Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks

American Photographer, Musician, Writer, and Film Director

Born: November 30, 1912 - Fort Scott, Kansas
Died: March 7, 2006 - Manhattan, New York
"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sort s of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera."
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Gordon Parks Signature
"I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand."
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"The guy who takes a chance, who walks in line between the known and the unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed."
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"At first I wasn't sure that I had talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it."
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"The photographer begins to feel big and bloated and so big he can't walk through one of these doors because he gets a good byline; he gets notices all over the world and so forth; but they're really- the important people are the people the photographs."
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"I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hate most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or gun, like many of my childhood friends did... most of whom were murdered or put in prison... but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proven to be so."
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"I felt it is the heart, not the eye, that should determine the content of the photograph. What the eye sees is its own. What the heart can perceive is a very different matter."
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Summary of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is a photographer known for documenting the African American experience of racism and poverty from 1940s to 1970s. He said, "my purpose has been to communicate to somehow evoke the same response from a seamstress in Harlem or a housewife in Paris." Foremost a storyteller with a camera and a pen, his early work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Standard Oil honed his documentary skills, enabling him to narrate a humanist view of African-American lives. Parks' sensitivity, yet versatility in capturing hard-hitting news, feature stories, life on the street, individual portraits, and fashion collections made him indispensable to his editors and readers at Life magazine, enabling him to represent a more complex view of reality and communicate difficult truths to a mainstream audience.

Parallel to his professional ascent at the most prestigious illustrated magazine of the era, Parks' career was defined by a series of barriers overcome. Parks' race and even his status as a trailblazer enabled him to enter the hidden worlds of the poor, marginalized, and the oppressed. He became Life magazine's "visual ambassador" straddled with the responsibility to maintain an equilibrium between journalistic ethics and the profound empathy for the individuals and communities he photographed.

Accomplishments

  • Parks narrated individual stories that had a universal, symbolic meaning. His photo essays relied on a compelling person or family to embody the subject matter of his assignment. Parks visualized the African-American experience through the fullest range of subjects and across differences of class, education, occupation, belief, language, environment, and attitude.
  • He was a cultural pioneer: the first African-American photographer to work for the FSA, Life magazine, and Vogue, and to direct a major Hollywood motion picture. More notable is the extraordinary access he was granted to inaccessible subcultures, which enabled Parks to explore the civil rights and Black Power movements, and the rising new generation of African-American leaders.
  • Working across photography's diverse fields, from advertising, fashion to documentary, Parks learned to use the camera "as a means of persuasion" - to borrow his own words - which very significantly engendered increasing trust and latitude from his editors during the 1960s. Parks worked hard to persuade his readers of the values of social justice.
  • With the film Shaft (1971), released by MGM, Parks provided the precise blueprint for the black action film genre called Blaxploitation. These films revolved around a sexy, omnipotent hero, modeled on the style of a Black James Bond.
  • Parks instinctively understood himself as an artist from an early age. He readily communicated the individual spirit and beauty, as well as the richness of the arts and culture as a photojournalist. Throughout his career, he worked as a musician and composer, a photographer, filmmaker, and painter; novelist, memoirist, and poet to transport his readers and viewers to a better sense of themselves.

Important Art by Gordon Parks

Progression of Art
American Gothic (1942)
1942

American Gothic

American Gothic is a portrait of Ella Watson, who symbolizes the American black worker. Watson stands in the middle of the picture in front of the American flag that hangs down the wall behind her. She holds a broom in her right hand and a mop leans against the flag-covered wall behind her. She is dressed in her cleaning lady's uniform with her hair pulled back. Although Watson faces us, her gaze looks off to the side. She seems complacent, yet neither entirely tired nor inspired.

This photograph references the style and composition of the American artist Grant Wood's classic painting of the same title. Like Parks, Grant Wood was from the Midwest and had a particular interest in capturing the daily life of rural laborers. Wood's iconic painting American Gothic (1930) depicts a middle-aged couple (interpreted as either a farmer with his wife or daughter), standing in front of a house built in the Carpenter Gothic style. The farmer stands slightly in front of his wife and holds a pitchfork in his right hand. They both stand so prominently in the foreground that hardly any of the background is visible. Grant may have created American Gothic as an affirmative representation of traditional American values. Yet, the couple's stereotypical resemblance of Midwestern rural folks led art critics at the time to interpret it as a satirical commentary on small town culture.

