Form in Steam & Steel

Exposing the Architecture in Steam Locomotives

by Gordon Osmundson

The following article appeared in an abbreviated form in the May/June issue of View Camera Magazine . This article was originally written to describe six images, but due to space limitations in the magazine it had to be shortened to describe only four. The version here, has the original text and images plus several additional images to illustrate things described in the text.


Many people are born with a predisposition to be drawn to certain subjects. I think it is safe to say that most of those reading these pages had a predisposition to be drawn to photography, I certainly did. But before that latent interest in photography was awakened, I developed a fascination with trains. Perhaps the concept of a train is something that a small child can grasp more easily than the concept of taking pictures, I don't know. But my father tells me that I made him read "The Little Engine that Could" over and over. So he says, my memory doesn't go back that far.

We had a model train layout in the garage and he took me down to the Berkeley depot to see the City of San Francisco and the Cascade head out of town. At that time, I was in grade school, the model railroad required more skills than I had, but I built model airplanes and tanks. We moved just before I entered the sixth grade and the trains went into the closet and my interests went to model cars. Then for Christmas when I was in the seventh grade, I got enough model railroad stuff to get things out of the closet and I was immediately hooked by the railroad bug and they have been an ongoing fascination ever since.

While in the ninth grade my Dad, who was a good photographer, lent me his Contaflex and I began taking Kodachromes of the local railroads. Little did I realize that I had awaked another latent fascination. For about the next ten years model trains and railroad photography were my chief preoccupations. Using first my bicycle, then the family car and finally my own car I traveled far and wide in search of that perfect shot of a train going around a curve in stunning scenery.

Diesel powered trains are nice, but my real love was for steam locomotives. Unfortunately by the time I developed my interest in trains, steam had vanished from the main line railroads and almost everywhere else in this country as well. There were a few exceptions, some tourist lines ran steam on a regular basis, there were a few other machines kept operational for special excursions and there was still the Colorado narrow gauge. Once I had my own set of wheels I went off to see and photograph the last remaining steam locomotives.

U.P. 8444, Front View What then seemed most important was my slide collection, but my dad had, still has, a darkroom and I experimented with black and white. In 1969 some friends and I went to Salt Lake City to see Unions Pacific's #8444 being run in conjunction with the centennial of the driving of the Golden Spike. My dad said that I should try taking pictures, not just of the train going down the track, but some details of the machines as well and he lent me his Rolliflex. The results were good and I began doing some more of this with my 35mm. I also began taking some landscape photographs in both color and black and white.
Valve Gear, U.P. 8444
Christmas 1972, my Father gives me a copy of Ansel Adams "Camera and Lens" and photography was never the same for me again. I was fascinated by the View Cameras movements and the techniques of the Zone System. The inherent sharpness of large format was another inducement. I knew it was something I had to do. I had a vision of becoming the intrepid photographer venturing out to bring back the great American landscape photograph.

My dad had a view camera that he rarely used, but I wanted one of my own. As I was out of school and had a job, I could afford to buy a camera and soon had a new Calumet CC400, a few lenses, a tripod, a spot meter and some film holders. Off I went driving around trying to find something to photograph, but this approach often proved more frustrating than productive. My first worthwhile image was not really a landscape, but rather a scene of an estuary under a freeway overpass.

Corta Madera Wye The first year I had the view camera I was mostly looking for landscapes to photograph but I hadn't given up on slides of steam trains going down the track. That summer I made a trip to Wyoming and Colorado with a plan to shoot slides of U.P.'s 8444 on an excursion out of Denver then follow this up doing large format landscapes on the return trip across Colorado and the Southwest. This great locomotive was based out of Cheyenne and its four day itinerary called for it to make a deadhead move on the point of the Amtrak's then tri-weekly California Zephyr to Denver on the first day, head up an excursion to Laramie and back the second day, lay over for a day in Denver then on day four return to Cheyenne on the westbound California Zephyr.

As kind of an afterthought, I decided to try doing some locomotive close-ups in large format. The railroad was giving rail enthusiasts pretty much free access to the Cheyenne roundhouse and the yards in Denver. On the first day I did a number of shots in the roundhouse, a couple of which turned out well. Day two I stuck pretty much to Kodachrome, but did attempt one runby in large format. On day three I took the view camera to the yards in Denver.

