7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

I can’t remember the exact moment that I discovered the work of Saul Leiter. I think I remember seeing some link on the internet about the discovery of one of the earliest “pioneers” in color street photography. But upon hearing this, I didn’t dig into it too deeply.

About a year ago when I was in Marseille, I re-discovered Saul’s work through a good friend of mine, Yves Vernin. When I left Marseille back to America, he gave me a beautiful Saul Leiter book. When I flipped through the pages, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful colors, reflections, and abstractions of Leiter. It was unlike any street photography I had seen before. It was much more romantic, poetic, and full of expression.

I then started to research more on Saul Leiter and have not only appreciated his images, but his philosophy of life. At his late eighties, he is very down-to-earth, and has no interest in legacy or fame. He lived a simple life and even now with his sudden rise in fame, his ego hasn’t inflated one bit.

In anticipation for the DVD release of his film “In No Great Hurry I wanted to write this article about lessons in street photography (and life) I have learned from Saul Leiter.

1. Compress your images

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

I have never been a fan of using telephoto lenses in street photography. Generally I find them to be impersonal, and a bit sneaky when taking photos of strangers.

However my opinions have changed once I started seeing the work of Leiter. His images aren’ sneaky at all. They focus on shapes, lights, shadows, abstractions, and the colors of everyday life. Much of his street photography is shot with a relatively long lens– which compresses his scenes. I feel the compression of the scenes with the long lens creates a distinctive geometric look, which I very much enjoy.

In an interview with Time Leiter shares his experiences using a telephoto lens to compress his scenes:

Q: Many of your images have a compressed spatial perspective. Was the telephoto your preferred lens?

Leiter: I liked different lenses for different times. I am fond of the telephoto lens, as I am of the normal 50 mm lens. I had at one point a 150 mm lens and I was very fond it. I liked what it did. I experimented a lot. Sometimes I worked with a lens that I had when I might have preferred another lens. I think Picasso once said that he wanted to use green in a painting but since he didn’t have it he used red. Perfection is not something I admire. [Laughs]. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.

As you see in the transcript above, Leiter was a huge fan of experimentation and used different focal lengths to discover his visual language and imagery. At a time when using wide angle lenses were suitable for street photography– he went against the grain and used telephoto lenses to compress his images. And through this compression, he could simplify his images and create more distinct geometric shapes.

Takeaway point:

I am not encouraging everyone to go out and buy a 500mm lens for street photography– but I do encourage everyone to experiment with different focal lengths.

Personally I still prefer street photography with wider lenses (35mm, 28mm) but if you are going for a certain look and perspective– you need to use different focal lengths.

So if you are into compression and geometric shapes (Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm most of his entire life) try using a longer lens. Discover your visual imagery through experimentation.

2. Don’t worry about fame

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

One of the things I find most admirable about Leiter is that he lived a simple life without worrying about fame or recognition for his work. Very similar to Vivian Maier he shot mostly for himself and stored his color slide shots in a box. It wasn’t until the 90′s when he started to print his images did he start getting recognized for his work.

Even though now he is immensely popular and being written into the canon of the “Masters” of street photography, he is still humble about his work and life.

Leiter never cared to be famous for his work, as he shares:

“**I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous**. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success.

My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.”

In an interview by David Gibson from In-Public, Leiter shares how even great talent can be ignored in history:

Gibson: Do you consider recognition as a somewhat random occurrence or do you think that true creativity will eventually be given the respect it deserves?

Leiter: The cream does not always rise to the surface. The history of art is a history of great things neglected and ignored and bad and mediocre things being admired. As someone once said “life is unfair.” In the 19th Century someone was very lucky. He or she acquired a Vermeer for $ 12. There are always changes and revisions of the appreciation of art, artists, and photography and writers and on and on. The late art of Picasso is no good but then a revision takes place and then it becomes very good as the art records indicate. Things come and go.

So you could essentially be the most talented photographer, but if history doesn’t play out in your favor– you can easily go ignored.

In a similar vein, he mentions how he believes that to be ignored if a privilege:

“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”

Takeaway point:

In the west, to become rich, powerful, and famous are desirable traits. I can definitely agree that in photography, everyone wants to become a celebrity and have hundreds of thousands of followers, to have exhibitions all around the world, and make a ton of money.

However for Leiter he didn’t care for any of that. Rather, he avoided fame– and lived a simple life for himself. He shot what he enjoyed, not needing external recognition or affirmation from others. He was happy and enjoyed his photography.