While Wood's painting is meant to capture an authentic scene (although with a slight surreal quality) of the depression-era through the lens of a white American farm couple, Parks' recreation makes visible the often invisible labor performed by so many African-Americans in both rural and urban America. Parks undoubtedly had seen Wood's painting during one of his visits to the Art Institute of Chicago, when he lived in the city. Park's American Gothic "captures the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America." This photograph, one of Parks' most famous works, was not only an indictment of America, but even more so a challenge to the nation to live up to its magnificent creed "...that all men are created equal."

This early photograph was taken when Parks started working for the FSA. Roy Stryker, Parks' mentor at the time, encouraged him to continue working with Watson after seeing this photograph. Following Stryker's lead, Parks went on to create a series of photographs capturing her daily life - in church, at work, and in her home. The critic Lawrence W. Levine argues that the strength of the photograph, the reason it has had a lasting impact, is that it understands and honors the dualities of existence: "the victim and survivor, vulnerability and strength, exploitation and transcendence. And he captured these dualities in a format that allowed viewers to enter the process of investing the image with meaning." Paradoxically, Parks considers this image as over-done, feeling it was too forced and posed, thus undoing the narratives depicting Watson's every day struggle.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Gordon Parks Foundation

1948

In mortuary Red and Herbie Levy study wounds of Maurice Gaines, a buddy who was found dying one night on a Harlem Sidewalk (caption from LIFE)

This scene of mourning revolves around the relationship between three young men, Red Jackson and Herbie Levy, and the victim, their friend Maurice Gaines. These two young men hover over the dead body of their friend, dressed in a suit with a flower on his lapel, as it lies in a decorated coffin on display at a mortuary. The scars on the victims' young face become apparent upon close inspection. The photograph is striking in how it candidly depicts these young men as children, trying to process the death of their friend. When Parks took the photograph, he did so in order to give the viewer a more complete picture of who Red Jackson and his friends were.

Red Jackson and Herbie Levy were members of the Harlem gang Parks photographed for a month in 1948. Red, on the left, was the leader of the group. Not only men caught up in violence and misgivings, Parks honored the full-scope narrative of Jackson and his comrades, including the quiet, contemplative moments of their day-to-day lives. While people were quick to dismiss men like Jackson, Parks hoped to create a sense of empathy between viewer and subject, bridging the differences of the "us vs. them" mentality that dominated race relations in the United States. As Jelani Cobb, staff writer of the New Yorker, explains, "Parks was visually articulating a premise fundamental to democracy: that one is able to see the humanity of one's fellow citizen."

Gelatin Silver Print - Life Magazine and The Gordon Parks Foundation

1961

James Galanos Fashion, Hollywood, California

Parks photographed Gloria Vanderbilt, as she modeled a Galanos gown in an office environment. The blurred bright, artificial lights and background colors accentuate Vanderbilt's gracious movement through the space. She quickly glides across the picture plane, ignoring yet performing for the camera, showing off the expanse of the gown's skirt as it bellows behind her, as she walks tall with hands behind her back. Her lightness of spirit expresses the diaphanous quality of the dress's chiffon fabric. The use of artificial lights, dynamic poses and plush interiors as a framing device are qualities characteristic of Parks' fashion shoots.

Color first entered Parks photography through his photo essays and in instances when color dominated his subject matter, as in his photographs of Mobile, Alabama in 1956. Yet, it defined his fashion photography, as it went hand-in-hand with his inclination to take his models out on location - to the streets, into plush interiors, or everyday settings. Thus Park's fashion shoots introduced a new mode of covering prêt-à-porter for Life magazine.

Archival digital pigment print - The Gordon Parks Foundation

1963

Untitled

Parks took photographs at one of a dozen protests happening in Harlem in 1963, from which this image appeared of a marcher holding a protest sign that reads, "We are living in a Police State." The man holding the sign has a stern, somber face, reflective of the mood that informed the protest. He is buttressed by other marchers holding signs with different messages, who are seen in the background. Such images together with the march on Washington, D.C. and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, galvanized people around the United States and bolstered their momentum for change. 1963 was therefore a pivotal year for the Civil Rights Movement.

Not only an artist, Parks was an avid activist, profiling and capturing the contentious race relations shifting in the US during his most active years as a photographer. The above photograph is one of many documenting the protests happening throughout the United States. The images are significant in how the aesthetic intertwines with documenting cultural history. While apart of his photo-essay documenting the marches in 1963, the photograph, along with many others, has been a part of fine arts exhibitions, such as I AM YOU, shown in the Gordon Parks Foundation exhibition space in 2018.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Gordon Park Foundation

1966

Mohamed Ali

This famous portrait of the boxing giant Mohamed Ali shows him in a moment of intense concentration rather than mid-fight in the ring. Instead this portrait is a close-up of Ali's face. The direct lighting reveals the beads of sweat dripping down his face and bare chest. This portrait, included in Parks' series on Ali taken between 1966 and 1970, changes the expectations we have about this boxer, who had been stereotyped - either uneducated or a draft dodger, a superhuman athlete or black saint.