Crosshead, U.P. 8444 I arrived in the yards in mid-morning and found the locomotive facing north. I parked to the east and approached the 8444 from the sunny side as I looked for compositions within the machinery. I was drawn to the crosshead and the rods that surround it and composed the image which I later named "Crosshead, U.P. 8444." When I did this image I knew that I was on to something. I did a number of other images that morning, but this is my favorite and to this day it remains one of my favorites.

You can learn a lot from your successes and this is a photograph that has taught me a lot about image making. After printing it, I was amazed at how much detail large format can reveal. I expected it to be sharper than medium format, but not how it could convey a sense that you could reach right in and feel the hardness of the steel and the stickiness of the grease. Look at the polish of the working surfaces and the hammer and machine marks elsewhere.

At the time, I didn't know much about the concept of photographic composition, the aesthetics of light or anything about abstract form, yet I responded to all these things. I was attracted to the dynamic forms of the wheels and rods and the glint of light from the polished parts of the working machinery. Note how the eye first takes in the overall structure of the image, then is drawn in and then around inside, finally lingering over the smaller details. The parts fill the frame with a comfortable space around them and are approximately parallel to the borders. I am careful to print this image so that the guide rod across the top is exactly horizontal, but the other rods are only close to being parallel to the border. This gives the image structure, but keeps it from becoming too rigid. The parts in this image are physically linked together and the image is about the architecture of this arrangement.

Now look at how the light works for the image. I rakes across the parts making textures stand out. The bright metal of the rods and nuts stand out in relief against the deep shadows under the boiler. Viewed from a distance, a framed print on the wall has depth, a three dimensional quality.

As I say, I wasn't aware of all this at the time I made the image, but one of the great things about photography, especially large format photography, is that the camera accurately records every subtlety so you get what you are responding to not just what you are consciously aware of. If the negative is properly exposed, all that is left is for the photographer is to properly render the print values in the darkroom.

This image was made with one of my two main lenses at the time, a 150mm Ilex Acuton or a 254mm Ilex Acutar, probably the 150. The deep shadows and the glint of the bright metal produce a moderately high contrast and N-1 development was indicated. I used Tri-X developed in D-23. At first I printed it on Kodak Kodabromide #2 with just a little burning in the lower left corner which suffers from a light leak. Soon after I began using it, Kodabromide went downhill and I switched to Ilfobrome and then, when it first came out, If lord Galerie and now Galerie FB. In the last printing I increased the contrast slightly to intensify the blacks, printing it soft, that is two Minutes Selectol Soft 1:1 and one minute Dektol 1:2, on #3 Galerie FB, the mid tones have stayed about the same but I now need to burn in some of the hot spots and strengthen the corners.

In the 1970's there were plenty of rail enthusiasts, rail photographers and railroad clubs, but there was almost no railway preservation movement. There were some museums, the states of Colorado and New Mexico had acquired 68 miles of the old narrow gauge and saved it from being scraped and a few clubs had started to collect equipment, but most club activity concerned excursions on operational railroads and evening slide shows. Then in 1975 there was a major breakthrough.

For the nations bicentennial there was a well funded plan to operate a special commemorative train, the American Freedom Train. Steam power was specified and a search was begun for a suitable locomotive. An oil fired locomotive of the 4-8-4 wheel arrangement was deemed most suitable. U.P.'s 8444 could have done the job, but the U.P. didn't want to loan her out. Former Southern Pacific #4449, then rusting away in a Portland, Oregon park, was selected. At the time, restoring a park locomotive was unheard of (it has been done many times since), now it was going to be done and sent on a nation wide tour.

After the restoration was completed, the first move would be made with a short train from Portland south to Sacramento, then east to join the complete train. A friend and I drove up to Dunsmuir and followed the train down to Sacramento photographing it in 35mm. The next day the engine was placed on public display at the Sacramento depot. I took my 4x5 and drove up from Berkeley to do some close-ups.

Daylight This locomotive is unique today because it is one of only a few surviving art decco streamlined steam locomotives and the only one that is operational. Built to pull the streamlined "Coast Daylight," a skyline casing covers the domes and smokestack and skirts sweep up from the pilot and back to the cab. In its original red, orange and black livery the effect was quite striking and the S.P. could make the undisputed claim to have the most beautiful train in the world. But on that day in Sacramento those beautiful skirts cast a shadow across the top of the wheels and rods making close- up photographs on the sunny side of the locomotive impossible. I did several views of the front then went around to have a look at the north side.