At times I wish I could be more recognized and famous for my photography. However a great lesson I learned from Leiter is to not worry about the fame and recognition- and simply shoot for yourself, and be happy.

3. Search for beauty

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

One of the traits I love about Leiter’s work is that it is very elegant. The soft pastels in his color photography as well as sometimes the intensity highlights the beauty of everyday life. Leiter isn’t a photographer who is looking for the pain and suffering of everyday life. Rather, he looks for the positive and uplifting moments and images of the world:

Q: Color is obviously a big part of your aesthetic, yet I think it sometimes obscures other concerns. For example, the people in your photographs are often hemmed in, fragmented or isolated from one another. Do you see the urban environment as a kind of alienating or isolating entity?

LEiter: I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery and wretchedness, now these are worth perusing.

Takeaway point:

I think as street photographers it is easy to be lured into taking dark, gritty, and gloomy photos. After all, there is a sense of romanticism to the darkness of everyday life– and many photographers in history have been attracted to photographing the homeless, destitute, those addicted to drugs or alcohol, or in depressing situations.

As important as it is to capture the negative aspects of society– it is equally as important to capture the beautiful and positive moments in life.

Leiter with his upbeat and positive attitude certainly shows his life philosophy through his work. His photos are colorful, bright, and joyful. They make the viewer reflect on the wonderful parts of life– in the everyday.

So realize that when you are shooting street photography you don’t need to be in some “faraway dreamland to find beauty.” Look at the life you live, and photograph the beautiful things in your everyday life. Photograph your family, your kids, your friends, your co-workers, the neighborhood you live in, your workplace, around your workplace– and find the positivity and beauty that permeates around you.

4. Learn to see

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

Nowadays we are often obsessed about cameras, equipment, and lenses when it comes to capturing more compelling images. However the most important aspect we need to nurture and develop is our eyes.

Leiter shares the importance of noticing things you would not normally pay attention to (in order to make a great photograph):

I think I’ve said this before many times—that photography allows you to learn to look and see. You begin to see things you had never paid any attention to. And as you photograph, one of the benefits is that the world becomes a much richer, juicier, visual place. Sometimes it is almost unbearable—it is too interesting. And it isn’t always just the photos you take that matters. It is looking at the world and seeing things that you never photograph that could be photographs if you had the energy to keep taking pictures every second of your life.”

Takeaway point:

I feel that the best street photographers are the ones who are the most observant. The best street photographers notice small details that other photographers tend to look. The best street photographers tend to be curious and inquisitive about the world– and see the world in a unique way.

Know that no matter how boring you think your neighborhood, city, or life is– there is a lot of interesting things to photograph. Even if you live in a suburb, taking photos of the banality of suburban living is fascinating.

Realize how blessed we are with vision and being able to see the world in the richness that we do.

A great way to motivate yourself to shooting more: imagine that you learned that you had a rare eye disease and that by the end of the year you would become totally blind. Would you appreciate seeing the details of your world and life differently? How would you photograph differently? And what would you photograph? What do you find most visually interesting in your life– that you often overlook? Keep this in mind and shoot!

5. Don’t have a philosophy

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

While I believe that it is important to have a vision and a philosophy when it comes to photography– Leiter would tell me otherwise. Leiter doesn’t have a grand philosophy when it comes to capturing the world around him. He take a more pragmatic approach: he just goes out and photographs what he finds interesting:

Q: Is it fair to say that you were more interested in evoking the character of New York City’s people rather than its architecture?

Leiter: I didn’t photograph people as an example of New York urban something or other. I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.

Q: Is there a philosophy or outlook that you have tried to communicate in your work?

Leiter: I didn’t try to communicate any kind of philosophy since I am not a philosopher. I am a photographer. That’s it.

Takeaway point:

I think when it comes to street photography– you should follow your personality. If you live in the world of theories and concepts– embrace your philosophy of photography. But if you find yourself more of a pragmatist don’t feel obliged to have a philosophy when it comes to your photography.

Regardless if you have a philosophy or not when it comes to your street photography– the most important thing is to simply have a camera, go out, and capture the world around you. Having a philosophy comes second.