This series is notable for Parks' ability to capture Ali's complex personality. He shows Ali in a range of activities from him working out, praying, sitting at home, and on an early morning run. Parks thus gives us a sense of Ali's physical prowess, as well as his emotional, intellectual, and spiritual life. The cultural historian Maurice Berger locates the importance in Parks' series of Ali in his ability to include multiple narratives, denying neither the showman and athletic personality propagated by the white media nor the family man and untouchable hero portrayed by the black press.

Gelatin Silver Print - Life Magazine and The Gordon Parks Foundation

1967

The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board

Parks's spent time with the Fontenelles, a family subjected to menial jobs, poor-education, and terrible living conditions, to capture the plight of African Americans in the United States in the 1960s. Here he portrays the entire family huddled together behind an office desk, talking to a clerk at the poverty board. The clerk's back face us, as he talks to the family. The mother looks straight at the clerk; her expression is stoic and tired. Her children cling to her, suck their thumbs, and are lost in the shadows. Parks's photo essay on the Fontenelles family was his last momentous assignment for Life magazine. In this series, Parks captures the roots of anger and frustration felt by African Americans.

He began the series with a poem, which took on the voice of black Americans, speaking to the predominantly white readership of Life. Parks wrote, "Look at me. Listen to me. Try to understand my struggle against your racism." The series, characterized by a prevailing sense of hopelessness and malaise, received an overwhelming response from readers. Their responses ranged from sympathetic accounts of empathy, readers sending money to help support the family, to hostile letters blaming the family for their own misgivings. With the money and support , the Fontenelles were able to move out of Harlem and into Queens. Yet, tragedy continued to plague them: Two years after, a fire broke out in their home, and the husband, Norman, and son, Kenneth, died. In later writings, Parks commented on the guilt that follows him, feeling in part responsible for their fate. Parks remained in touch with the family up until his death.

Gelatin Silver Print - Life Magazine and The Gordon Parks Foundation

1971

Advertisement and movie poster for Shaft

Parks' 1971 film Shaft introduced a new genre to film that represented black characters as heroes. Known as Blaxploitation, the film and television movement is promoted in the movie poster for the film Shaft. The poster features Shaft, the detective who is the hero of the story, solving a kidnapping mystery. In the image, Shaft is swinging into the scene of a rope, slinging a gunm. On the left there is an image of Parks, the director, paired with an image of Shaft heroically "leveling his gun on the nose of Harlem gangster Sims."

Parks was a leading member in pioneering the Blaxploitation movement in film, which emerged in the 1970sn. While the genre gets criticized for its use of often stereotypical portrayals of black subjects and communities, the movement, in great part because of Parks' characters that served as the narrative heroes, was a result of creative minds rethinking and re-depicting race relations in the 1970s. The genre was first made for an urban black audience, but soon grew in popularity, crossing ethnic and demographic lines when Hollywood realized the profit it could make.

Parks' Shaft is considered one of the most famous Blaxploitation films. Shaft used the tropes of black Americans so many white filmmakers profited from, but he instead hired a cast of all black actors, writers, and filmmakers. In doing so, Parks gave capital and visibility to a group of people who were often denied mobility, agency, or equality. Additionally, Parks used the genre to expand our understanding of masculinity, often depicted only as violent, toxic, or aggressive in relation to black culture. Through his thoughtful, round characters, Parks offered new ways of interpreting black masculinity.

The Gordon Parks Foundation

Biography of Gordon Parks

Childhood

Gordon Rodger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas to Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks, a tenant farmer and odd jobs man. He was the youngest of fifteen children and attended a segregated elementary school. Parks then attended the integrated Mechanical Arts High School, since the town did not have enough money for a second high school to maintain segregation. This integrated school, however, continued segregation in the way it limited the activities of the black students; for example, they were not allowed to play sports, attend social events hosted by the school, and were discouraged from pursuing higher education. When Parks was eleven, three white bullies threw him into the Marmaton River hoping he would drown. He escaped by ducking underwater so they would not see him make it to land. Thus, and in numerous other ways, Parks experienced from an early age the systemic racism prevalent in American society.