The old girl was all dolled-up, the wheels and rods were polished and bare metal just glowed in the north light. I did one image of the eccentric crank. I used Tri-X developed in D-23 and probably, based on the images perspective, the 254mm Acutar. I have lost the records on the degree of development given.

Unfortunately, there was something wrong with the box of Tri-X I was using and all the shadows I did with it were underexposed including this one. (I've never had this problem before or since.) There is just a trace of detail in the black paint of the wheel. There are some other problems as well, there is a slight light leak in the left corner and the castle nut in the upper right is slightly out of focus. Despite these problems, this has been one of my most popular images and has been printed many times.

Eccentric Crank, S.P. 4449 But, it took awhile before I learned how to print it right. Initially I printed it on Kodabromide number three paper. This brought out the graphic qualities of the image, it was okay but just didn't shine. Several years later, I was looking at a print I had on the wall and I thought, maybe I should try this on #4 paper. This made all the difference, now the glow of that north light came out, the graphic design was reinforced as well.

Currently I print this image soft on Galerie FB #4. I work to hold all the detail I can in the dark part of the wheel. A certain amount of edge and corner burning is needed to strengthen some week areas and to keep some highlights in the upper left from getting blocked up. The castle nut is also burned down in part so that the out of focus area does not call attention to itself.

In the fall of 1975 I stared in graduate school and my camera didn't come out very much for quite awhile. In fact it would be 1982 before I really took up photography in earnest again. At that time I was thinking of myself as being a photographic artist, but I realized that I wasn't doing that much. I decided to reapply myself and for inspiration I signed up for some workshops. At the time the work that I had done could best be described as eclectic; some sand dunes, other landscapes, a little architecture and some mechanical/industrial scenes and details. One piece of advice I received at the workshops was that I should do a series, that is a body of work with a common theme. Well, okay, but what? Well why not steam locomotive details? I hadn't seen anybody else doing it, I had a good start on it and it was something I liked and knew.

Unfortunately opportunities to work on this subject are few and far between, but there are some. In fact as the railroad preservation movement has gathered steam (pun intended) there have been more and more opportunities. I have tried to follow up every chance to work on this series, but it has been a long term effort. Since beginning this I have tended to work in series and have done grain elevators, railroad machine shops, vintage cars, used flash bulbs, ghost towns, sand dunes and currently trains at night and a macro series on the head from my car. Most of these series have had a beginning and an end or at least a point where I moved on to other things, but the steam series has continued. This is in part because it can only be incremented a little at a time but also because I am actively involved in railway preservation and so am around the subject anyway.

In the mid 1980's operations of the Kennecott Copper Company around Ely, Nevada came to a close. Kennecott had a huge open pit mine southwest of town and a smelter to the north. To get the ore out of the mine and then to move it to the smelter, Kennecott had its own mine railroad. It also had a short line railroad, the Nevada Northern, to link the mines, mills and the town of Ely with the outside world. To support these railroad operations, the company had yards and a fairly extensive set of shops in Ely. With the closing of the mines and the scraping of the mill, there was no longer any need for the railroad and it was closed down.

Now all this would not be so remarkable except for what happened next. Normally one would expect that a railroad that was no longer needed would be scraped, but that didn't happen. Ely was a one company town and the loss of the mines was blow to the local economy. To do something tangible for the region, the company gave much of the railroad, including about 10 miles of line, the yards, the shops and a representative collection of rolling stock, to the community and a non-profit corporation, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum was set up to preserve and interpret the artifacts. Not only would this preserve some of Nevada's history, but, hopefully, the museum would generate tourist income for the community.

What the Railway Museum got was something truly extraordinary. The rail operations had been so extensive that the shops to support them were like a small division point on a main line railroad. While the railroad was dieselized, all the steam era facilities were still there. Today it is the largest and most complete steam era maintenance facility left in the United States. The rolling stock included one operational steam locomotive, a passenger engine of the 4-6-0 type, #40, several diesel locomotives, a steam rotary snowplow, steam wrecker (crane), wooden passenger cars, steam era freight cars and other maintenance equipment. Two other steamers, 2-8-0 freighters numbers 81 and 93 sat on display next to the highway in Ely and were soon moved to the shops. The 93 was later restored and placed in service. The shops included an eight track engine house, a very complete machine shop, a paint shop, car shop, small office building, coal tipple, water tower and assorted other structures. The depot and freight shed are not a part of the museum but belong instead to the Nevada State Railroad Museum.