6. Be humble

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

One of the reasons why I think that Leiter is so greatly admired (besides his photographs) is that he is humble. He doesn’t boast of his accomplishments nor put himself on a pedestal. He lives an ordinary life and doesn’t think of himself as particularly important. He explains by saying:

“I’m sometimes mystified by people who keep diaries. I never thought of my existence as being that important.”

When it comes to ambition, he prefers to be much more low-key as well:

“I have a deep-seated distrust and even contempt for people who are driven by ambition to conquer the world … those who cannot control themselves and produce vast amounts of crap that no one cares about. I find it unattractive. I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.

Leiter encourages all of us to be a lot less serious when it comes to our photography and lives:

“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it… Maybe I was irresponsible. But part of the pleasure of being alive is that I didn’t take everything as seriously as one should.

My favorite quote about not worrying about self-admiration involves music and spaghetti:

I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism. Or, to put it yet another way, the mirror is not my best friend.”

Takeaway point:

I think we all should become much more humble in our pursuits and expectations out of life (myself included). We should be humble when we are admired for our work– and not strive to become “successful” but the standards of others.

When I shoot street photography of course I have a strong ambition to capture memorable and meaningful images. However as my buddy Jack Simon says, the thing he always enjoys when shooting on the street is to simply walk around, enjoy the street art, have some nice parties and coffee.

So remember that street photography isn’t a competition in where there are winners and losers. It isn’t a zero-sum game. Rather, be humble in your pursuits– collaborate with other street photographers, and enjoy the experience of shooting on the streets.

7. Be inspired by paintings

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

One thing that I found fascinating about Leiter is that not only did he photograph his entire life, he also painted quite a bit as well.

When I look at his street photography, I would say it is far less inspired by photography– and more inspired by abstract, surreal, and expressionist painters. In interviews Leiter shares that he does gain a great deal of inspiration from painters – and I think it shows very clearly through his work.

Takeaway point:

As Richard Bram says, don’t simply look at photographers for inspiration. Rather, study art history. See the great work that has been done before photography– and become inspired by that as well as photography. Develop your visual literacy by studying the master painters, and see how you can apply those same elements to your street photography. Composition, framing, use of light and colors are all aspects you can learn from painting.

So along with photography books, buy books on art. Visit museums, galleries, and exhibitions. Visit your local library and borrow as many books on art history that you can. I can guarantee you that this will help improve your photographic vision.

Conclusion

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

© Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter is inspirational not only through his street photography but his zen-like philosophies of life. We should all learn from him to embrace color, light, and abstractions in our photography– as well as embrace simplicity, humbleness, and detachment from our work and fame.

To see more work from Saul Leiter, you can see his portfolio on In-Public.

Videos

Trailer for “In No Great Hurry

Saul Leiter Interview in Hamburg

Bibliography

Books

Saul Leiter Retrospective ~ $51 USD

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

A large retrospective of Leiter’s work (nearly 300 pages long). A great bang-for-the buck with Leiter’s work.

Saul Leiter: Early Color ~ $130 USD

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

One of my favorite monographs on Leiter’s work. Quite expensive– the cheapest used on Amazon is around $130 USD.

Saul Leiter [Steidl] ~ $150 USD

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Leiter’s work published by the best publisher in the world, Steidl. If you want to see Leiter’s work in the best print quality, this book is for you.

Saul Leiter (Photofile) ~ $13 USD

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography

A great introduction to Leiter’s work in a pocket-sized and convenient book. The most affordable book you can get by Leiter!

What do you think of Leiter’s work and how has he influenced you? Share your thoughts on his photography (and life philosophy) in the comments below! 

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  • OGR

    “However a great lesson I learned from Leiter is to not worry about the fame and recognition- and simply shoot for yourself, and be happy.”

    So far i have not seen a single photograph of yours which i felt you have shot for yourself. You shoot to please an audience of a certain taste.

    Judging by your own work, i find it surprising that you enjoy Saul Leiter’s work.

    I am not saying this from hate, i am not trolling. I am saying what i feel.

    • ken

      Do you enjoy anything from this site? I may be wrong, but everytime I scroll down to the comments your posts say something negative about Eric or his posts or his photography. If you don’t like this website, why do you continue to visit it???

      • OGR

        Because i love photography. I visit no less than 20 photography related websites and nowhere do i feel the need to register my voice but for this site. The reason is, this site is about everything but photography. This site is about shameless self-promotion, for talking rubbish about photography and misleading an audience not having much knowledge of photography.