Parks was fourteen, when his mother died. A year later, he was sent to live in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota with his older sister Maggie Lee and her husband. He lived with them for only a year, when his brother-in-law kicked him out of the house. "That man didn't like children and didn't want to take me on, and I sensed that the minute I walked into his house," Parks recalled. At fifteen, Parks was forced to fend for himself. He initially continued his schooling at Central High School, but eventually dropped out before graduation. Eager to earn a living, he worked a number of jobs as a brothel pianist and a busboy in a gentleman's club. He went on the road as a jack-of-all trades with a big band jazz troupe, occasionally sitting in on the piano. When the group disbanded in New York, Parks made his way to Harlem where he joined the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, planting trees and building campsites in New Jersey. He then returned newly married to Sally Alvis (whom he married in 1933) to Minneapolis-St. Paul and secured a job as a porter on the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Early Training and Work

During his migratory year serving train travelers, Parks had access for the first time to picture magazines the passengers left behind on their journeys. After seeing a spread featuring the portraits of migrant works, Parks bought his first camera - a Voightlander Brilliant - at a pawnshop in Seattle, Washington during a train layover. He then taught himself how to take photographs. As his eye developed, he married his new talent with his ability to connect with people, and his anger about deep-seated issues he saw across his travels in the United States. Parks sought to photograph what mattered to him: the humane side of all people, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or religious beliefs.

Parks remarked, "I didn't start photography until about 1939 and up until that time I had worked as a waiter on the railway, bartended, played semi-professional basketball, semi-professional football, working in a brick plant, you name it, you know, just about everything." At twenty-five, Parks continued to search for steady employment, as photography increasingly became his obsession, especially after seeing what the photographers from the FSA were doing with pictures of poverty, a subject he knew so well. The Farm Security Administrations (FSA, 1937-1946) was an agency developed under the New Deal to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression in the United States.

Parks' move toward success was quick and serendipitous. He impressed the clerk who developed his first roll of film and encouraged him to work for a fashion magazine. His aptitude for fashion photography convinced Marilyn Murphy to give him the first opportunity to shoot fashion at her department store in St. Paul. Marva Louis, wife of boxing champion Joe Lewis, saw Parks' photos and was taken by his talent. She persuaded Parks and his wife Sally Alvis to move to Chicago, where Parks would predominately take portraits of well-off, society women. Upon arriving in the city, he immediately set up residence at the Southside Community Arts Center's (SSCAC) darkroom and participated in its activities. The SSCAC was a branch of the Federal Art Project, established under the New Deal during the Great Depression. He befriended painter Charles White, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, and writer Langston Hughes; he was also exposed to the Social Realism of Isaac Soyer, Max Weber, and William Gropper.

Mature Period

Influenced by the SSCAC's artistic community, Parks began documenting the southside ghetto. This documentary work formed the portfolio Parks submitted to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a fellowship program for talented young African Americans. He even won one of the coveted fellowships. Consequently, he wrote to Roy Stryker, picture editor, economist, and administrator of the FSA's Historical Division, and asked to become a photographer at the unit. He was accepted and in 1942, just after the United States entered WWII, Parks moved his family to Washington, DC. His work at the FSA quickly put Parks on the map, making him one of the first high-profile black photographers working in America.

After the FSA closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer. He published his first major photo essay in Life Magazine in 1948. The photo essays success won Parks a position as the first African American staff photographer for Life Magazine, the most prominent illustrated magazine in the world.

Through his work for the magazine, Parks became known for his photo essays of poor Americans from the 1940s through the 1970s. He captured real-life issues and people struggling with poverty, social injustice, and marginalization. As prolific and substantial as the platform was for Parks, he often ceded control over his photo essays when turning them into Life magazine. Parks realized early on that despite his own motives and narratives he hoped to capture in his photo essays, the picture editors at Life altered them. For example, in his first photo essay "Harlem Gang Leader," Parks aimed to highlight the humanity of Red Jackson and his fellow gang members, showing them as they were - teenagers who, with support of social service agencies, might be able to turn their lives around. However, as the photo-historian Russell Lord noted, "While the tone of the published photo essays was generally sympathetic to Jackson and other gang members, it emphasizes violence and slighted the potential for rehabilitation." As a way to gain some control over the narratives, Parks subsequently insisted that he write the captions for his photographs.