The museum began operations in 1986 using the #40 and the diesels. I learned about it from the railfan press and made my first trip to see it during the summer of 1988. Since that time, I have made several trips to Ely and stop there to see what's going on every time I drive to Colorado and other points east. The last four images in this article were all made at Ely.

Ely can be difficult to photograph, pleasing compositions don't jump out at you, instead you need to be patient, keep your eyes open and explore things carefully. Summer light can be very unforgiving, bright and harsh on the faded surfaces of cars, buildings, the gray ballast and the surrounding hills while the shadows beneath the railroad rolling stock are intensely dark. The rolling stock that is outside, while sound, looks faded and little used. With its rusty wheels, it doesn't have that sparkle of equipment that is in daily use.

(I haven't tried it but a film like T Max 400 which has a short toe and a straight line curve would be probably be better here than the Tri-X I normally use. Tri-X has a longer toe and generally depressed shadows. The T-Max normally has shadows that are too open to give a good graphic design to images, but with these already dark shadows and bright highlights a film with a straighter response curve could be more forgiving.)

But with patience Ely can yield rich rewards. If anyone is working in the shops, you are welcome to come in and bring your camera. I've even been left there while everyone went to lunch. Best results are to be had when the trains are operating, which is most weekends during the summer season. Call ahead or check the internet for schedules.

The image "Spoked Wheels and Rods, N.N. #40" was made on that trip in 1988. It was one of those harsh summer days and many of my images suffered from the intensity of the shadows. This one, however, was made in the open shadow of the shady side of the engine. As I remember, at the time, I was not that impressed with the light in this shadow, but I was intent on adding to my series on locomotive wheels and rods so I went ahead and did this composition.

Spoked Wheel & Rods When I first printed this image in 1988, I was not that impressed with it. I just didn't like the print values in it and blamed the quality of the light by which it was exposed. In 1997 I had just completed a large number of additional images on the Nevada Northern, mostly in the shops and went back to try reprinting some of the earlier images made back in 88. Much to my surprise, my printing had evolved in the meantime and I was able to get more out of every one of the negatives. I had a bunch of other new steam locomotive detail shots from Ely, but decided to try this one again anyway. This time I had little difficulty getting a very pleasing print.

The negative was given N-1 development in Edwal FG7, my standard developer since about 1983. I could have used normal development as the image is printed soft on Galerie FB #3. There is a lot of edge and corner burning across the bottom and some across the top. There are also six hot spots that had to be burned in. I have lost my notes from the first printing in 1988, but that print is darker and flatter, it was probably done on #2 paper. It has a full range of print values, but the shadows are darker and harder to see into. The bright areas are also depressed. I credit the burning of the hot spots as the trick that made the later prints successful as this allowed the use of a higher contrast grade of paper.

You may have noticed that there is a strong architecture to the preceding three images. You would be correct if you said that this was inherent in the subjects, but it was this architecture that attracted me to create the images and many of my non-railroad photographs have this same quality. I'm usually not attracted to architecture by architects, but rather by the form and structure of industrial facilities. You can find this kind of "design" in some of Ansel Adams images, particularly the non- landscapes, but in some of the landscapes as well and this in part was what attracted me to his work. It was also a common element in the work of both the painters and photographers of the Precisionist Movement in modern art in the 20's and 30's. The subject mater of the Precisionists was also similar to my own although they were portraying the sky scrapers, bridges and industrial works of a young and vigorous nation, things that seemed heroic at the time but that we tend to take for granted today. One of the best known images of this period was Charles Sheeler's "Rolling Power," a photograph, and later a painting, of the wheels and rods of a then modern New York Central J3a type Hudson locomotive. I have a poster of this over my fireplace and I've had friends think it was one of my pictures. I like to think of myself today as being a kind of New Precisionist.