        Just because i don’t agree with what he says( and i believe i have good reasons to do so) doesn’t make my comments negative.

        • JH

          I think the internet has helped usher-in the age of the “branded artist”. Be it a photographer / painter / graffiti artist – that builds a following regardless of personal accomplishment or talent. After building brand equity using Facebook or a blog the artist becomes more important within his/her field. Like anything in this world, I think it’s important to embrace brands that shares their values with yours. I agree with some of Eric’s posts and disagree with others (I refuse to let my images “marinate”). I’m not convinced Eric’s brand equity is commensurate with his skill set, but I continue to follow his blog anyway. We’re all hoping to grow as photographers and I’d like to watch Eric grow. If people don’t share Eric’s brand values there are plenty of alternatives.

          • GJL

            JH, what you have to say is well put, very reasonable and clear, without being offensive. OGR could learn something from you!

        • ken

          What are you trying to accomplish by registering your voice and saying what you feel?

          • OGR

            At least to make a few people realize they are on the wrong track.

          • ken

            If you really wanted to accomplish that you’d provide something of value in your comments. All I’ve see from you is deconstructive criticism. Want to show people they’re in the “wrong track”? Then provide some insight or direction toward the “right track”. Simply putting down Eric’s posts without anything to back it up just comes off as annoying and pompous.

          • OGR

            “Then provide some insight or direction toward the “right track”.”

            Read between the lines. I’ll not spoon-feed.

            “Simply putting down Eric’s posts without anything to back it up just comes off as annoying and pompous.”

            What does Eric have to back up his posts?

          • ken

            Still annoying… But hey you seem more dedicated to defending your opinion than I care waste my time.

            Thank you Eric for the time and effort you put into your site.

        • oisin

          “… I visit no less than 20 photography related websites…”

          This suggests to me you like reading about photography more than you do practicing it.

      • OGR

        It is impossible to love both photography and Eric Kim at the same time.

        • Paul Holmes

          Like JH, I take on board some of Eric’s “photography suggestions” and reject others. But even if you don’t like anything about his photography, you have to admire his communication skills which, I’m told by a professional, is the biggest part of being a successful photographer.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Hey OGR thank you very much for your honesty and sharing what you feel.

      I think one of the things I still struggle in terms of my photography is shooting to please myself. Of course I want to have my photos be appreciated by my viewers– and want to create images that touch and impact people.

      However as time goes on, I am starting to realize how much more important it is to shoot to please myself. One of the ways I have been trying to combat this is by shooting film and not sharing my photos on social media or online as much. But this is of course, a constant struggle- and I still think I am influenced too much by how others feel about my work.

      Saul Leiter is both an inspiration for my photography – in terms of his philosophy about life and his work. I certainly need constant reminders to shoot for myself to please myself, not others.

      • Aaron

        Well said Eric. As you know have been a follower for years and witnessed tremendous change and growth in you as an individual and photographer. When you are shooting from your soul and not intellect you are beginning to make great images.

        Continue the path you are on learning, growing and making mistakes as you go.

        • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

          :) Thanks so much Aaron!

      • ChristopherGriffith

        Hey Eric. I’ve only just happened across your blog and can’t help but notice the flack you cop. Your articles are interesting, you graft at your craft and your work is solid. You’re doing everything right. But. I think it’s the ‘I think you should’ and ‘we all want’ generalisations that get some readers backs up. I know it makes me wince a little bit. Keep at it dude or get a copy editor!

        • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

          Thanks for the clarifications Christopher– will try to better not to generalize so much. Great ideas, and your support means a ton to me :)

      • JH

        “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.”

        The West Wing S2 E3-4

  • David Sierra

    this was a great article.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Anytime David :)

  • Rene

    thanks for this great article!

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Anytime Rene!

  • brianne

    A little warning next time when there is nudity. I don’t mind, but my co-workers might.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Oops sorry about that!

  • Giovanni

    All I will say is: a master of photography, and a master of life. Telephoto compression, color. Everything I’m not doing but I can’t help enjoying when seeing Saul’s work.
    For something in the same line of ‘seeing’, try Tom Ray-Jones, American Color 1962-65, Mack. Just discovered, quite good indeed.

  • Pedro

    OGR, stop torturing yourself by coming here. If it’s that bad to you why waste your time? You could be shooting instead. I applaud Eric for sharing the stories of these photographers some of whom are new to me. So yes he is providing a great service enlightening his readers.