At the same time, while covering the gang wars plaguing Harlem, Parks demonstrated his versatility and fulfilled a fashion assignment. Life's editor Wilson Hicks was pleased and entrusted Parks with one of the magazine's key assignments, namely the French collections. Only after two years at Life and dozens of stories under his belt, Parks began working out of the magazine's Paris bureau. From 1950 to 1951, he would lead the life of the peripathetic photojournalist, experiencing acceptance and freedom as he traveled Europe covering a host of stories. His ability to quickly move from shooting high-profile actors, writers, aristocrats, and politicians, to shooting average people living their everyday lives is a testament to Parks ability to see all people as equal, each in their own right to have their story heard and seen.

Parks capacity to move across different social and cultural circles enabled him to document the upheavals of the 1960s from within the radical countercultures and yet speak to his mainstream readership. His assignments from 1956 to 1968 made him known for a sincere, direct, stylistically radical, and lyrical mode of photography. It is at this time that he worked without a writer, producing his own text for stories involving black subjects. Parks conceived many of his photo essays at this time as extended profiles of prominent black leaders and athletes, including Muhammad Ali, Malcom X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. He excelled at portraiture and over the years he photographed writers, composers, artists, actors, fashion designers, and politicians, such as Glenn Gould, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, Paul Newman, Duke Ellington, Alberto Giacometti, among others. He even photographed debutants and socialites, such as Gloria Vanderbilt in 1954.

Late Period

Parks remained active throughout his life, even up until his death from liver cancer in 2006. Along with his iconic photographs and films, Parks expanded his work, moving from photography and film to include writing, and composing. As the cultural historian Maurice Berger noted, "[Parks] transition to writing reflected a form of cultural activism, a realization that in order to cross the next barricade, he would have to tell his own stories; that "the war against racism -- a problem he saw as complex and intractable -- needed to be fought on multiple aesthetic fronts, through a range of media, contexts, and approaches." He became therefore an author and published the bestselling novel, The Learning Tree (1963), which he later adapted into a film he wrote and directed in 1969. The book and film are semi-autobiographical, drawing from Parks' childhood in Fort Scott, Kansas, which served as the basis for the town in the film called Cherokee Flats and the actual place for shooting the film.

The title of the film is taken from a line the main character Newt Winger's mother says, "Let Cherokee Flats be your learning tree." This line means to impart the message that no matter where you go, travel, or work, the place where you grew up fosters valuable lessons to learn from. This is reflected in a quote of Parks, in which he says, "I think maybe the rural influence in my life helped me in a sense, of knowing how to get close to people and talk to them and get my work done."

During his later years, Parks went through a number of marriages and divorces. He divorced his first wife Sally Alvis in the early sixties. He then married Elizabeth Campbell, whom he divorced after eleven years of marriage in 1973. That same year, he married Genevieve Young, his literary editor. Their marriage only lasted six years before they also divorced. From these relationships, Parks had four children. The oldest, Gordon Parks Jr., was also a photographer and filmmaker. Parks Jr. died in a plane crash in 1979 when shooting a film in Kenya. However, Parks had a long-standing friendship and eventually relationship with Gloria Vanderbilt, a socialite he first met in 1954 when he photographed her for Life magazine..

The Legacy of Gordon Parks

Parks' work for Life Magazine has had a lasting impact on American culture at large. Parks' photographs not only serve as necessary documents of our country's history, but they also "emphasized the prosaic details" of the lives of black families during this time," according to the historian Maren Stange. As such, his photographs gave a real-life depiction of the conditions many black-Americans experienced, influencing much of Life Magazine's readership, which was predominantly white and upper middle-class.

Later, Parks' most lasting contributions outside his photography practice was in film. His films gave rise to an entirely new genre in filmmaking, known as Blaxpoitation. The film director Spike Lee considers Parks as exceptionally influential, not only in his technical ability, but also in the pure sense that Parks made the films he did during the time of severe racism, when there were no other black directors. As Lee points out, that was enough to inspire generations of black artists after Parks.

In a monumental 2016 exhibition inspired by Parks, curator James Barron put together Fifty Years After: Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, LaToya Ruby Frazier, which examines the themes Parks engaged through the lens of female photographers he inspired. On the exhibition, Barron said, "I wanted to include Gordon Parks in the show and focus on 50 years after civil rights Where are we now, 50 years after Gordon Parks opened the door for these women photographers?"

The Gordon Parks Foundation continues to preserve Parks' work and make it available to the public. It supports artistic and educational activities that advance Parks' purpose, which he described as "the common search for a better life and a better world."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Gordon Parks
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Malcom X
Artists
  • Mickalene Thomas
    Mickalene Thomas
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    Spike Lee
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    Carrie Mae Weems
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    LaToya Ruby Frazier
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Joel Freeman
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alden Burke

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Gordon Parks Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alden Burke
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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