This Precisionist quality was not in my photography before I became involved in large format, but as soon as I started to use a view camera, my images took on this quality. I was familiar with Adams' work when I began in large format, but until recently I knew nothing about the Precisionist movement. I think that this style was something that was latent within me and I just needed the right equipment to bring it out. A 4x5 view camera is the perfect instrument for me and I prefer the monorail type as its movements are more flexible particularly in the extent of available rise and fall.

In 1983, when I inadvertently left my truck unlocked and my view camera kit disappeared, I replaced the Calumet CC400 with a Calumet 45N because it had four inches of rise and fall front and back. My usual modus operandi is to aim the camera at the subject, level it, then do the vertical part of composing the image using the rise and fall. I don't even think about there being a centered position for the rise and fall. To replace the Ilex lenses I bought 150 and 210mm Fuginon W's. (A 250mm Fuji was a lot more money.) To these I added a 115mm Grandagon, then a 300mm Nikor M9 and then a 90mm Grandagon. Later I acquired a 450mm Nikor M9. (I've acquired more lenses recently but that's another story.) "Spoked Wheels and Rods, N.N. #40" was made with the 210.

In 1996 I made a couple of trips to Colorado, I stopped in Ely both times. On the second trip I went into the machine shop and spent some time inspecting the work being done on the #93 which was being repaired after a head on collision with a runaway flat car on the grade up to Keystone. After doing some photographs in the machine shop, I went through the door into the engine house.

Light Falls #3 I was greeted by a stunning sight. It was Friday and the #40 was being steamed up for the next days run. Although the engines smoke stack was under one of the buildings smoke jacks, smoke still curled through the room. In the ceiling of this large dark room were clerestory lites (vertical skylights) running the length of the room. The sun was at such an elevation in the sky that it cast a broad narrow beam down from the clerestory lites. This beam lit up the smoke creating a gossamer curtain of light running the length of the room.

I looked at this curtain of light and I said to myself "If I can see it, I can photograph it." The challenge was to work it into a composition. I got my camera and set it up. Next I used a card with a 4x5 hole cut in it to isolate scenes and frame compositions. I worked out a composition looking up into the lites with the curtain of light streaming down toward the camera. Visible through the curtain, the ends of rail cars lurked in the shadows. I did several exposures using both of the Grandagon lenses. In each exposure the curtain was different as the smoke drifted through the room.

I expected the sun to move and the curtain of light to vanish, but the path the sun took through the sky was mostly parallel to the clerestory and the light held for some time. I had something that seemed, and later proved, to be satisfactory, so now I could take my time in exploring the room and seeing what else could be done. I did several more images from the open isle under the clerestory down the center of the room then walked down between the rotary snowplow and the wrecker with its tender.

The boom of the wrecker, with its hook hanging down, loomed up on my left. Behind it was another curtain of light from a second clerestory. Space was very tight and the only way to work was with the Grandagons. The whole thing was so overwhelming I had to suspend critical judgement and I shut off my internal dialog. But I didn't stop working. I have noticed this happen before, if I'm working alone with a productive subject, I find that I just don't have to think about what I'm doing. I just know what to do and do it instinctively. My awareness of what I'm doing is very acute. I made two compositions one aimed at the body of the wrecker with the boom on the left, the other is the one you see here. It doesn't have the kind of balanced symmetry I usually strive for, suspended judgement, but the forms are very dynamic. I titled this image "Hook and Boom."

Hook & Boom With the deep shadows and bright sunlit areas there was a lot of contrast. N-2 development was indicated and this was accomplished in a two solution D-23/Borax developer. I have printed this negative a number of times. At first it was printed medium on #2 Galerie, 1 1/4 minutes Selctol Soft and 1-3/4 minutes Dektol. Then, sometime around early 1997, Ilford made a change in Galerie, a change they will not acknowledge, and it lost about a half to 2/3 of a grade of contrast. I now print this image with two minutes Dektol and no Selctol. The prints get quite a bit of edge and corner burning and the curtain of light above the boom gets burned in slightly.

In early December of 1996 the museum held a special event for people like me, that is they held a photographer's weekend. Special trains were run with both vintage freight and passenger cars. The stars were the #40 and the #93 which was doing its inaugural run after its repairs. I went to Ely two days early so that I could do some photography in and around the shops as the locomotives were being readied. This proved to be a good plan as I made quite a few successful images on those two days. One of the more unusual is the one shown here.