    On another note, related to what Eric is doing, I think we are in the age of the amateur and it’s because of how connected through technology we all are now. It’s interesting how we like to relate to people closer to our own standing in society. We like to eat at the trendy chef-owned, down-market restaurants, we like watching reality TV, amateur music competitions, indy bands and home chef contests.

    It also relates to Saul Leitner too. A man who seemingly avoided fame has us fascinated. I admire that he created beauty for himself, what he liked.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      I definitely am still on my photography journey and have tons to learn too!

  • Jms

    Great article, very interested in seeing the film when it comes out.

    OGR, that was a fucked up comment.

    Eric, have you ever studied Steve McCurry?

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Hey JMS – yes huge McCurry fan– one of the true masters of color! His Kodachrome work is incredible.

  • d_horton

    Thanks for sharing, Eric. Leiter is one of the most influential photographers for me. His integration of painting and photography opened a whole world to me. Until discovering him, I’d never seen a photographer so effectively integrate the two mediums. His work is visceral, painterly, and poetic. The Steidl book rocked my world. And humble? Oh yea. That’s what distinguishes true genius in my book. Nothing to prove to no one. It’s the work and nothing else.

  • hyungsup Kim

    Saul leiter is really one of the most idiosyncratic photographers ive seen. His sense of composition is unique and the colors he manages to get are too. I havent seen that much of his work to be a good critic about his work, but from what ive seen i can just feel saul leiter all over.

  • Gerald Cates

    Great article. I think it’s important to recognize there are as many types and styles of photographs as there are photographers. One of the things I appreciate from your articles is that there is something to learn from each of the photographers you study. Don’t get hung up on trolls. If what they wrote was worth reading they would have their own blog and followers. Keep up the good work. Keep bringing us different views and philosophies. I promise not take any of it too seriously.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    Man, I love Saul

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      He definitely the man!

  • Richard Hankin

    Let me put in a kind word for my trusty canon 70-300L lens. I use others of course but find my tele an excellent lens to capture the moment and not be intrusive and yes, I know about Capa and others who live by their small lens etc etc.
    For some, based on their comments to use anything but a 24,35,50 lens and a LEICA is well, sacrilegious….balderdash….it’s always the image, not the means…
    EXCEPT for the techniques of a Bruce Gilden type photographer. Sorry, Eric, I know you area big fan but personally cannot abide by his intrusivess which a tele elimates, usually!!

  • Mick Broughton

    I had not heard of Saul before – thanks for the tip off. I like his more painterly images such as shown in ‘search for beauty’ and ‘conclusion’. His attitude is admirable, but unless you happen to be independently wealthy, can be a difficult one to follow; if you need to earn a living from your images, sometimes it is necessary to ‘follow the herd’.

    http://www.mickbroughton.com

  • Lazaro

    Eric,

    Thank you so much for all your work, your passion, and your incite. I feel like I’m taking an online grad curriculum because of this blog. You’re doing such a tremendous service here introducing interested novices like me to artists we would never really know about, like Eugene Smith and Saul Leiter, without you. I hope you’ll continue throughout your career to engage with the art form and your audience in this way; there is a silent majority who are extraordinarily grateful to you, and I just wanted to say thank you.

    Best,
    Lazaro

  • andy

    I find it sad and in a ways tragic that a great talent like his was almost ignored and given the respect it deserves due to the fact that Saul had a very oppressive father who disapproved of his son’s work.

    Leiter shares:

    “ It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but
    for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost
    everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success.

    My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for
    being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more
    of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out
    the window.”

    And it’s only in his later life that his talent and vision has been acknowledged, depriving him and other artists of his talent wisdom and knowledge.

    It’s clear that Saul took quite a while to break-away from his father’s oppressive and negative influence, gather up his confidence and finally strive for the success,recognition and happiness due to him.

  • David Sierra

    R.I.P. Mr. Saul Leiter, your photos will always be an inspiration to me.

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  • John Colson

    Fantastic post… I discovered Mr. Leiter’s work a couple of years ago and it was a joy to behold. It has helped me in my own development as a photographer, as has his humble nature which, in the current ‘rockstar photographer’ phase is a very refreshing change. Thanks for this post.. its a great read and has been bookmarked :-)

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  • Brandon Campbell

    Interesting, 50mm has always felt like a short telephoto to me, 35 seems closer to how my eyes actually see.

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