detect a trend. 
  * I, as was true for many other students, need to be more bold in the
    darkroom.  Make big changes, instead of tiny incremental changes.  Print
    with brighter whites and blacker blacks (I.e. more contrast.)  They 
    thought that many of my prints were muddy and liked them more when I 
    reprinted them during the darkroom sessions to have far more contrast.  
    Personally I think that they're somewhat too contrasty, but I 
    see their point.   I can see some major re-interpreting in the immediate 

  * Bruce devotes a lot of time to questioning why we make photographs.  In 
    particular, before the critique each student was required to explain what
    he's trying to accomplish with his photographs.  Make an "artists
    statement".  Then he might ask questions like:  "And what is this 
    photograph trying to say?"  "Hmmm.  It doesn't really say that to me.  
    Why?  What are you trying to tell me about this subject?"
    The critique lasted as long as necessary to discuss each student's work in
    as much depth as required.  There was no rush.  With 12 students, there
    were 16 hours devoted to the critique.  No sense of being rushed to get
    through.  Each student had the undivided attention of both instructors.
    I've been to workshops where the "critique" took place in a three hour
    period for all 15 students.  And was virtually useless.  This was the
    opposite.  Not necessarily completely comfortable but highly beneficial.
    I learned, maybe more than anything else in this workshop, that I need
    to work on the philosophy of my photography.  I don't think that I can
    grow much more just by exposing film and making prints.  I need to 
    understand, and to be able to verbalize, just what it is that excites me
    and how and what I want to communicate about it to the viewer.  This
    is very difficult for me but I'm now convinced that I must work on it.

    One guy was asking Bruce what was wrong that he couldn't make an
    exciting print from a particular negative.  Bruce kept asking him what
    it was that he liked about the scene and what he was trying to 
    communicate about it.  The guy couldn't articulate it and was frustrated
    because Bruce wouldn't say "burn here and dodge there".  Bruce maintained
    that the reason that he couldn't make an interesting print was because
    he didn't know why he was printing it and the student kept saying
    "I don't want to talk about composition, I want to talk about the
    technicalities."  Interesting conversation.

    During my "artists statement" I said, rather apologetically, that I was a 
    little embarrassed by my photos as everyone else's had been a relative 
    homogeneous body of work whereas mine were "all over the map" - a still 
    life, interior architectural, "grand vista", detail of a pond and 
    grasses, ...  Bruce asked first what was wrong with that? (I suspect
    that he detected a "rule") and then said that he thought that there was 
    more commonality than I was recognizing.  He didn't explicitly state what 
    it was, but I have a sense that he's right.  And I think that I need to 
    figure out what it is in order to continue to grow.  I will.

  * If you don't care about your subject then you'll never make an interesting
    photo of it.  I've been coming to this realization on my own for a while
    but we talked about it considerably.  I have now completely stopped 
    "exposing film because I'm here, even though I'm not really finding 
    anything super interesting".  I realized that Bruce and Don are
    intensely involved with everything that they photograph and it shows
    in their prints.  I think that I must feel the same or there's no point
    to bothering.  As I said, I was tending in this direction before the
    workshop but this crystallized things for me.

  * Shun rules!  Avoid rules!  Break rules!  Don't do rules!  Down with rules!
    Don't justify your compositional choices by citing rules!  We don't *like* 
  * Bruce prices his prints based on size, although he thinks that this is
    silly.  He does so because the world expects it.  But he only prints 
    each image at one size, the size which he thinks "works" best for that
    image.  He considers choice of image size to be an integral part of the 
    creative process.  
    He dislikes the "limited edition" concept and considers his bowing to the 
    demands of galleries and starting a few limited editions to have been a 
    really big mistake.
There was much, much more to be learned in this class and from these 
people.  However, by no means do I think that I've "gone to the mountain and 
come down with the commandments".  Nor would Bruce or Don want students to feel
that way.  What I've learned is a little bit about how two extraordinary 
photographers work, think and feel and now I can incorporate these into
my own way of working as works best for me.  This is what they want the
students to do.  This workshop was an outstanding opportunity for growth and 
I cannot recommend it too highly.

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