#40 Seen Through #93 On Friday both engines were fired up and moved around the shop and yards. One of the first moves placed the locomotives side-by-side just outside the engine house doors. As the locomotive equivalent of a small dray horse, the #93 has very low drivers but the boiler is mounted fairly high. The result is that there is an unusual amount of space under the boiler and you can look right through. I was walking around looking for angles that could lead to good compositions and saw the wheels and rods of the #40 through the #93. I then worked to find the right camera position that would provide the right perspective to an image as well as a satisfying arrangement of locomotive components. I settled on this and for this angle and perspective the 210mm lens provided the right cropping of the subject. Some adjustments were no doubt needed to get the angle of coverage of the lens to work with the composition. The railroaders held the locomotives in place for a few extra moments while I completed my setup and exposed two negatives.

The 93 was very close and the needed depth of field was very great. I focused on both the nearest and farthest objects and split the difference on the monorail. I stopped the lens down as far as it would go, approximately f80 and crossed my fingers. I did not get everything in perfect focus, but it was close enough. There is a slight loss of focus on the nearest part of the power reverse, the large cylinder in the upper left, and part of the driving wheels showing in the lower corners. Also the #40's driver and rods are not in perfect focus. I do not know if you can see this at the size the image is reproduced here. It is just visible in an 8x10 print, but quite apparent in an 11x14. I have not printed this at 16x20. The #40's being slightly out of focus helps so give a sense of depth and separation to the image. So too does the fresh paint on the #93 and the faded and weathered finish on the #40.

(Many photographer's seem to think that diffraction at very small "f" stops will lead to a loss of sharpness that should be avoided. No doubt there is a loss of sharpness, but I have done many photographs at f64 and found that enlargements at least to 11x14 have been satisfactory.)

On Saturday and Sunday the Museum ran randouble headed mixed trains with both locomotives and passenger trains with the #40 and freights with the #93. The drill was that the train would stop and everyone with a camera would get off. A photoline would then be formed so that everyone could get a shot without other people being in the picture. The train or trains would back-up and then charge the photo line making all the smoke they could. In the photoline there would be a clatter of shutters and the whirring of video and movie cameras.

Saturday night we had a steak barbeque followed by a night photo session. Here the locomotives were posed in front of some feature like the depot or engine house and the photographers would then select a position for their shot and set up their camera on a tripod. Open flash was used. That is the shutters were opened on T or B and someone walked around popping flash bulbs. Old flash bulbs were used as modern consumer electronic flash equipment is not powerful enough to photograph something as big as a train.

This was something new to me. There was no way to use a light meter or calculate the degree of development or use the zone system in any way. I had to ask someone what exposure to use, after saying I was shooting Tri-X rated at ASA 320 (I normally shoot it at ASA 400 or 640, but I was being conservative), I was told to use, as I recall, f16. I made a guess at the development and gave all the negatives normal development.

Down by the Depot The image shown here was from the first session that night. I composed the image so that the back of the tender was cut off. This way you can't tell that there was no train behind the locomotive. The 210 Fuji was used. The flash bulbs were set off on the near side of the locomotive, but not the front. Additional flash was set off from the far side of the engine to light up the depot. If you look closely you can see multiple shadows cast by the different bulbs. What you can't see is the person walking around inside the picture flashing the bulbs.

Considering that I didn't know what I was doing, I think that this turned out fairly well. Leslie Levy Fine Art did a poster of it and it was for the poster that we came up with the title. Something a little fun was needed, but I insisted the title be technically correct as rail enthusiasts know absolutely everything about trains and if what you say is incorrect someone will comment on it. As the depot is at the foot of a hill, this image is titled "Down by the Depot."

The negative is fairly easy to print. It needs to be burned in some on the lower right corner and upper left plus some more burning along the side edges. The depot around the headlight must be burned in. The biggest problem is that Venus left a streak in the middle of the clouds of steam and it is just a bitch to spot it out.

I guess that I never became the landscape photographer that I expected to be when I was first inspired by the work of Ansel Adams, but Ansel was a born naturalist and I was a born gear head. I have photographed the things that fascinate me and I have done it in a style that reflects the way I see them. I think that one of the great things about living in this country is that one can spend a lifetime pursuing a boyhood passion and through my photography that is what I have been doing.

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